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5 untitled (muyan), 2011

Jonathan Jones (b. 1978) Light emitting diodes, stainless steel, glass designed by Marc Raszewski and Andrew Hayes National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 6 Black Gum 1, 2, 3 from the artist’s

Australian Graffiti series, 2007 Christian Bumbarra Thompson (b. 1978) Type C photographs, 100.33100.3cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne feature

Indigenous australian art


connected to an anomalous context and culture. The design iconography sourced from Barak’s drawings and weapons creates an incandescent geometry that is at once architectonic and ephemeral. The Wurundjeri leader’s spiritual presence is symbolically reinstated by the yellow glow of wattle, which suffuses from the light boxes every August. The work negotiates an abiding tribute to Barak who in predicting his own death said it would happen when muyan (wattle) was in bloom.

The wattle, floral emblem of Australia and idiosyncratic of Barak’s paen (freshwater) country of the Birrarung, appears as one of the floral protagonists in Christian Thompson’s Australian Graffiti series (2008). In his ‘Black Gum’ triptych, from this series (Fig. 6), he photographs himself, posed frontally together with left and right profiles, and concealed in a sombre generic black hooded top. In a dramatic juxtaposition of colour, texture and meaning, a cascade of flowering eucalypts obscures his identity. In this playful yet provocative masquerade, Thompson references an earlier symbiosis between Indigenous people and the natural world. His poses recall police arrest and criminal record identity photographs, as well as persistent anthropological images of Aboriginal people forced to submit their faces and bodies to the photographers’

scrutiny. Thompson, however, holds the whip hand: his gaze, gender and identity are tantalisingly masked by the ubiquitous hood – the contemporary gesture of anonymity, terrorism and youth culture – and the surreal profusion of red and yellow flowers.

The NGV’s undeniably modern collection of Indigenous art challenges the viewer to contemplate the depth of environmental and cosmological knowledge, and of grounded affinity with place, that informs many of its contemporary masterworks:

Imagine for the moment if all the genius and intellect of all generations that have come before you had been concentrated on a single set of tasks, focused exclusively on knowing a particular piece of ground, not only the plants and animals but every ecological climatic, geographic detail, the pulse of every sentient creature, the rhythm of every breath of wind, the patterns of every season. This was the norm in Aboriginal Australia.9

Judith Ryan is Senior Curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.

The Felton Bequest acquisitions are on display at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until 11 November 2011. For further details, visit

With thanks to Judith Gorr for her assistance with this essay. 1 / Patrick McCaughey, The Bright Shapes and True Names: A Memoir, Melbourne, 2003, p. 227. 2 / Nick Waterlow, ‘The contemporary and Australian Aboriginal art’, in Beyond Sacred: Recent Painting from Australia’s Remote Aboriginal Communities in the Collection of Colin and Elizabeth Laverty, Prahran, Victoria, 2008, p. 29. 3 / McCaughey, op. cit., p. 226. 4 / Joan Kerr, ‘Papunya Tula: a great contemporary art movement’, Art Asia Pacific, vol. XXXI (2001), p. 33. 5 / Geoffrey Bardon, ‘The gift that time gave: Papunya early and late, 1971–72 and 1980’ in Judith Ryan, Mythscapes: Aboriginal Art of the Desert, exh. cat., National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1989, p. 16. 6 / Emma Barker (ed.), Contemporary Cultures of Display, New Haven, 1999, p. 44. 7 / These two works are part of the triumphant Felton Bequest gift of 107 Far Western Desert paintings for the 150th anniversary; see Judith Ryan, Living Water: Contemporary Art of the Far Western Desert, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2011. 8 / Elizabeth Grosz, ‘Living art and the art of life: women’s painting from the Western Desert’, in Charlotte Day and Sarah Tutton, Before and After Science: 2010 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2010, pp. 21–24. 9 / Davis Wade, The Wayfinders, The University of Western Australian, Perth, 2010, pp. 156–57.

july/august 2011 apollo 41

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