Meanings We Share

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Wednesday 2 April 2014
Zara Stanhope

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Bindi Cole, I forgive you 2012

Two exhibitions at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki give prominence to histories and ideas in which viewers can find shared commonality with the art. Numerous artworks in both My Country: Contemporary Art from Black Australia and Five Māori Painters convey deep and strong connectedness to place and people. These exhibitions from Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand cross cultural boundaries, and indicate that no matter what our background is, as viewers we can connect with the ideas found in the art.

Many artists in both exhibitions make art as a way of ‘keeping culture strong’ or passing down culturally specific ideas and practices to younger generations or others in their communities. Alick Tipoti, senior artist from the Torres Strait Islands north of Queensland, is the creator of one of the first works to greet visitors to My Country. Tipoti’s print illustrates the seafaring culture that is historically part of the Torres Strait Islands people. However, his image, Kuyku Garpathamai Mabaig, 2007 also resonates with the classical warrior figures from ancient Greece, Rome and other places. Tipoti employs a marvelous technique in his linocuts, which he has developed on the basis of formal art training, and has led to his works winning accolades such as the Telstra Art Award. However, for Tipoti, the songs that he sings in the presence of such artworks are equally as important as the images for passing on cultural knowledge.

Vernon Ah Kee’s large scale portraits draw the viewer into a close and personal engagement with the life-like figures. A man and child look directly at us from Ah Kee’s canvases in My Country, beautifully rendered in charcoal and conté. Strength of character is evident in the gaze of the sitters. Ah Kee has made more than 30 such images of his relatives, based on early 20th-century photos now stored in national archives and libraries. In Neither Pride nor Courage, 2006 Ah Kee depicts his great grandfather, who was photographed by anthropologist Norman B Tindale as part of scientific studies of the genealogy of Australian Aboriginal people. Ah Kee revives the documentation of the relative he never knew with the intention of reinstating his grandfather’s humanity. The artist also adds the face of a new generation – his son – in a drawing redolent with persistence and hope for a future that will be different for Indigenous and white populations in their relations with each other.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye is one of the senior artists with works in My Country. Kngwarreye has now passed away but her work set a precedent for Australian Aboriginal women in remote locations in the creation of art that explored the application of traditional ideas and forms in conventional media that was new to Indigenous artists at the time. As with works by the artists in Five Māori Painters, in her paintings Kngwarreye has synthesised ancestral stories and historic cultural meanings with aspects of contemporary life. Kngwarreye described works such as Wild Potato Dreaming, 1990 as ‘containing the whole lot, everything’, recalling the worldview expressed by Robyn Kahukiwa. Kahukiwa’s art is imbued with the Māori belief that the past lies before us; the present day connects to the past.

A number of artworks in My Country can be thought of as political, in the ways that artists reflect on contemporary events or assume that art has a role to play in producing the world today. A final work is important to note in reflecting on the connectivity between viewer s and art in My Country and Five Māori Painters. Visitors to My Country leave the exhibition with their senses filled by Bindi Cole’s installation and video I forgive you, 2012. Cole, like several other artists in the exhibition, reflects on the apology that was made to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008. Although Indigenous Australians continue to hope for ongoing change beyond this apology, which they feel has been slow to occur, Cole’s work asks the viewer to reflect on attitudes of forgiveness toward others at a personal level. Cole’s I forgive you generously reflects on the individual rights and responsibilities of pardoning others, a moving point on which to leave the intersections of these two exhibitions.

Image credit:
Bindi Cole 
Wathaurung people 
Australia VIC b.1975 
I forgive you 2012 
Emu feathers on MDF board 11 pieces: 100 x 800cm (installed, approx.)
Purchased 2012. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation