This year marks Utopia Art Sydney’s 30th anniversary.
When we began our gallery in 1988, we saw contemporary Indigenous art as an integral part of contemporary Australian art, but it was not a universal view.
We began representing John R Walker and the artists of Utopia and soon after the Papunya Tula Artists in Sydney.
1988 was a landmark year for Australia, and the bi-centennial celebrations had tall ships entering Sydney from one end and aboriginal people from across Australia marching in from the other. These were times when many Australians reflected on this place we share, and the terms on which we share it.
This was a time when It was a battle to have contemporary Indigenous art treated as part of contemporary Australian Art, but from the outset Utopia Art Sydney placed the Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists we represented side by side on equal terms.
Aboriginal art had been very much a subsidiary to mainstream Australian art. It was seen as ethnographic, tribal and really the province of museums more than art galleries. The first Papunya Tula paintings I saw were at the Australian Museum but eventually Bernice Murphy acquired and hung Clifford Possum’s Warlugulang at the AGNSW in 1981.
When Emily Kngwarreye’s major canvas Alhalkere was acquired in 1992 it was a major breakthrough, and thanks to benefactor Mollie Gowing and her prescient support for the Indigenous collection, encouraged by Deborah Edwards and Indigenous curators Daphne Wallace and Hetti Perkins, the AGNSW has built a formidable collection of contemporary Indigenous art from across Australia, which is today integrated throughout the collection. Prior to this the AGNSW had a collection of mainly bark paintings from the top end which former AGNSW deputy director and artist Tony Tuckson had developed and curator Djon Mundine had built on.
In the 1988 Biennale of Sydney one of the most impressive exhibits was a group of 200 burial poles from Arnhem Land, the Aboriginal Memorial. This was a most moving installation, sited in a cavernous cathedral-like space of the wharf, the 200 hollow log coffins stood as sentinels, one for every year since colonisation. It’s now at the entrance to the National Gallery of Australia.
This year George Tjungurrayi is in the 2018 Biennale of Sydney and his work will stand amongst peers from around the world on equal terms. It’s interesting that many international curators have not had any problem looking at Indigenous artists as part of the mix, but there are still museums across the world that are struggling with the dilemma of just where Indigenous art in their collections.
George Tjungurrayi has been painting with acrylic on linen for over forty years and is an accomplished, recognised and collected artist. His unique linear style evolved over many years and today he has an unmistakably clear voice.
Mami Kataoke, the director of this year’s Biennale, has selected a group of recent works that reflect the range of Tjungurrayi’s oeuvre. Each canvas is full of life, charged by fluid forms that merge and coalesce into one another effortlessly.
While Tjungurrayi has a broad palette that ranges widely, from stark black and white to subtle variations of similar toned colours, within each canvas he limits his palette to only two colours, over a – usually red ochre, but sometimes black – ground. His canvases thus have an allover shimmering surface, a glowing field of colour. On close inspection each line of paint pulses as the paint is drawn from thick to thin, further energizing the picture plane.
These are paintings that reward active viewing as they change with different viewpoints as optical forces challenge the eye. The works to be displayed in the 2018 Biennale of Sydney include a group of paintings that will be shown laying flat. Tjungurrayi paints his canvasses flat on the ground, his body often in contact with both the painting’s surface and the earth as he works, and Kataoke wanted to capture this connection. Adjacent on a long white wall, are four paintings hanging in the usual way.
At Utopia Art Sydney we are presenting a solo exhibition that features several of Tjungurrayi’s major canvasses that are highlights across his oeuvre.
On the one hand, it is interesting to see the consistency in this work and, on the other hand, the inventiveness within each. Close examination reveals each one has something different, a shift, a nuance, a change of perspective, a character of its own.
Tjungurrayi works close to his paintings. These are intimate works, even on a grand scale.