Turn right on Level 5 at Michael Parekowhai’s He kōrero purakau mo te awanui o te motu: story of a New Zealand river 2011 to find the Collection focus gallery where Gifted: Aboriginal Art 1971 – 2011 hangs. This exhibition was curated by Megan Tamati-Quennell, Curator of Modern & Contemporary Māori & Indigenous Art at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, with the support of her Australian colleague, Brenda L Croft, Academic Curator, artist and specialist in Aboriginal art.

Megan is delighted to have this exhibition on display where the public can view a selection of this magnificent collection of the Aboriginal paintings, ceremonial figures, baskets and other objects held at Te Papa. The collection, comprising over 200 works, marks the Aboriginal Art Board’s bold vision and international exhibition programme begun in 1973 and carried on through to 1980.

The programme was the vision of a small group of Aboriginal Arts Board members including its two Indigenous chairmen – Dick Roughsey Goolbalathaldin and Wandjuk Djuakan Marika and its non-indigenous director Robert Edwards. It was originally developed because of the indifference of Australian galleries and museums to Aboriginal art in 1970s. Their vision was to increase the international exposure of Aboriginal art, show its diversity and demonstrate its standing as world class art.

The Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa exhibition centres around a selection of the works gifted by the Aboriginal Arts Board in 1976 and held in Te Papa’s International collections. The collection was first shown as an exhibition at the Pacific Arts Festival held at Rotorua in 1976. At the conclusion of the festival, the exhibition was presented as a cultural gift to the New Zealand Government by the Australian Government at the request of the Aboriginal Arts Board.

To understand the significance of the collection of Aboriginal Art in Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa it is important to understand that the Papunya Tula art movement (the description of the large paintings included in the show) began in 1971 and is largely regarded as the genesis of contemporary Aboriginal art. It was started by non-indigenous art teacher, Geoffrey Bardon, who encouraged some of the tribal leaders of the Papunya settlement near Alice Springs,to paint an important ‘Dreaming story’ (a story connected to Aboriginal lore) using acrylic rather than natural ochres on a blank school wall. The mural sparked off tremendous interest in the community and inspired many artists to paint their dreaming stories on canvas using acrylic paint.

In 1972 the artists successfully started their own company, Papunya Tula, which is the oldest and most established Aboriginal owned and operated art company in Australia. Most of the large paintings exhibited in the Ngā Toi exhibition are Papunya Tula paintings. One of the artists whose work is displayed, Long Jack, a founding member of the Papunya movement said, ’We started it, like a bushfire, this painting business, and it went every way: north, east, south, west, Papunya in the middle.’

As Aboriginal art became picked up by the Australian art world, the artists of the Papunya Tula movement battled to retain ownership of their designs. In 1966 David Malangi’s mortuary feast design appeared on the Australian $1 note without his permission. Twenty three years later he was involved with John Bulunbulun (who sued a T-shirt company for using one of his images on a T-shirt) in a landmark case which confirmed Aboriginal rights over Aboriginal imagery.

Most of the designs seen on the bark paintings in the Gifted exhibition are traditional designs that belong to a particular artist by tribal lore and cannot be painted, reproduced or used by other artists. In many cases these designs have a cultural dimension and relate to relate to important ceremonies or rituals.

While the designs themselves are ancient, the medium of painting them on a piece of flattened bark is a relatively modern phenomenon. The modern form of bark paintings first appeared in the 1930s, when missionaries at ‘Yirrkala’ and ‘Milingimbi’ asked the local Yolngu people to produce bark paintings that could be sold.

The monies earned were used to help pay for the mission, and to educate white Australians about Yolngu culture (Morphy 1991). As the trade grew, and the demand for paintings increased, leading artists such as ‘Narritjin Maymuru’ started being asked to mount exhibitions. It was, however, not until the 1980s that bark paintings started being regarded as ‘fine art’.

The more recent works in the exhibition, the painting by Gordon Bennett, loaned from the Chartwell collection in Auckland, the installation by Destiny Deacon featuring a digitised archival film on Erub Island in the Torres Islands and photographs and the three channel video work by Christian Thompson Destiny Deacon, reveal the emergence of urban-based, Australian indigenous artists since the 1970s and the growing recognition of indigenous artists in the contemporary art world.

Megan Tamati-Quennell attributes her great and abiding interest in Aboriginal art to a visit she made to the Boomalli Aboriginal Art Cooperative in 1996. It was during this visit she met lead Aboriginal art curators, Brenda Croft and Hetti Perkins, and artists like the late Michael Riley, Tracy Moffatt, Avril Quail and others.

Megan says she sees Aboriginal art as one of the world’s great arts. She said she is comfortable working with contemporary Aboriginal art and thinks it is a dynamic and exciting area of contemporary art. However she feels even after twenty years of connection in this area, she does not have that cultural knowledge to speak about the more customary aspects of Aboriginal For that she says an Aboriginal curator is best to provide that depth of understanding.

For more details, follow the link to the Te Papa website:

Gifted: Aboriginal art 1971 – 2011

The exhibition will be on display until 29 September 2013.

Feature image caption: Bushfire at Djundji by Tommy Wilitji Tjakamarra, circa 1975. Gift of the Australian Government, 1976