Aussie Museums: Coast to Coast


@ Museum Of Contemporary Art


Right down on the Sydney harbor, the modern museum’s size is a surprise.  A special exhibit The Promised Land featured the work of Michael Armitage who paints on lubugo bark cloth, a material which is  culturally relevant to the Buganda people of Uganda.

Kampala Suburb (2014) though referencing gay bars of Nairobi also recalls the anti-gay legislation of the British colonial authority from the late 19th century.

The Promised Land (2019)

Michael Armitage apparently does not like to read labels and prefers you stand in front of his work and immerse yourself in the moment. This work refers to the mass protests during the 2017 elections in Kenya and has references to celebrated artists, e.g. Gauguin…but hey, be in the moment. Besides, Gauguin is facing #MeToo critical reviews for his treatment of women in Tahiti so just maybe gloss over that reference.

Antigone (2018)

The artist seems to have an attachment to trickster monkeys, and as a old monkey man myself (having studied in the field of primatology up to my Masters), I had been drawn to the imaginative imagery.

The power of these works was impressive so we explored the rest of the museum to see what other remarkable exhibits might have been curated.

We wandered by this forest of Seven Sisters Tree Women, made by a collective of women – Tjanpi Desert Weavers. From desert to museum is quite the impressive passage. [ Later on our Australian Walk About we arrived at Uluru at a gallery, and we ended up purchasing a piece also representing the seven sisters…a dreamscape of our own from desert to Ballard.]

Escape 2017 – Destiny Deacon

Destiny Deacon (KuKu and Erub/Mer peoples of the Torres Strait Island) showcases her dark sense of humor. This Polaroid work may appear just as dolls in a cage, but references the abuse of aboriginal youth through incarceration. Our initial bemusement in viewing her work turned quickly to reflection.

On the lower level of the museum, there was a collection of several very large works by aboriginal artists.

Manbuynga 2015 – by Barayuwa Mununggurr

This piece by Barayuwa Mununggurr forces you to step back to engage with the whole whale of a work, reflecting on a hunt where spirit men hunt down their own brother, the whale, contrary to law. Ahab should have taken this tale to heart before challenging the spirits of the deep.

@ The Art Gallery of New South Wales

The Balcony 2 (1975) – by Brett Whiteley

Brett Whiteley is considered one of the outstanding 20th Century to emerge from down under. Evidence of his notoriety is to be found at this studio in Sydney with photos of him hanging out with Andy Wharton and Bob Dylan. He had a bad boy reputation with some heavy indulgences which led to his separation from his wife. Before that happened he painted The Balcony from the house they shared. We did not get to go into the house, but you have to envy the tower that apparently has a floor that elevates to the top. The image of Sydney harbor is not from the same perspective but does reflect the intense blues.

And though we did visit his studio [2 Raper Street, Surry Hills, Sydney], photos were not allowed so I present his master work Alchemy from a pano of a fold-out reproduction:

Alchemy (1973) by Brett Whiteley

This huge piece was to cover birth to death ( viewed right to left), pulling in references to poets, musicians, philosophers and novelists, all as a means to change life into art. All leading up to the flame out image in reference to Yunkio Mishima who committed seppuku in order to close the gap between art and action. At the time, Whiteley was having a few troubles in his life, i.e. alcoholism, marriage issues and later heavy drug use. Whether Alchemy touched the mass audience he was hoping for…who knows? Rather than reminding me of the surrealist imagery of 15th century painter Hieronymus Bosch, this piece looked to be inspired by Salvador Dali…or at least derived from the same dreamscape. IT is amazing and troubling all at the same time.

Several other artists shown at The Art Gallery of New South Wales would show up at other Australian Museums on our tour: Fred Willams, Eubena Nampitjin, and Khadim Ali.

Fred Williams’ work, though abstract, struck a chord with me as an impression of an Australian bush landscape. The You Yangs landscape series was, from the museum curator’s perspective, a break out move with minimal references to realism. To me, his work seems to evoke a sense of place, a vast arid country with a scattered pattern of life desperately holding on in the face of fire, drought and inhospitable ground. But remember dear reader, I once worked in this type of bush for months, and may have indulged in a mystical perspective when I spent time alone for a week near some ancient aboriginal cave sites.

You Yangs Landscape by Fred Williams

The Australian artist Khadim Ali (of Pakistan heritage) evokes a world of refugees struggling to survive war and dangerous passages as they seek asylum, and how they are seen as demons by others though they simply seek peace and a recognition of their humanity. According to the museum, the style is similar to ancient miniature paintings and the demons refer to characters referenced in stories from the epic Persian poem Shahnameh sung by his grandfather.

Having visited Myanmar, Afghanistan, Rwanda and realizing the tragic consequences of war and genocide that forced people to flee for safety and survival from these countries, these images resonated with me.

Eubena Nampitjin is from Wirrimanu and her art is derived from life in the Great Sandy Desert where I worked in 1973 for several months. She worked in collaboration with her husband, Wimmitji Tjapangarti, as pivotal collaborative artists with Warlayirti Artists. What we found intriguing is the change in her work once her collaboration with her husband ended due to her husband’s poor eyesight. Her later work Kinyu 2007 exhibits bold strokes with limited but strong colors, abandoning the precise dots of earlier work.

Kinyu 2007 – Eubena Nampitjin

And one other special exhibit drew us in, that of Jeffrey Smart and his realistic urban landscapes through a style called Precisionism. His early years were spent in Australia but he spent most of his working life in Italy. The vastness and emptiness of the urban landscapes exhibited with shapes and forms seemed to echo the vastness in many Australian work portraying the outback. His work reminded us of Edward Hopper and his lonely urban landscapes.

@ The Art Gallery of South Australia

Elder Wing of Australian Art

Unlike many art museums, AGSA likes to collect works in gallery rooms by theme rather than in some chronological order. The first exhibit room did not grab our attention initially but since I am always intrigued with artist sketchbooks, I lingered and got pulled into to the story of the white colonization of people and places, places previously sustained for eons by aboriginal populations.

Women harvesting yams 1835 from the field book of John Helier Wedge

In glass cases, sketch books from the early 19th century show aboriginal people tending the land and living in small villages. The curators of the exhibit point out that you can see the landscape as modified by the local populations to be the most productive. Yet the colonization wrecked havoc with this sustainable practices and simply exploited what had been carefully laid out over generations. One example: two cows wandered away from a white farm and years later, the colonialists came across a well maintained grassland with a full herd of cows that had developed by the local aboriginal groups. Well, of course, the white settlers took over the grassland and declared it their own.

Sketch book of E. C. Frome 1840

Frome documented this village, Coorong, of the Milmenna tribe and then burnt it down in October 1840. This followed the an incident where the occupiers clashed with locals. After the Ngarrindjeri people helped survivors of a wreck, the ship Maria, the group moved towards an English settlement, and a dispute arose and several sailors, passengers and Aboriginal people died. Frome participated in reprisals.

To help dispel the myth perpetuated by the English that the Aboriginal people were just wild hunters and scavengers, the exhibit showcases the digging tools and documented the harvesting practices. The sketch by John Wedge documents the agricultural techniques of the Kulin people as they harvest murnong.

Stories of the English settling in the outback came to be mythologized in art .

A break away (1891) – Tom Roberts

According to the museum, this piece is a national icon and popular symbol of national identity and strength. Fifty years after the burning of Aboriginal villages, revisionism is at full strength.

To be fair to Tom Roberts, the composition is dynamic. It is influenced by Augusta Rodin’s interest in creating a figure in motion, as well as Eadweard Muybridge’s studies of motion, both human and horse, using stop-motion film. Rodin’s work, Flying figure 1890-91 in bronze is placed in the same room for comparison.

Many of the rooms were eclectic, mixing Impressionist and classic realist paintings with modern sculpture, hand crafted furniture and other modes of expression. The most dramatic transition came on walking through one room entirely dedicated to one work.

Absence embodied – Chiharu Shiota

First impressions are that you have just walked into some Freddy Kruger abattoir (note the body parts on the floor. The network of red strings (that took two weeks to install) like veins are shaped like heart ventricles through which you move like Ant-Man. By coincidence a visitor walked through with a bag with the work DIE printed on it in bold letters. Be afraid, be very afraid.

And then, just when you thought it was safe to once again “ to walk to and fro talking of Michelangelo”, we were pumped out to the blood bath and came face to face with two disfigured horsed hanging from a tall post.

We are all flesh by Berlinde De Bruyckere

No horsed were actually harmed in creating this work. The shapes are from a cast and wrapped in horse hide collected from a tanner. And the abattoir theme just keeps on coming. According to the museum this piece refers to the martyrdom of St. Sebastian…though without the accompanying arrows that always are seen piercing the martyr, I was more inclined to see a couple of Centaur trapeze artists.

On the ground floor, we again ran into the work of Khadim Ali in an exhibit called Infinite Journeys, exploring the exchanges between East and West in Austrlian art.

I was finding the work of Khadim Ali fascinating given his immigrant history and ties to the Hazara people of Afghanistan. His integrating of the characters from the Book of Kings with the horrors of war and references to his new Australian sanctuary is powerful. I only saw Afghanistan during a rare period of peace during the 70’s before the Russians, the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Americans tore it apart and so I viewed this work with sadness and admiration for the artist persevering.

Now compare A break away landscape with that of a representative of the Western Arrerente people of the Northern Territory.

River Red Gum – Salam 1950’s by Albert Namatjira

Albert Namatjira was a Western Arrernete artist and also cameleer. Afghan and Pakistani cameleers worked the track from Maree and Oodnadatta to Alice Springs And the inscription on the trunk of the tree is Salam, a reminder of those passages.

Ending on a somewhat lighter note, is the work of Margaret Dodd with a sculpture from her series This woman is not a car 1977.

This woman is not a car by Margaret Dodd

Her video of driving a car with kids to the beach and stopping for gas where a station attendant paws all over the car as if it were a sex object…is wonderfully absurd and disturbing at the same time.

South Australian Museum

Though the decorated skulls were weird and wonderful, the major attraction for us was the original Yuendumu School Doors.

Though now protected in a museum, the doors and their significance to Australian art still radiate that break out moment. It was a surprise to find them and we were so glad we had not skipped this site in passing.

NEXT STOP @ the Art Gallery of Western Australia….stay tuned.

Home-maker #4 (2010) by Sandra Hill