Australia’s Indigenous nations are the oldest living cultures in the world, with at least 60,000 years worth of history, knowledge and art underpinning them. But while the symbols and stories of Indigenous communities are ancient, it has only been in the last 50 years that they have been shared as art.
The NGV’s Marking Time exhibition examines the iconography of Indigenous nations from across Australia, and how these markings have endured and evolved through time. The NGV’s senior curator of Indigenous art, Judith Ryan, says that the exhibition explores the point at which these specific markings were purposely made into art using western art mediums. “This exhibition was really looking at the moments of great transformation when the signs found on rock, the human body, the grounds, carved trees and objects are translated into new materials and therefore rendered permanent,” she says.
Marking Time features what many people would broadly refer to as ‘dot paintings’, a style that has become synonymous with Indigenous art (so much so that there are significant issues with non-Indigenous artists culturally appropriating the paintings) but as Ryan explains, these works were initially regarded as not “authentic”. “They weren’t painted on ochre or bark and so to start with, the public did not think they looked 'Aboriginal' at all,” says Ryan. “But ultimately, people looked at these paintings differently. They regarded them as art rather than as ethnographic artifacts.”
These paintings marked the first time that men from the Western Desert communities had used mediums like acrylic, poster and enamel paint and documented the designs from ceremonial ground paintings and body designs on cardboard and composition board, as art. “These designs had never been seen by the uninitiated because prior to contact with non-Aboriginal people, the locus of art was ceremony,” says Ryan.
Marking Time features a room entirely dedicated to Warlpiri women artists too, who were part of the community at Lajamanu. These women were part of a bilingual and bicultural program run at the local school, and approached the principal with the offer of painting works for use there. “Such was the enthusiasm of the women, that they made 55 paintings in one afternoon,” says Ryan. These paintings are hung in the NGV just as they were in the school over three decades ago and differ somewhat from the works created by men. “The women’s designs are softer than the men's works, but also there’s a clustering of images as opposed to big travelling designs. They’re more intimate,” says Ryan.
The exhibition’s works date back to 1950 at the earliest, but what the works portray are far, far older. Transposing this imagery became a way for artists to assert their culture and identity against colonisation, says Ryan. “They were endeavouring to assert the primacy of their culture. There was definitely a political edge to this work.”
The politicization is a thread that ties together all the works in the exhibition, be they the first Western Desert paintings created using modern materials in the 1970s, or contemporary works created wrought in neon and film. Ryan says Marking Time was partly inspired by the NGV International exhibition Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines and it’s a real lightbulb moment once you realise it.
Works from Reko Rennie, Gordon Hookey, Hannah Brontë and Brook Andrews take ancestral designs and present them in a contemporary, often urbanised, context. “It’s looking at incredible forms of mark making that have been passed from one generation to another,” says Ryan. “An ancient visual language that continues to the present in great contemporary works.”
The NGV galleries are currently closed due to government shutdowns, however, you can explore Marking Time extensively online. The gallery has released a virtual tour of the exhibition as well as a video series featuring senior curator of Indigenous Art, Judith Ryan, explaining the exhibition.