Power + Colour – new painting from the Corrigan collection of 21st Century Aboriginal Art
To me the main difference between Western art and Australia’s Indigenous art, is both simple and profound.
Western art, no matter how abstract, portrays something seen, digested and reproduced. Indigenous art on the other hand, is a visual language; it tells of ancestors, landscape, sacred stories, forbidden relationships, and of the creation of the universe. Even the most contemporary paintings seem often to correlate directly to Aboriginal rock art, or tribal body painting – they have simply become an extension of the way to tell stories, perhaps in the same way that creative writing has taken off in the past few hundred years for verbal-based languages.
Take, for example, the edge of an Indigenous painting – almost always there is none, the eye is led to understand that there is simply more painting, more story, outside the frame of reference – a continuing story – to infinity and beyond as Buzz Lightyear would say.
Power + Colour more than lives up to its name, having chosen as its main theme two elements vital to Indigenous art, namely tribal law and the continually stunning and inventive use of colour used to depict both country and culture. The book showcases 129 works by 77 artists from more than 20 communities, and includes a biography of each artist. The images are supported by an interview with Patrick Corrigan, the arts philanthropist and collector of these works, and an introduction to the paintings, including catalogue-style notes for each work. The text is written by curator, art valuer, and principal of ArtiFacts, Jane Raffan. Raffan’s writing is concise, knowledgeable and most importantly, accessible. She opens a generous window into this massive array of artists and art works, and into Corrigan’s love of contemporary Indigenous art.
The collection of the works in this book began in 2004 after Corrigan visited the NGV’s landmark exhibition Colour Power: Aboriginal Art Post 1984, curated by Judith Ryan. Impressed by the vibrancy of the exhibition, Corrigan, who was given the Order of Australia in 2000 for his philanthropy and art patronage, began his new collection with works by Tommy Watson and Wingu Tingima.
One notable aspect of this vibrant collection is the ration of women to men, which Corrigan believes is probably in the ratio of 70/30. Corrigan is one of the, if not the, most important collector of contemporary Indigenous art – nothing in this collection is pre-2000, making Power + Colour a vital and up-to-date picture of the wide variety of dynamic styles, and unbridled colour that dominates Indigenous contemporary art today.
The words of this book are carefully designed not to overshadow the works, which speak most vitally for themselves in this glossy hardback. To open this book at any page is to be met with an image of such colour, beauty and movement that it is like a visual feast for the senses. Immersing myself in the book reminded me a visit to a perfume shop, where a thousand scents all intermingle into a tantalizing whole.
There are many familiar names here – Judy Napangardi Watson, Yannima Tommy Watson and Lucy Napanangka Yukenbarri to name just three, but it is enthralling to also discover some newer, younger artists such as the Pintupi artist Eileen Napaltjarri, or Lance Peck and Keith Stevens, or Sylvia Ken and Tjungkara Ken.
What is interesting about these younger contemporary artists, and it’s a point that Raffan makes well, is that even though they may not seem on the surface to be depicting journeys across country, if the paintings are read correctly then the ongoing connection to land becomes apparent, as does the continuing connection to tribal law, which is often present even in the most seemingly decorative of paintings.
To me one of the most appealing facets of Indigenous art is its ability to talk on several levels. You don’t need to understand any of these complex, colourful, vibrant paintings in order to enjoy them, but what a wonderful joy it is to dip understand a particular artist’s imperative, tribal culture and personal story, so that the sub-text can reveal itself.
One of the most exciting artists in the book, and one whose work reflects the melding of the old and the new, is Sally Gabori – she uses expressive abstract techniques on her large linen canvasses – often as much as three metres wide by two metres high. Great juicy dollops of paint reflect miniature stories: ‘This painting is about a story place out to sea. You can only get there by boat,’ she writes of a green, purple, black red and ochre painting, and as soon as one has read the words, a deeper layer of understanding goes into the viewing of the apparently random blocks of colour.
Sally Gabori’s Outside Story Place reflects a melding of the old and the new in Indigenous art
As part of a preparatory course towards an MA in Australian Art History through Adelaide University and the Art Gallery of South Australia I studied Indigenous art last semester. I wish I’d had this book to hand then. It’s a powerful tool for education, reflection and pure enjoyment.