Peeling the layers of meaning reveals a shared history
Danie Mellor's An Elysian City (of picturesque landscapes and memory).
AT FIRST glance, the image would not look out of place on a blue and white china plate. It recalls willow-pattern crockery with its kitsch fantasy of an Oriental landscape.
Danie Mellor's An Elysian City (of picturesque landscapes and memory) depicts a world in which the built European environment encounters an indigenous culture, human and animal.
Amid the imposing stone monuments of a necropolis, a group of indigenous figures sit around a fire. Kangaroos box on top of a grave, koalas ascend an obelisk.
''Mellor draws on the blue and white palette that references the English Spode china, and the way in which the British represented exotic peoples in their tea cups,'' says Franchesca Cubillo, senior curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the National Gallery of Australia.
Mellor is among 20 artists represented in the gallery's long-awaited second Australian Indigenous Art Triennial. The curated exhibition presents the leading indigenous artists.
''The triennial says 'this is the cream of the crop at this moment in history','' says Cubillo.
That cream includes Tony Albert, Bob Burruwal, Lorraine Connelly-Northey, Nici Cumpston, Julie Gough and Naata Nungurrayi. Several artists including Mellor, Vernon Ah Kee, Fiona Foley and Christian Thompson took part in the first triennial, but their art practice has changed since their initial inclusion, says Cubillo.
The indigenous triennial - rather than a prize - enables a curator to put forward a perspective on the art, says Cubillo, who is a former curator of Darwin's Museum and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory, which oversees the prestigious National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Award. It is the prize that Mellor won in 2009.
''[In Darwin] we loved the fact that each year any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander artist could put forward their work and have it considered as part of that exhibition. That's important. But equally there's a role for triennials that specifically address certain issues.''
The second triennial, curated by Carly Lane, is titled unDisclosed and alludes to the layers of history and meaning in the artworks.
''Each work of art is layered with multiple meanings,'' says Cubillo. ''The point of entry is very much the beauty of the work. You can approach indigenous art purely on that level alone, but there are these multiple readings that tell us not just about the Aboriginal history of Australia, but our shared histories.''
In selecting work for the triennial, Lane visited artists' studios and private collections, as well as drawing on recent acquisitions by the National Gallery of Australia. She has included work in a range of media, including bark, fluorescent lights and video.
Michael Cook's photographic series Broken Dreams portrays a young indigenous woman who initially appears in the finery of a European aristocrat, and by the end of the series is naked and bound.
Fiona Foley's Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom include a series of images of opium poppies. The title invokes China's efforts under Mao Zedong to encourage then crack down on dissidents, but the work refers to a little-known aspect of late 19th and early 20th century Queensland history that saw prohibitions on the sale of opium to Aborigines and on intermarriage with Chinese.
''Aborigines were paid with the dregs of opium. It affected men, women and children,'' says Cubillo. ''Legislation in 1901 outlawed any potential marriage between Aboriginal people and Chinese people because the Queensland government was afraid that two marginalised populations within Australia getting together might be problematic.''
The second triennial has been a long time coming. The event has been postponed twice since the first triennial in 2007. The 2010 event was initially rescheduled for last year, then postponed again amid cost cutting at the gallery.
Cubillo is confident the event is now part of the indigenous arts landscape.
The 2nd National Indigenous Art Triennial is at Canberra's National Gallery of Australia from Friday.