Betty Muffler, Ngangkari Ngura (Healing Country), synthetic polymer paint on linen, 34th Telstra NATSIAA.
ArtsHub recently spoke to multidisciplinary artist Teila Watson about her practice and the role of the arts in addressing disparity. Her comments reflected on the specific kinds of cultural myth-making that still permeates society today in the representation and understanding of Australia’s First Nations people.
'There is a great myth we are given about our people – and the whole country and the world is given,’ she said.
‘The truth about our people is we were very advanced, our knowledge is very advanced and very dynamic. I think there is a great undervaluing of that. That is something I would encourage other artists to look beyond and to always look to have a good understanding of the power of our knowledge and the power of our understanding and the importance of it, because it is important to everyone. Don’t undervalue yourself.’
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Also known as Ancestress, Watson is a Birri Gubba and Kungalu, Murri woman and said she grew up in a very political family. Earlier this year she received the prestigious Dreaming Award from the Australia Council of the Arts.
'Art is an opportunity to address the disparity between First Nations People and Non-First Nations People, between men and women, and it’s an opportunity to challenge the common threads that we see in the media, that we see talked about in government. It’s an opportunity to give another perspective but also to shape another perspective myself. I think we are all constantly growing and learning.’
As the world’s oldest living and continuous culture, First Nations arts practice continues to move in new directions in contemporary Australia, and arts organisations dedicated to supporting these artists also continue to evolve in different ways.
To find out more about new directions in the First Nations arts sector, we asked several organisations and arts workers what initiatives they are driving and how the narrative surrounding contemporary First Nations arts practice is changing.
Changing the shape of Indigenous creative learning in Australia
NAISDA Dance College, located on the Central Coast of New South Wales, has exciting plans for the future that will change the way contemporary Indigenous dance is taught. The college’s future will see a widening of career outcomes through a new international art education centre, Naya Wa Yugali (‘we dance’ in Darkinjung language).
Read: NAISDA: The birthplace of contemporary Indigenous dance
NAISDA Chief Operating Officer Debra Schleger said Naya Wa Yugali will be a ‘recognised safe place, a sacred space, for Indigenous people to tell their stories.’
The new centre will also allow NAISDA to grow their learning programs with a plan to move into related areas of art practice like set and costume design. It will also become an internationally recognised site for contemporary Indigenous dance in Australia.
‘There has been a lot of development over the last few years in raising awareness about Indigenous cultural practice and art practice in Australia. To have somewhere that people can experience that as well will be a huge benefit,’ said Schleger.
New work for major exhibition in Sydney
At the Indigenous Art Centre Alliance (IACA), the peak body for Indigenous art centres across far north Queensland and the Torres Strait, a major national exhibition is planned for 2019.
‘Specialist development consultants will be going out to art centres and working with artists, with a particular focus on the development of new work for an exhibition that will be held in Sydney in 2019,’ said IACA Manager, Pam Bigelow.
Read: What the removal of Fake Art means for remote Indigenous art centres
‘The exhibition will be timed to coincide with the Contemporary Art Fair with the venue to be announced soon… We’ve been planning this for some years and have been successfulin obtaining funds through the Federal Government’s Indigenous Languages and Art Program.
‘We have an Indigenous curator and consultants highly experienced in artistic development—assisting with the growth of the artist's practice; techniques, materials and ideas. We want to move into the national scene with a fairly big splash.’
The IACA is also developing a training program for arts workers. 'We are seeking to fund this now,' said Bigelow.
‘We have developed a skeleton program of how that could look and people were signing up on the spot saying they want to come, which is great!’
Educating audiences is key
Luke Scholes, Curator of Aboriginal Art at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT), said in various parts of the arts sector, First Nations art still carries some stigma.
‘Some still believe that First Nations art should not be considered as contemporary art. Such views ignore the reality of the reach and impact some First Nations artists are having internationally.’
Artists such as Yukultji Napangati and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, two remote area artists from Western Australia, are regularly exhibiting on the world stage, both being shown at Art Basel Miami this week one of the largest contemporary art fairs in the world.’
Educating audiences continues to be an important part of changing the narrative around First Nations art in Australia. But Scholes said the main barrier to this change is the opportunity to do so.
‘As the host of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Awards (NATSIAA), MAGNT is well placed to communicate to a broad audience the changing, and ultimately positive, nature of First Nations art.
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‘NATSIAA provides a contemporary snapshot of the best First Nations art every twelve months. Every year we exhibit work which challenges our audience’s preconceptions about what First Nations art is. Using a range of materials and approaches artists are producing work that confronts some people’s expectations of what First Nations artists do. Providing these artists a platform at NATSIAA is something that Telstra and MAGNT is committed to doing into the future.’
The contemporary focus of NATSIAA reflects the exciting present and future of First Nations arts practice in Australia, and how diverse this practice is.
‘First Nations artists come from diverse backgrounds and each identifies with their cultural heritage in a different way. This manifests itself in various ways but ultimately the result is a wonderfully eclectic, forever changing sector. This means that the narrative is always changing and this is hard to communicate to a broad audience who might not be aware of these issues,’ concluded Scholes.