Adding meaning to the campus
The University has a vast collection of Indigenous art, as Jane Faure-Brac reports.
The paintings are an expression of the courage, adaptation and survival of Indigenous culture within the settler culture.
If you are studiously working away in the Chifley Library, you might glance up and gain inspiration from a striking canvas by Indigenous artist Timothy Cook.
The imposing painting, Kulama, looms over the study area, its countless stars of the Milky Way shining down through a black hole framed by a fractured cross.
It’s just one of around 360 Indigenous artworks scattered around the buildings and offices of ANU that form part of a world-class art collection of nearly 2500 works.
These hang on walls, fill public spaces and generally add beauty and meaning to the work we do on campus.
The Indigenous art collection originally started to amass through engagement between ANU scholars and Aboriginal communities, going back to the foundation of the University in 1946.
The core of the collection was formed with four distinct features: a series of paintings commissioned by renowned anthropologist W. E. H Stanner at Port Keats in the 1950s; a dozen or more painted shields given by the senior men of Yuendumu in the Northern Territory to former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1980; an integrated group of bark paintings from Yirrkala in the NT which came via an association with anthropologist and Distinguished ANU Professor, Howard Morphy; and two monumental installations constructed in the grounds of the University by artists connected to ANU.
“The foundation of the Indigenous art collection of the University is indebted to the anthropologists, sociologists, economists and others who had firsthand experiences of Aboriginal communities,” Drill Hall Gallery Director Terence Maloon says.
“Of course we now want to acknowledge the historical character of all of those encounters, as we are in a very volatile and changing epoch which has to be respected.”
Today the collection comprises a tremendous range of mediums from paintings –including 65 traditional bark paintings – to artists’ prints, sculptures, drawings, ceramics and textiles.In Kulama, Cooke integrates the belief that after death Aboriginal people pass through a black hole in the Milky Way to meet their ancestors with the Christian symbol of the cross, and thus his anxiety at the prospect of death spans both the traditional and the European worlds he inhabits.
ANU is committed to honouring and celebrating the knowledge of Indigenous people.
Similarly, Maloon says having the Indigenous art collection embedded within the fabric of the University represents an important exchange between our two communities.
“The paintings are an expression of the courage, adaptation and survival of Indigenous culture within the settler culture, and the ANU is committed to honouring and celebrating the knowledge of Indigenous people, their history and cultural practices, and instilling this knowledge in the University and the wider community,” he says.
The entire Indigenous art collection was meticulously catalogued and contextualised in 2009 in a book, Indigenous Art at the Australian National University, to celebrate the collection. Over the ensuing decade, various other important works have been acquired or bequeathed to the collection.
Maloon says the University is fortunate to have George Tjungurrayi’s The claypan site of Mamultjulkulnga which adorns a huge blank space in the atrium of the RN Robertson Building. This canvas would normally not be affordable for the University, but was funded by a bequest from sports entrepreneur-turned-art-collector James Erskine of more than $700,000.
Fourteen of Tjungurrayi’s large, characteristically rhythmic linear paintings recently featured in the Sydney Biennale at Carriageworks. The juxtaposition of colours sets up a vibration across the canvas, which is reminiscent of the shimmer of the desert and also evokes the continuous drone of the didgeridoo, evoking the eternal and the infinite.
At first glance of Nancy McDinny’s War at Blackfella Spring, you take in a very sprightly rendering of the landscape through lively patterns of dots, oblongs and stripes. Next, you notice the series of white dots are actually the pith helmets of the troopers sent in to eliminate an Aboriginal community. Just when you assume the Indigenous people are absent from the painting, you notice they’ve hidden themselves in the creek and covered their heads and faces with mud until only the whites of their eyes are visible.
The overall view of the painting, which hangs in the Dean’s office in the College of Business and Economics, appears to reflect the reality of a culture overrun and largely absent from view.
This tragic episode in history was told down through the generations in Nancy’s family and will stand as a testament to a true moment in history as well as marking when Indigenous artists began telling their stories to non-Indigenous people.
The art of Jacky Green, like that of Nancy McDinny, has a streak of activism as he depicts his response to the depredation of his land and culture. In Heart of our Country, Aboriginal ceremonial practices are carried out within a heart at the centre of the painting, but the heart is depicted upside down signifying that life has been turned on its head. We see earth-moving equipment and bulldozers moving into the Eden-like landscape and scouring it, as a mining company extracts mineral value at the expense of the culture.
The most valuable gift the University has ever received is the Craig Edwards donation of more than 120 works of mostly western desert art valued at around $9 million.
He is a personal injury lawyer with Canberra law firm Maliganis Edwards Johnson, and an ANU Alumnus, who has been collecting Indigenous art for 20 years.
Indigenous Art at the Australian National University usually retails for $90 but the Drill Hall Gallery is currently offering a special rate of $25 for students.