‘Art of this day and age'

Aboriginal artist Richard Campbell has returned to the Australian Museum to continue working on his ambitious mural, Beatitude. Anthropologist Lorraine Gibson spoke to Richard about his art.

Artist Richard Campbell has returned to the Australian Museum after a three-month stint in 2008 attracted great interest. Each week day during his tenure he can be found painting while engaging with visitors and talking about his life and his art.

We got talking about how different people classify art and I asked Richard what his idea of ‘contemporary’ art was and what this meant to him.

He said that ‘contemporary’ art usually means European art, whereas his own art mixes his Aboriginality and spirituality with stories of the Bible and his personal experience as part of the Stolen Generations.

Richard says his work is ‘art of this day and age’ because of the way it blends symbols and styles and includes ‘a lot of European’ content. Yet, he also expresses that such labels can be problematic because of the value judgements made about ideas of ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ Aboriginal people. He concluded by saying he considers himself an ‘Aboriginal contemporary artist’ – with an emphasis on ‘Aboriginal’.

Richard’s presence and work in the Museum is part of a fresh change sweeping Western museums more generally. In 2007, museologist Tom Hennes wrote that ‘… natural history museums are just beginning to learn to dance with their visitors, with the peoples they once considered as fit objects of study, and with the natural systems they once were content to categorise and describe. In the process, the dancers – all of them – are being changed by the dance’.

Putting this new wave into perspective, the term ‘contemporary’ art dates from about the middle of the twentieth century when it was used to differentiate the art being produced at that time from that classified as ‘modern art’. It was not applied to indigenous art, however, because of hierarchical notions of cultural development dating from the early twentieth century that ranked societies in evolutionary terms.

These notions set the scene for the ways in which the material culture of non-Western societies were to be classified, represented and selected for study and exhibition. Indeed, right up until the early 1970s, Aboriginal art (if it was thought of as art at all) was considered the ‘primitive’ art of a primitive people.

But such thinking not only denies the dynamic nature of Aboriginal (and indeed all) cultures, but detaches Aboriginal individuals and groups from the cultural meaning and products of their labour.

These views and practices thankfully no longer have currency. New ways of thinking have resulted in a changing dialogue between, and approaches to, the work and peoples of non-Western cultures. Today’s is a more multicultural society, with more enlightened ideologies about the nature of colonialism and greater insight into the nature of power relations.

These changes have seen shifts in the processes and forms of the two-way engagement between the Australian Museum and the many non-Western cultures whose material heritage is cared for in the collections.

Tom Hennes (quoted above) in talking about natural history museums intimates that diverse ideas, practices and ways of being are being integrated to create a new museology. The kinds of thinking which are driving this engagement include not only greater recognition of difference but a more socially inclusive notion of who, how and indeed what will comprise the choreography of this twenty-first century dance.

This new museological dance presents an opportunity for intercultural dialogue and the revelation of meaning.

To some, having an artist working within the Museum is quite a step away from more traditional approaches to presenting culture. But we can also see how the presence of ‘contemporary’ art and, in this case, a ‘contemporary’ artist in the Museum helps us understand the diversity of Aboriginality.

Dr Lorraine Gibson is a Research Associate of the Australian Museum and a social anthropologist with the Centre for Research on Social Inclusion at Macquarie University.

First published in Explore 31(3).

Michael Hugill , Online Producer (Content Strategy & Social Media)
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