FEATURE STORY JANUARY/FEBRUARY EDITION 2022

Forever present culture

Drawn from the renowned collections of the National Gallery and the Wesfarmers Collection, Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia at the Art Gallery of WA is a diverse survey of Indigenous works at its only venue in Australia.
LYN DI CIERO

 

Helen Carroll, Curator Wesfarmers Collection, Indigenous artists Julie Gough and Sandra Hill, Clothilde Bullen, Art Gallery of WA Curator and Head of Indigenous Programs, and Rob Scott, Wesfarmers Managing Director at the launch of Ever Present: First People’s Art of Australia at the Art Gallery of WA. Photo Lyn DiCiero.

In its only showing in Australia before heading to the National Gallery of Singapore, Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia at the Art Gallery of WA is a compelling celebration of early and contemporary Aboriginal art, not just from Western Australia, but from across the nation. Featuring over 100 works by 80 artists from Albert Namatjira’s Ormiston Gorge (1939), to Julie Dowling’s Self-portrait: in our country (2002), and Daniel Boyd’s Treasure Island (2006), the exhibition, while traversing themes of identity and connection, does not shy away from Australia’s complex history. Using art as a tool of resistance, wit and satire become weapons to confront visitors, encouraging dialogue and discussion to dispute outdated ideologies. The cringe-worthy and outright unfairness are outed and aired, but so too is a deep and tender affinity to Country.
Drawn from the collections of both the National Gallery of Australia and Wesfarmers, the exhibition was pulled together virtually and through lockdowns by NGA Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Tina Baum and AGWA staff, while borders in WA remained tightly closed. “It was quite an achievement,” says AGWA Director Colin Walker. “It’s a truly exceptional exhibition, and the Western Australian community is extremely lucky to gain access to these magnificent works at this time. As the borders open I’m confident the exhibition will draw a significant amount of visitors to the state, especially because entry is free.”
Speaking via Zoom, NGA Director Nick Mitzevich said he was proud to work with Wesfarmers to bring Ever Present to audiences. “They have a long history of advancing First Nations perspectives in Australia, and with this exhibition, taking it to the world.” He says the exhibition fulfils one of the most important mandates of the NGA in sharing the national collection across the nation, which includes one of the largest collections of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in the world. “Over the course of the last 30 years, 12 million people have seen NGA exhibitions with 10,000 touring shows,” he says. “This is the eighteenth NGA touring exhibition to be shown at AGWA, and from the images we’ve seen, Ever Present looks spectacular.”
The Wesfarmers Collection ranks as one of the pre-eminent corporate collections of Australian art. Wesfarmers has worked with the NGA for the past 12 years, and over the past 30 years ranks as AGWA’s longest serving sponsor. Wesfarmers Managing Director Rob Scott says the exhibition is the result of long-term and highly valued partnerships with both the NGA and AGWA. “The exhibition represents some of the most important historical and contemporary art produced in Australia and celebrates the central place Indigenous art occupies in defining the contemporary face of Australia, both at home and to the world. We believe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art is without question one of Australia’s most significant contributions to world culture. As a nation we benefit enormously from the opportunity we all have to understand the richness and diversity of the culture of our First People.” He says the exhibition has been years in the making – a dream which is now a reality. “It’s an honour and a privilege to play a part in bringing these works to the attention of not just Australians, but the rest of the world.”
Artists from all states and territories are included in the exhibition, with a large cohort of representation from Western Australia. Diverse mediums include painting, sculpture, metal, glass, shells, photography and works on paper. Curator Tina Baum says there’s also diversity within each of the states. “Even within WA, there is diversity between northern and southern artists, but there’s influences and connection across the exhibition, and also individuality, and that’s really important in any of the shows we do.”
She says it has been both a challenge and a pleasure to feature as many artists as possible. “Indigenous artists are as creative and expressive as any other artists in this world, but I think the key thing with this exhibition is the title – Ever Present. It’s important to understand that since time immemorial Indigenous people in this country have had their Country and their communities, but more importantly we are still here today, and there is that ‘ever present’ existence that artists are showcasing through these artworks.”
Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia is on show at the Art Gallery of WA until 18 April 2022, touring to the National Gallery Singapore from 3 June – 25 September 2022.

Self-portrait: in our country, 2002, by Julie Dowling, Badimaya people. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2002, courtesy of Artplace.

Shaba, from the series Shaba, 2006, by Gary Lee, Larrakia/Wardaman/Karajarri peoples. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

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