A celebration of culture

Photography, pain and politics feature heavily in the richly diverse National Indigenous Art Triennial which opened at the National Gallery yesterday, Claire Low writes

Michael Cook tells a tale in a series of beautifully haunting images. His story starts out with a dark and exquisite Aboriginal girl seeing white people for the first time in Australia in the late 1700s. She finds she covets their material possessions and imagines herself in their elaborate dresses. The idealised appeal of their external trappings diminishes over the years in the face of the harm the white people do to her people and she strips away her materialistic dreams, to connect with her own land once more.

Cook, a freelance commercial photographer of 25 years, is of the Bidjara people and lives on the Sunshine Coast. Broken Dreams, his series of photographs that tell the story he dreamed up, is part of unDisclosed, the second National Indigenous Art Triennial.

Cook is one of 20 chosen artists featured in the exhibition that began yesterday and continues until July 22 at the National Gallery. It will tour nationally from 2013.

His photographic work was made from images layered in Photoshop. He captured the images at the Brisbane Maritime Museum using bona fide props such as real hats, telescopes and guns. The parrot in the images is a link to the artist's childhood: he was brought up in a bird sanctuary and fed the parrots every afternoon.

His model is a friend, a Brisbane 20-something called Larissa Toby. In contrast to the fragility she portrays in the series of photographs, her job involves driving huge trucks in mines. The photoshoot was her first.

''I like that I'm using someone who's not a professional model,'' Cook says.


''She's completely untrained, it's completely raw and that's the only way I can get the real look I'm chasing.''

Cook finds his indigenous background informs his art making.

''As I learn about my own identity and history, the more I learn, the deeper the projects seem to go,'' he says.

''I'm finding people can go into the imagery in different depths depending on their knowledge of our history.''

In contrast with the dainty, frail prettiness of some of Cook's imagery, Alick Tipoti's masks are imposing, large and powerful, rather like the artist himself.

Tipoti is of the Kala Lagaw Ya people and lives and works at Badu (Mugrave Island) and Cairns, Queensland.

His masks are massive versions of Mawa masks made of materials such as fibreglass and resin that imitate the look of traditional tortoiseshell. Mawa, a term in the ancient language of the people of the Torres Strait, means sorcerer or witchdoctor.

Despite their scale, the masks are not heavy. They're hollow and are made with the techniques of the artist's forefathers. ''I've always been fascinated by masks,'' Tipoti says.

''It has been documented many times that in terms of making masks out of turtle shells, the Torres Strait Islanders are unmatched. I'm trying to revive that using modern materials.''

Turtles, he explains, were a traditional delicacy. The shells were leftover and turned into masks used in sacred ceremonies.

His attempts to revive the art of mask making include dance performances with masks and all of this connects to the deep personal significance of his culture.

''I speak my native tongue [Kala Lagaw Ya] fluently and from this flows my culture: dance, visual art, masks, performance. Everything comes from that. That is my inner strength.''

Canberra artist Danie Mellor, who is linked to the Mamu, Ngagen and Ngajan peoples, has some of his finely detailed pieces in the exhibition.

One, ''Eden-esque'', shows an idealised image of nature: delicately-rendered native creatures and humans in harmony, even decorated with sparkles, and at the foot of the artwork there's a glimpse of the future: a ship and a sense the environment is about to change profoundly.

Mellor says one focus of the work is on the relationships between people and nature, the ways things have changed post settlement, and the impact on Aboriginal culture.

''In a sense it poses the question of what people are doing in the environment, and, where to now?'' he says.

The works take some of their stylistic cues from engravings and paintings made from the late 18th to early 19th century coupled with Mellor's own photography and sketching.

''There's an important aesthetic dimension to the work that I make,'' he says.

''I portray nature in a sympathetic way, which draws on history and engages with discussions of beauty and aesthetics as critically important, in fact, that beauty belies the underlying message which is that this landscape is about to be transformed, urbanised and colonised in a particular way.''

Mellor finds the nature of his identity affects his art.

''It becomes important if there's an overlay and complex matrix of things indigenous artists will bring to work. This involves family backgrounds, connections, relationships and a certain awareness of dual and multiple histories that are both indigenous and western. I have a mixed heritage and all these things impact on my work.''

The other 17 artists in the triennial are Tony Albert, Vernon Ah Kee, Bob Burruwal, Lorraine Connelly-Northey, Nici Cumpston, Fiona Foley, Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, Gunybi Ganambarr, Julie Gough, Lindsay Harris, Jonathan Jones, Naata Nungurrayi, Maria Josette Orsto, Daniel Walbidi, Christian Thompson, Lena Yarinkura and Nyapanyapa Yunupingu. They have, collectively, contributed a wide span of works that includes painting on canvas and bark, sculpture, weaving, new media, photo media, print making and installation works.

Curator Carly Lane, a Kalkadoon woman from Queensland with a background in curatorship, anthropology and art, says the emphasis is on demonstrating how diverse contemporary indigenous art is and how it goes beyond the dot paintings that are inextricably associated with Aboriginal art. ''Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art is about so much more. It's a real joy to show that.''

The artists' work varies according to their region, their mob, their language. Lane agrees there are as many expressions of indigenous art as there are indigenous people.

''I would also say that it's about the artist expressing their lived experience: how they understand the world around them and how they respond to it.''

Broad themes that underpinned some of the works included family, country, ritual and ceremony in the exhibition that had some pieces that brought the curator to tears.

One such piece was Ah Kee's video installation called Tall Man which is about the treatment of Lex Wotton who was jailed for six years after being charged for inciting riots on Palm Island following the death of Cameron Doomadgee in police custody ''and the frustrations between Australians and society''. Lane says: ''The power of the woman in the video, who happens to be Mrs Wotton, Lex's mother, is moving.

''I've been in a state of teariness for a few days. It's not any one work, it's the works combined and the way they merge together to tell the wider story within indigenous art.''

Lane says the exhibition is very much a celebration of Aboriginal art and culture, rather than a show that intends to speak out or protest. And in celebrating Aboriginal art, there had to be an acknowledgement that ''there are struggles that have happened''.

''Our history is quite a shameful blight on Australian history. So, to celebrate you have to acknowledge those points of time and our continuing response to our history as well.''

Lane is completing a PhD in indigenous art. It is one of her great passions because of its capacity for creating an entry point or meeting ground for people to interact and engage with Aboriginal people, art and culture.

''Also, within any one object there is a history, a lived experience and a story. That's fascinating. We need to capture those stories. We need to maintain our indigenous voice so that our future generations can enjoy what we have now.''

unDisclosed, the second National Indigenous Art Triennial, continues at the National Gallery of Australia until July 22. Artist talks are on today from 11am-2.30pm. Drop-in workshops are on tomorrow from 11am-2pm.