Western Institutions Provide Indigenous Solo Artists Cultural Studies Essay

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Individual art works may communicate multi-layered meanings; however, exhibition display can also operate as a set form of visual representation. Throughout much of the Twentieth-Century the modernist gallery has been projected as a place separate from the external world, a depoliticised, neutral 'white cube' [1] with contextual and other distractions removed to afford a disinterested viewing. Over the last thirty years, this position has been deconstructed to reveal that exhibition spaces and presentation methods can reveal larger cultural conventions and value systems. Display models involve the construction of visual cues which direct viewers to understand groupings of works in certain ways. They can also play a crucial role in cross-cultural representations, reinforcing notions of difference and/or assimilating culturally specific works within Eurocentric modes of representation.

A dilemma faced by curators was how to acknowledge differences between Kngwarreye's status as a contemporary Australian artist and her situation as an Anmatyerre elder living in a community, grounded in cultural traditions which influenced her practice.

Like many Indigenous Australian artists, the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye operated in two worlds during her brief, but highly acclaimed painting career. Visual Translations Kngwarreye's creative practice characterised by expressive freedom, bold use of colour, and striking shifts in direction enabled her to achieve substantial recognition. Kgwarreye began painting on canvas as an elderly Indigenous woman, and in a brief artistic career lasting from late 1988 until 1996, her output was prolific [2] . The artist's status was further reinforced when her work was selected for the 1997 Venice Biennale; one of the contemporary art world's most prestigious expositions. Because Kngwarreye's piece was characterised by dynamic gestural markings, innovations, and often monumental works, some commentators "drew comparisons with Abstract Expressionist artists" (Neale: 1998). This reading framed the artist within a Western art historical context and related tropes such as 'the abstract disposition' and 'the cult of genius.' However, to more fully understand the artist's paintings something "more attuned to Aboriginal cultural values was needed" (Benjamin: 1998, p. 47) in the representation of Kngwarreye's piece.

Whilst operating within the sphere of contemporary art, Kngwarreye was also an initiated Anmatyerre elder and custodian of certain Women's Dreaming sites in her clan country Alhalkerre, or Utopia, a region situated north-east of Alice Springs in the desert country of Central Australia. But Anne Brody strongly believes that Emily Kngwarreye's country is "technically outside Utopia". For Indigenous Australians, cultural knowledge, law, spiritual beliefs and conceptions of place or 'country' are bound up in notions of Tjukurrpa, or the Dreamtime. The Dreamtime involves the journeys and actions of ancestral beings who created life and landforms and established ceremonies and laws. Tjukurrpa exists both in the "past and the present; it can be reflected in land forms, animals and plants and represents a way of living in balance in the world" (Caruana: 1993). Because Tjukurrpa can be 'activated' through ceremonies involving story and painting, various forms of Indigenous art can be both a "means of access to the Dreaming" (Morphy: 1998, p. 61) and a product of it. Kngwarreye held cultural responsibilities and custodianship over particular Dreaming's which were represented in her creative work. Thus, although her paintings were visually striking and could be readily appreciated from a purely visual or formal perspective, they were also intrinsically connected with cultural knowledge and living traditions.

In 1998, the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), Australia, presented a major exhibition of Kngwarreye's work entitled Emily Kame Kngwarreye - Alhalkere - Paintings from Utopia [3] . The exhibition was developed with the artist's approval, and Kngwarreye was named as one of three Aboriginal participants in the small curatorium lead by Margo Neale, QAG's Curator of Indigenous Art. However, this significant initiative presented a dilemma for the Gallery: how to encompass Kngwarreye's positioning as a major contemporary artist, and her situation as an Anmatyerre elder living in a community grounded in cultural traditions central to her practice. In what ways could signifying conventions be employed to address these seemingly incommensurable positions: conveying the artist's status within a Western art historical tradition while also communicating Indigenous cultural values and allowing 'others' to enter her world? To address this challenge, QAG employed particular display strategies, visual cues and interpretative structures by undertaking a visual semiology of QAG's display practices.

Since the early Twentieth-Century a distinctive display standard has been employed to display modern and contemporary art. This is the neutral, seemingly "depoliticised white cube" (O'Doherty: 1986) which has been projected as an objective, contemplative place separate from the external world. Over the last thirty years, deconstructions of such display paradigms have demonstrated that "exhibition spaces and presentation methods can reveal larger cultural orthodoxies and value systems" (Clifford: 1988). Additionally, display strategies can be employed to reinforce or negate notions of difference. Hierarchical values are evident, for example, in decisions to regularly locate works from particular artists or cultures in dominant spaces and to position others in peripheral places, while absence is another form of signification. For many years Aboriginal art had a minimal presence in Australian public galleries and despite its escalating status in the 1980s, indigenous art was still relegated to 'displays in corridors, hallways and basements' which, as Aboriginal artist Lin Onus observed, suggests a value system that views 'Aboriginal art as an appendage or an afterthought' and does "little to enhance the art forms" (Onus: 1990, p. 19). The modernist white cube environment is designed to facilitate an appreciation of the art object unhindered by the intrusion of distracting contextual material. There is a privileging of 'universal' aesthetic qualities in such spaces, where objects are presented as valuable, unique items, isolated from any originating contexts. Display is characterised by crisp, white, uncluttered spaces, minimal information, an emphasis on formal qualities, and the use of 'sanctifying' spotlights, all signifying that the object on display is prestigious and worthy of the viewer's attention. Conversely, a form of exhibition through difference, suggesting a more ethnographic perspective, has often been employed in the presentation of non-Western art. This approach is informed by the conviction that such art objects can only be thoroughly understood through knowledge of their originating environment. Such displays typically incorporate more abundant context in the form of text, maps, images and multi-media. They highlight cultural information but risk potentially detracting attention from the work through an abundance of contextual detail. In contrast, the application of a purely formalist aesthetic can "mask cultural specificities and does not allow for strategic or political difference" (Karp and Lavine: 1991).