Various artists: Ceremony: 4th Indigenous Art Triennial. National Gallery of Australia. Until July 31, 2022. nga.gov.au.
The first iteration of the National Indigenous Art Triennial was called Culture Warriors and was curated by Brenda Croft in 2007, when Ron Radford was at the helm of the National Gallery of Australia. The second "triennial" - unDisclosed, curated by Carly Lane - occurred five years later, in 2012, while the third, another five years later, was Defying Empire, curated by Tina Baum in 2017. It was held under the directorship of Gerard Vaughan.
Another five years have passed, and the fourth iteration has just opened at the National Gallery. Ceremony was curated by the very distinguished Indigenous curator Hetti Perkins with Nick Mitzevich as the director who is about to complete his fourth year in the job.
Ceremony has a very different feel to its predecessors and while it boasts work by 38 First Nations artists from across the country, it appears smaller, more focused and more localised. Hetti Perkins writes: "Ceremony is not a new idea in the context of our unique heritage, but neither is it something that belongs only in the past. In their works, the artists assert the prevalence of ceremony as a forum for artmaking today in First Nations communities. Our people still hold our ceremonial practices ... Ceremonies can be personal or collective acts of faith, intimate rituals or mass protests."
As you enter the exhibition you are greeted by a large installation of black ceramic shapes dancing across the huge expanse of a curved white wall. This is Penny Evans' installation gudhuwali BURN, 2020-21, that stems from the time she spent in Yaegl Country soaking up the devastating impacts of the 2015 and 2019 bushfires on the landscape. It comprises more than 280 burnt banksia forms in clay that are also anthropomorphic in appearance and refer to people in Country. Speaking of this work, the Lismore-based artist notes, "Clay is the ground. We are Country too. We embody it. It's in us. We are part of it ... Clay is very therapeutic, it's very forgiving. The possibilities are endless with clay."
There have been many artworks that stem from the experience of bushfires in this country, but few have so successfully captured the sense of being there experiencing both the devastation and regeneration and hearing the voices of generations who have passed, are presently there, and who are yet to come. It is effective as an all-enveloping environment, but also on a micro level, where within the individual burnt banksia pods are gathered pools of warm red and orange glazes that shine ambiguously out of the black shapes.
Although the Ceremony exhibition spreads into the Fiona Hall Fern Garden, Paul Girrawah House's scarred trees appear in the gallery's Sculpture Garden and Robert Fielding's car piece is on Lake Burley Griffin, the focus is in the temporary exhibition gallery. Some of the rooms work more successfully than others. One of the most successful brings together the clay vessels of Nicole Foreshew with the bold and dramatic paintings of the late Boorljoonngali. Foreshew's Mambanha (the cry of mourning), 2021-22, is an installation of clay vessels highlighted with ochre and they sit in the foreground of Gemerre 2007, an extensive suite of Boorljoonngali's paintings. There is a sense of lament in both that can be read on a personal or more universal level. One of the major messages prevailing throughout the exhibition is that the land belonged to the Indigenous people, these people still own the land and will forever own it.
Another very effective installation is the suite of untitled paintings by Mantua Nangala, an artist associated with Papunya Tula Artists from central Australia. Discussing her work, the artist said, "The story that I paint is Marrapinti. It is a sacred woman's place that is my Ngurra (Country); it is a very important place for my people. I like to have colours that are close but are a little bit different, usually five colours and all creamy whites. When you look at the canvas you can see movement, I like the way it changes over the canvas. I like to make my paintings slowly, every dot slowly and carefully. When I paint I'm thinking about my Country and my family, it is very relaxing for me and makes me feel good."
The paintings appear to shimmer and radiate heat, allowing the viewer to enter the depths of the work.
What I also find rewarding about this triennial is that many of the works that have been commissioned for it are by artists who are not part of the well-rehearsed list of "stars of Indigenous art" who are frequently assembled for such occasions. The line-up at this triennial includes Robert Andrew, Joel Bray, Kunmanara Carroll, Margaret Rarru Garrawurra and Helen Ganalmirriwuy Garrawurra, Hayley Millar Baker, Mantua Nangala, S.J Norman, Dylan River, Darrell Sibosado, Andrew Snelgar, Joel Spring, James Tylor, Yarrenyty Arltere Artists and Tangentyere Artists and Gutiarra Yunupiu.
Leaving aside the 23rd Biennale of Sydney and the 10th Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane, both of which are on at the moment and have a substantial component of Australian Indigenous art, the Art Gallery of South Australia has just concluded its Tarnanthi festival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, while the National Gallery of Victoria is staging its spectacular Bark Ladies exhibition that runs until April 25 and the Art Gallery of Western Australia continues with its impressive Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia show. Ceremony enters into this crowded program of exhibitions that celebrate contemporary Indigenous art in this country.
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