In the halls of the historic south building of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the immense photographic work Naabami (thou shall/will see): Barangaroo (army of me) 2019–22 from artist and academic Brenda L Croft (Gurindji/Mudburra/Malngin) fills the walls. Familiar faces, the artist herself, as well as curator and academic Hetti Perkins and politician Linda Burney, sit alongside lesser known faces of First Nation women and girls, titled only with their first names. The gathering feels like a parliament of women, a forest of eyes looking into the gallery with embodied, ambiguous stares. Curator of the AGNSW exhibition Beatrice Gralton's compelling choice of artist, work, and placement grounds the exhibition at the AGNSW with the power of Croft's assertive parliament (or army) of First Nation’s matriarchal power.
Beyond Croft's illuminating vision, a muted work from artist Abdul Abdullah asks 'have a think about it', hung alongside an engaging reimaged last supper from artist Pierre Mukeba, and the multi-temporal boats and prints of artist Glen Mackie (Kei Kalak) from the Iama/Yam Island in the Tiwi Islands. Deeper into the belly of the AGNSW, the exhibition continues with a modest four-room presentation. The sculptural work of Heather B Swann offers an unexpected surrealist bent with ghostly eyes embedded in lanky limbed figures amidst black swans. In succession the vital work of artist Robert Fielding (Yankunytjatjara/Western Arrernte) shares the power of speaking and yarning on Country, gathering ephemeral mark-making on sand transformed into small projections that undulate in and out of view. Fielding’s collective yarning space encompasses the power of the aural traditions of First Nations storytelling and cultural survivance.
Staying in the belly of the gallery, artist Thea Anamara Perkins' (Arrernte/Kalkadoon) paintings read as a reimagined wall of photographic family treasures, featuring real-life moments and events that intersect with the Perkin's family history—such as the artist's painting of her mother Hetti Perkin's (photographed by Brenda L Croft), alongside a painting of two jovial kids and their dad at Bondi beach. The familial and intergenerational in Perkins work connects to Croft's portraits in the entrance. It establishes a lineage and community of First Nations artists, people and cultural leaders that documents the present moment in Australian art.
Carriageworks emerges as the most robust and cohesive venue of The National 4 with co-curators Freja Carmichael (Ngugi) and Aarna Fitzgerald Hanley offering a subtle and restrained exhibition that offered profound illuminations on the state of art making today. The centrepiece was the stringy bark paintings of First Nation artist Naminapu Maymuru-White (Maŋgalili clan, Yolŋu) whose delicate and repeating motif of the cosmos entitled Milŋiyawuy—River of stars are prominently hung in the main room. Following a curatorial dialogical logic of looking for 'practices that listen to and care for what is close'.1 Carmichael and Fitzgerald Hanley seem to have built the exhibition from Maymuru-White's transporting work.
Like a pulsating heart in the centre of the exhibition, the power of Milŋiyawuy—River of stars bleeds out into the room and the other artworks surrounding it. Pointedly the sound sculptures of Katie West (Yindjibarndi) stand as a form of DIY sentinels, while the low-hanging woven work Bamugora by senior weaver Susan Balbunga (Warrawarra) act as part shield, part care-taking device, spinning gently. The room has a sense of bubbling intensity, sitting under the surface, amplified by the large-scale textile work of Elizabeth Day, mimicking the gateways of a prison and the dimensions of the Carriageworks gates. In the stark brightness of the day, each work glows, relating to its neighbour, and yet remaining whole and with conviction.
In contrast to the bright exhibition spaces, the minimal and almost pitch-black presentation of artist Frances Barrett in the adjacent theatre space landed with a punch. In the darkened theatre room, the audience is encouraged to experience the intimate, bodily echoes of two voices that perform with a sense of mimicry and mimesis, enacting a throaty wordless dialogue. The articulation of Jason Phu's frog cave at the end of the exhibition space, feels slightly adrift in this setting. Following on from the delicate work of ecological knowledge of Country from Heather Koowootha (Wik-Mungkan/Kugu and Yidinji/Djabugay/Gunggandji) and the sombre, grief related wall works of Teho Ropeyarn (Angkamuthi/Yadhaykana), Phu’s frog cave sees the audience enter an oversized black tent to witness an awkward, robotic, over-sized frog. While the maximalist aesthetic of the kitsch motif is delivered, the juxtaposition to the rest of the exhibition is hard to digest. Overall, the Carriageworks component presents a restrained and powerful meditation on Australian art today and reflects the cohesive, curatorial collaboration of Carmichael and Fitzgerald Hanley.
Curator Jane Devery creates a poignant and expansive exhibition at the MCA Sydney encompassing the third floor and the main presentation space on the first floor, where Tiwi artists from the community of Milikapiti on Melville Island show a collectively made work. Under the title of Jilamara Arts and Crafts Association Artists, these artists each dance on Country, standing alone on beaches, in the bush and on the beach; with the pulsing beat, the performers command the audience's attention, luring the viewer into the repetitive movement. This sense of a pulsating collective community is echoed upstairs in the richly yellow room of artist-curator-academic Léuli Eshrāghi whose work delivers an emotional and loving glimpse into a communion of oceanic connection through multilingual acts of storytelling and dynamic, progressional poetry.
Following the thread of communal artistic practice, the collective work Kato Kakalo from artists Ruha Fifita, Minaira Fifita, and Sheida Vazir-Zadeh, known here as Ivi, is placed in the centre of Level three, with the artists working on-site to complete the meditative practice of bark cloth painting. Watching the artists at work grounds the exhibition in an experience of intimate, time-based ephemerality and contemporary cultural practices practiced now, yet with deep roots in place and community. In dialogue with these themes, Simryn Gill's large-scale work Maria's Garden presents imprints of the artist's late neighbours' well-loved city garden. These energetic prints echo the interlocking flow of community with plants, sea and sky.
The inclusion of Western's Sydney's Campbelltown Art Centre for the first time in 2023 is a welcome and necessary addition to a previously central Sydney focused exhibition. Curator Emily Rolfe focuses on substantial sculptural works from artists Lynda Draper and Shivanjani Lal, with the work of Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan with the Fruitjuice Factori Studio taking centre stage. The upside-down boat made by the Aquilizans is a rugged articulation of the movement of people and the meaning of home, with an absurdist touch in the form of inverted kids' sports trophies working as the screws of the boat. While this is the most physically prominent work in the exhibition, the more haunting work comes from Indonesian-born, Sydney-based artist Jumaadi whose painting Like a memory shows a series of cut trees, a decimated yet connected forest imprinted onto Balinese cloth. Large black eyes stare out to the audience in the pattern of broken tree stumps, unblinking, like Croft’s portraits it is another parliament of eyes, meditating on power and interspecies relations.
In a yellow carpeted room at C.A.C, Brook Andrew (Wiradjuri/Celtic) shares his compelling multi-channel work GABAN, which the artist describes as 'a post-traumatic play'.2 This is an outstanding work, following a rambunctious group of performers moving between colonial-style buildings, seemingly echoing and reframing the walls in relation to their own bodies. While the work sits almost as an aloof aside to the rest of the exhibition, the power of the work transcends the setting. Along with the mediation on language and polyglot dialogue, the work is an emphatic and rebellious presentation on morphing community.
Returning to the compelling faces of Croft’s army or parliament, it is clear the First Nation’s artists in the exhibition articulate the deep roots and communities of Australia and provide some of the most profound examples of contemporary Australian art on show. The National 4 is of its time, genuinely nationwide in approach, and offers moments of sublime, restrained, pulsating energy. While the lack of a cohesive thematic or correlating curatorial approach across the venues is at times discombobulating, the reiterative effect of seeing artists in swift control of their artistic process, such as Croft, Andrew and Maymuru-White, means the exhibition achieves its desired goal of presenting the heights of Australian art made today. It is well worth a thorough and generous viewing.