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All They Seem’d To Want

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The Spinifex Art Project and Pissaro at the Art Gallery of South Australia and the Gweagal Shield in the British Museum Collection of Aboriginal artefacts at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra.

Over recent months, in Canberra and Adelaide, a number of quite remarkable artworks and artefacts have raised the issue of relationships to land from very different perspectives.

To start with, the Art Gallery of South Australia is displaying a major recently acquired work of Camille Pissaro “Prairie a Eragny” (for a rumoured price of $4.5 million), which beautifully captures an idyllic rural setting in a “moment in time” impressionist way. Whilst modest in size, it is a classic work of luminosity and the purchase through the gallery’s masterwork fundraising campaign is appropriately celebrated. No self-respecting public gallery can hold its head up without at least one fine impressionist work and this one is a shimmering example from amongst the less celebrated of the renowned French impressionist artists.

Not far from the display of the Pissaro work, but not heralded quite to the same extent, is a group of massive co-authored works of Aboriginal art from the Great Victoria Desert, part of the Tarnanthi Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts – being works of the Spinifex Art Project. These paintings describe the desert country of the artists in the most brilliant and vivid colours and shapes. Any uninitiated visitor to the country can attest that it looks nothing like the depictions in the canvases. The country is tough – parched with bursts of plant life, mostly red in colour and unforgiving. City people would stand little hope of survival for days, let alone the tens of thousands of years of occupation of the indigenous inhabitants. The vividness and dynamism in the works are altogether creations of the artists’ inner minds, built around ancient stories and passionate claims of rights in the land.

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The intensity of feeling in the works and the depth of the imagination they depict should probably not be compared to the intimacy of Pissaro’s work, but it is hard not to be inclined to a comparison given the way the works have been displayed – Pissaro with great fanfare by contrast with the nearby muted but still appreciated acknowledgement of the Aboriginal works. They have nothing in common – or do they?

In artistic terms, from Australian eyes nurtured in the amazing world of the contemporary Aboriginal arts, do the Spinifex canvases take the understanding of land to another level when compared with the genteel world of the impressionists? The Aboriginal works, like Pissaro, are full of luminosity in their treatment of land, but have layers of political resonance and make bold statements of historical connection and possession. Picasso himself famously wrote to an Aboriginal artist in Yirrkala – “I admire and envy your art”.

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Then in Canberra, there has been the extraordinary exhibition at the National Museum of Aboriginal of 150 artefacts from the British Museum, including most notably an unadorned Aboriginal shield taken by Cook and Banks on day one of their visit to Botany Bay in 1770. The shield was left behind by an Aboriginal warrior of the Gweagal people in the face of attack by the white invaders.

The shield bears the sign of battle – a hole indicating gunfire. It is an artefact of great pathos – the first object taken following a moment of resistance. It is the oldest record of “Encounter” – the name of the exhibition.

Here we have a record of a seminal moment in the long and tragic history of Aboriginal claims of rights in land – a discarded and stolen shield penetrated by gunfire; a piece of enormous historic importance and yet a modest object, the significance of which can so easily be missed.

Cook had a fair appreciation of the reserved nature of his welcome when he wrote with Yorkshire frankness in his journal, as noted in the exhibition: “All they seem’d to want was for us to be gone.”