British Museum blog

Collecting Indigenous Australian art

Rachael Murphy, Exhibition Project Curator, British Museum

There should always be controversy in the air surrounding artists and makers, museums and objects and culture… It is this that keeps museums alive and relevant, part of an on-going dialogue and questioning as the past and the present collide and coalesce like a walk in wardrobe of old, deep memories and sparkling new acquisitions.

Judy Watson, artistic fellow

There is no need for me to explain the importance of the contemporary art in the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation when Judy Watson, who has two prints on display in the show (2015,2004.3 and 2015,2004.4), does it so eloquently. The exhibition showcases some of the most striking work to come out of Australia in the last five years, as well as the breadth and diversity of art forms, from an installation by Tasmanian artist Julie Gough to a basket by Abe Muriata, a master weaver from rainforest Queensland. These pieces pose a range of opinions, statements or questions, contributing to the dialogues throughout the show. The reasons for collecting, commissioning and displaying these works are as diverse as the art forms themselves. It is only, perhaps, the artists’ ability to engage with the visitor, that provides some common ground.

Judy Watson at the British Museum in 2013. The paddle that she is drawing features in one of the prints she produced after this visit, see below. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Judy Watson at the British Museum in 2013. The paddle that she is drawing features in one of the prints she produced after this visit, see below. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Watson, a Waanyi artist, who lives and works in Brisbane, first visited the British Museum and other museum collections in the UK at the end of 1995 and beginning of 1996, beginning a long relationship with UK institutions. She returned to the British Museum in 2013 as an artistic fellow on the research project Engaging Objects, a collaborative research project between the British Museum, the National Museum of Australia and the Australian National University. After this trip Watson produced a series of prints, the holes in the land, which layer delicately etched drawings of Indigenous Australian objects in the British Museum collection over historical plans for the Museum’s building and showcases. Behind these silhouettes are bright, swirling colours, suggesting, perhaps, the blues, greens and yellows of the Australian landscape.

Judy Watson, The Holes in the Land 2, 2015.  (Courtesy of Judy Watson and Grahame Galleries + Editions. Photographer: Carl Warner)

Judy Watson, the holes in the land 2, 2015. 
(Courtesy of Judy Watson and Grahame Galleries + Editions. Photographer: Carl Warner)

Other contemporary works in the exhibition, such as Angela’s Torenbeek’s ghost net basket speak of events that take place far beyond the Museum walls. Ghost nets are fishing nets which have been detached from commercial vessels and drift in the ocean. Many wash up on islands in the Torres Strait, including on the beaches of Torenbeek’s home, on the island of Moa. Nets pose a significant hazard to marine life and weaving provides a way to recycle them. The plastic fibres are hard to weave, but resistant to damage and decomposition. There are parallels with Torenbeek’s own gentle persistence in educating people about ghost nets.

Ghost net basket, 2010. Mahnah Angela Torenbeek (Reproduced by permission of the artist on behalf of the Rebecca Hossack Gallery)

Mahnah Angela Torenbeek, Ghost net basket, 2010. 
(Reproduced by permission of the artist on behalf of the Rebecca Hossack Gallery)

The value of Torenbeek’s work does not lie only in the messages it conveys. The basket on display is small and shallow, its modest form made bold by the bright blue, green and red of the coarse synthetic fibres. Frayed white nets, trailing from tight stitches, evoke feathers, a material that has been used in the Torres Strait for (at the very least) hundreds of years. While many other artists in the Torres Strait and along the northern coastline of Australia weave with ghost nets, Torenbeek’s work stands out for this striking use of colour and form and playful use of materials. Her flair for innovation is apparent in every work, from small baskets to large scale sculptures. In 2012 she collaborated on a giant ghost net crocodile which sat at Bondi Beach in Sydney. More recently she has been using animal bone in her work. As Torenbeek modestly puts it: ‘I like to do something different’. It is a quality that makes her work compelling to collectors, both private and institutional.

The Museum considers many factors when acquiring contemporary works, not least that they complement and enrich existing collections. Private collectors may collect artworks for other reasons, which speak to their personal experiences, interests or aesthetic tastes. Despite this, there are often close parallels between public and private collections, suggesting that while there is no single definition for a good artwork, it is still an interesting question.

For an insight into the world of collecting Indigenous Australian art you can listen to some of the most esteemed collectors, advisors and dealers at the upcoming debate Collecting Indigenous Australian art, chaired by the renowned art dealer Rebecca Hossack, on Friday 03 July.

Thank you, as always to all of the artists and other groups and individuals across Australia who have contributed to this exhibition.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015

Supported by BP

Organised with the National Museum of Australia

Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Event, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , , ,

Indigenous Australia: multi-sensory engagement for families

Emilia McKenzie, Education Manager (Digital Content), British Museum

Temporary exhibitions at the British Museum are a wonderful opportunity for the Schools and Young Audiences team to think creatively about new ways to engage our family visitors. The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is no exception and is accompanied by a specially devised range of family-friendly activities and events. To create this programme, the Schools and Young Audiences team worked closely with the exhibition’s curatorial and interpretation teams.

Indigenous Australia family guide

Indigenous Australia family guide

For our Indigenous Australia family guide, we wanted to try something a little different, going beyond the traditional medium of paper-based trails. We felt that the content of this exhibition, with its bold range of practical as well as ceremonial objects, lent itself particularly well to alternative formats. Inspired by the collection on display, we decided to create a multi-sensory, three-dimensional interpretive device, featuring replicas of objects or parts of objects from the exhibition. We worked with 3D designers Topographic who used a range of materials including wood and acrylic along with techniques such as etching, lamination and sculpture to produce 6 unique objects with very different textures. Placed around a hoop, the miniature replicas provide a non-linear trail, allowing visitors to dip in and out as they wish.

Detail from the Indigenous Australia family guide: suckerfish

Detail from the Indigenous Australia family guide: suckerfish

In terms of the content, we worked with the exhibition curators and interpretation officer to select the most appropriate objects across the exhibition – objects that young people would find inspiring and which would give families clear ‘ways in’ to the main themes of the exhibition, including ancestry, ritual and livelihood. The layout of the exhibition itself was also a consideration: thinking from the point of view of a young child and whether or not they would actually be able to see the object in question.

Ask for the guide at the exhibition entrance to try it for yourself.

Detail of a mask in the form of a human face and a bonito fish Attributed to Kuduma, Muralag, Torres Strait, Queensland. Turtle shell, goa nut, cassowary feather, shell, paint. H 310 mm. British Museum, London Oc,89+.74

Detail of a mask in the form of a human face and a bonito fish
Attributed to Kuduma, Muralag, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1888. Turtle shell, goa nut, cassowary feather, shell, paint. H 310 mm. British Museum, London Oc,89+.74

Our craft-based family half-term workshops in the Museum this month will enable participants to build their own ‘fish hats’ inspired by objects in the exhibition, such as this dance mask. Fish are a key symbol in the exhibition and are a vital food source and totemic animal for Indigenous Australians. We wanted to create something that people could wear, and hope that the Museum will be filled throughout half term with ‘schools’ of fish as families wearing their fish hats move around during their visits. Participating families can decorate their hats in natural colours drawn from the palette of the exhibition, with plenty of scope for fun and individuality.

Throughout half-term week, artist David Allsop will be facilitating a collaborative artwork around the theme of ‘journeys’. Families are invited to contribute to the artwork using a colour-coded system representing how and why they have come to the Museum. Based on mark-making and the system of colours as symbols, the final outcome will be a large painting shown on the floor in the same way that paintings from Spinifex communities, Western Australia, are displayed.

Drop by the Great Court between 11.00 and 16.00 during half-term week (25–29 May) to take part in these activities. Tell us that you took part by sharing your artwork on Instagram and Twitter using #IndigenousAustralia. We can’t wait to see what you create!

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015
Supported by BP
Organised with the National Museum of Australia
Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Events relating to the exhibition can be found here

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Event, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , , , , , ,

Making histories: Captain Cook and Indigenous Australia

Maria Nugent, Research Fellow, Australian National University

Objects on display in the Indigenous Australia exhibition.

Objects on display in the Indigenous Australia exhibition at the British Museum, London

There is a corner (literally) in the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation that features the famous British navigator Captain James Cook. It occurs at a pivotal point, where the exhibition’s narrative moves from the hard-to-fathom timescales of the Dreaming (the complex system of beliefs and stories that explain the meaningful creation of the world, and how humans reproduce that system through ceremony, art, storytelling and other meaningful action, which one anthropologist described as an ‘everywhen’) and the 40,000 plus years of human occupation of the continent, to the much shorter and more immediate timespan of the last 245 years since British encounters with Indigenous people there began. While Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese voyagers had visited since the early 1600s, Cook was the first British navigator to explore the region. And whereas other European expeditions were mainly on the western and northern coasts, Cook and his expedition charted the east coast. Although Cook is often credited with claiming the entire continent for King George III, he was careful to only take possession of its eastern side, acknowledging as he did that the Dutch had already claimed the west.

Barama/Captain Cook by Gawirrin 1 Gumana, c. 2002. H 3120 mm, Diam. 200 mm. British Museum, London Oc2003,01.2

Barama/Captain Cook by Gawirrin 1 Gumana, c. 2002. H 3120 mm, Diam. 200 mm. British Museum, London Oc2003,01.2 Reproduced by permission of the artist © Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre http://www.yirrkala.com

This corner of the exhibition draws together a fascinating assemblage of objects that work together to present diverse representations of Captain Cook and his place within Indigenous Australia’s deep history. There’s a larrakitj, or memorial pole, that was made in 2002 by Gawirrin 1 Gumana. At the top on one side he has painted the ancestor figure Barama and on the other Captain Cook, but he hasn’t specified which is which. The rest of the pole is covered with the artist’s ancestral designs, and so it acknowledges Cook’s historical presence, but shows that it did not displace Barama’s law in Yolngu country (northeastern Arnhem Land).

Attributed to Botany Bay (Sydney), New South Wales, c. 1770. L 900 mm. British Museum, London Oc1978,Q.839

Attributed to Botany Bay (Sydney), New South Wales, c. 1770. L 900 mm. British Museum, London Oc1978,Q.839

Next to it, in a large case and lit up against a striking green background, is the shield that is believed to have been used by a Gweagal man in self-defence against the violent incursion of Cook’s landing party into his country in late April 1770. (Although it is tempting to believe otherwise, we know for sure that the hole in the centre of the shield was not made by a bullet.) This is an especially powerful object, because it symbolises that first fateful meeting.

There is though, I think, a risk that by concentrating only on the first landing that other equally significant and revealing interactions that took place over the week that Cook’s ship the Endeavour remained at Botany Bay are overshadowed. Other objects in this corner of the exhibition provide intriguing perspectives on that historical encounter.

People in canoes at Botany Bay by Tupaia, 1770. H 263 mm, W 362 mm. British Library, London

People in canoes at Botany Bay by Tupaia, 1770. H 263 mm, W 362 mm. British Library, London

The drawing made by the Ra’iatean man Tupaia (who had joined the voyage in Tahiti) is especially important here. It shows three Gweagal people fishing with hand lines and spears from two canoes. This was a drawing made from life and is a beautifully detailed and sympathetic scene, which not only shows details of their canoes and fishing spears, but also reveals how the local people continued to go about their business despite the unwelcome presence of the British sailors. Tupaia was an important intermediary in interactions between the British and Indigenous people in Australia (and New Zealand as well). But his role has not been given much attention in histories of Cook in Australia. Later, when the Endeavour was shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, he warmed relations there with the local people, so much so that some men went on board the ship and some vocabulary was collected. Below Tupaia’s drawing is a copy of Cook’s original chart of Botany Bay, which indicates water sources and other environmental features. Augmented by James Cook’s and Joseph Banks’s descriptions, the chart reveals evidence of Indigenous people’s management of the landscape.

These two drawings, produced as a result of interactions with Indigenous people and their country in 1770, are flanked by two contemporary artworks. One is Michael Cook’s photograph, Undiscovered #4, which shows an Aboriginal man dressed as Captain Cook (or some other British naval officer) standing on the beach with his ship behind him. The other is Vincent Namatjira’s vibrant painting, James Cook – With Declaration (British Museum, 2014,2007.1), in which the ‘proclamation’ Cook writes to take possession of the territory appears as an extension of his naval uniform. These contemporary pieces belong to a much larger corpus of visual representations by Indigenous artists that provide alternative images and interpretations of Captain Cook and his history. Michael Cook’s photograph, for instance, raises questions about who ‘discovered’ who. Vincent Namatjira’s painting suggests the ways in which Captain Cook wrote the country into British possession and how he is literally the embodiment of Britain’s territorial claims.

This is my favourite part of the exhibition, but I might not be completely impartial in my choice, because I have been interested in the historical relationship between Captain Cook and Indigenous Australians for some time. A few years ago, I published a book called Captain Cook Was Here, which provides a close analysis of the encounters between Indigenous people and Cook’s crew in 1770 and also discusses the ways in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians have told stories about Captain Cook over the last two centuries, turning him into a founding figure within their respective interpretations of history. As the historian Chris Healy has written: ‘Captain Cook is a name common to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal histories. … His name can be considered as a term which creates a possibility of dialogue between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ways of making histories’.

Later this week, I will be giving a lecture on Indigenous Australian visual and oral storytelling about Captain Cook from the early 1800s to the present. I hope to see you there.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015
Supported by BP
Organised with the National Museum of Australia
Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Events relating to the exhibition can be found here

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , , ,

One-hit wonders: spear points from the Kimberley

Rachael Murphy, Project Curator, Oceania, British Museum

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation has been open for a few weeks, long enough, it seems, for some favourite objects to emerge. Many visitors have remarked on a 2-metre-long mask in the form of crocodile with an open mouth full of white teeth – it was made of plates of turtle shell on the island of Mabuiag in the Torres Strait, Queensland. Michael Cook’s photograph Undiscovered #4, a reimagining of early colonial encounters, is another favourite. The image positions an Aboriginal man on the shore, dressed in the red-and-white 18th-century uniform of the British military, as a tall ship sits on the horizon.

Michael Cook, Undiscovered #4, Inkjet on paper, 2010 National Museum of Australia

Michael Cook, Undiscovered #4, Inkjet on paper, 2010
National Museum of Australia

Perhaps the most talked about exhibit is a group of spear points from the Kimberley region of Western Australia. For anyone who is familiar with Kimberley points the interest is unsurprising. Tear-shaped and double-edged, their uneven, symmetrical surfaces catch and reflect the light. More often than not they are made from exceptional materials – one is of mottled grey stone intersected with quartz veins, others are shaped from translucent green bottle glass. It is difficult to deny their aesthetic appeal, especially when they are displayed as a group.

A group of spear points Kimberley region, Western Australia, c. 1885–1940 © The Trustees of the British Museum

A group of spear points
Kimberley region, Western Australia, c. 1885–1940
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The points are also great ambassadors for much of Indigenous Australian technology – they present an economy of form that is underpinned by deep knowledge and skill. At one time all spear points in the Kimberley region were made from various types of stone. Men made the points using wood and bone tools to shape and sharpen the point. Each stage of the process requires a different technique, the final stage being the precise application of pressure to sharpen the edges by flaking off small pieces of stone. The points are attached to a wooden shaft with gum and cord made out of plant fibre. It is a time-consuming process and they are something of a one-hit wonder – the brittle stone tends to break on impact.

Points made out of bottle glass and ceramic insulators (taken from telegraph poles) are innovations from the late 1800s. Ceramic is particularly good spear point material as it is less brittle than stone, meaning the points can often be reused. John Carty of the Australian National University describes the meanings, making, uses and evolving importance of spear points in the book Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, which accompanies the exhibition.

One of the joys of seeing so much interest in the points lies in the fact that stone tools are not usually regarded as show-stopping objects. Around a third of the British Museum’s 6,000 objects from Australia are stone implements, so it is great that visitors are recognising and celebrating such an important technology. It is especially so since the Kimberley points are displayed with a simple label, describing dates and materials. The points appear to be doing a good job of transmitting their value for themselves.

Some other unsung heroes of the exhibition are the people who care for the collection. In the past few years the staff of the Oceanic section have been assessing, measuring and photographing Australian stone implements and adding this information to the Museum’s database. Shooting, editing and uploading these images falls into an important, but often unnoticed, category of Museum work. By the time I took a turn, the glamorous spear points and axes had already been documented and we were working our way through several hundred tiny scrapers and flakes, often overlooked products of the skilled manufacturing process. Most of this work was done by Curator Ben Burt and Museum Assistant Jill Hassel, assisted by a number of volunteers. It is a point of pride in our department that the records for the Museum’s entire Australian collection are online and soon every object will have a photograph too. The benefits of this are enormous, as not only does it allow audiences around the world to view the collection, but it also permits us to gain from their knowledge and research and feed this back into the collection database.

One of the best examples of the value of this type of collection work is the exhibition itself. The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation was enabled and enriched by the contributions of others, in particular the Indigenous Australian individuals and groups who have been so generous with their time and knowledge.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015

Supported by BP

Organised with the National Museum of Australia

Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , , ,

Indigenous Australia: before the sheep arrived

Gaye Sculthorpe, Curator, Oceania, British Museum

As curator of the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation it is a great privilege to be presenting this major exhibition in London. Over the past two years, it has been a special and sometimes moving experience to view and discuss objects in the collection with artists and community visitors from Australia – and to see these special objects up close. It is a big responsibility to put together an exhibition that does justice to the cultural and historical complexity of the story of Indigenous Australia – a story that is still unfolding.

Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) by Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington. Acrylic on canvas, H 1790 mm, W 2330 mm, British Museum, London 2014,2009.1 © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.

Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) by Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington. Acrylic on canvas, H 1790 mm, W 2330 mm. British Museum, London 2014,2009.1 © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project

Early British visitors to Australian shores were surprised to learn that there was more than one Indigenous language spoken across the vast continent. Even today in London, audience research makes clear that it is still a revelation to many to learn that there are hundreds of different Aboriginal language groups, each associated with a particular defined territory, and each with distinctive traditions and customs. Few here have heard of the Torres Strait islands and the distinctive culture and history of the Islanders. Familiar names and words in Australia – such as Namatjira, Mabo, ochre, dugong, sheep station and goanna – are foreign to British audiences. Questions such as ‘were there sheep in Australia before the British arrived?’ indicate that Indigenous Australia is still a subject about which international audiences know comparatively little (*see below). Some of the art styles may be recognisable, but the complex meanings and history remain little understood.

Ceremonies involving wearing masks of turtle shell were an important part of traditional life on Mer. From Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1855. British Museum, London Oc1855,1220.169

Ceremonies involving wearing masks of turtle shell were an important part of traditional life on Mer. Mask, from Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1855. Turtle shell, shell, fibre; L 400 mm. British Museum, London Oc1855,1220.169

In telling this story, with many objects collected in the late 1700s and 1800s, questions of how these pieces were brought to the British Museum and where should they be housed now are likely to arise. Some of these issues are addressed both in the exhibition itself and in the accompanying book. There are individuals who think there are objects in London that should be returned to Australia; others consider that objects exhibited here have an key role in showing the world that the history and culture of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders is as important, valuable and unique as any other civilisation in the world. These matters will no doubt be further discussed during the exhibition run in London and when many objects go on loan later this year to a related exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.

James Cook – with the Declaration by Vincent Namatjira, 2014. Acrylic on canvas, H 1010 mm, W 760 mm, British Museum, London 2014,2007.1

James Cook – with the Declaration by Vincent Namatjira, 2014. Acrylic on canvas; H 1010 mm, W 760 mm. British Museum, London 2014,2007.1 © Vincent Namatjira

For me, it is particularly significant that these objects are being exhibited first at the British Museum in London, a city that once sat at the heart of a Britain that ruled Indigenous Australians and the colonies that joined to become the nation of Australia in 1901. Indigenous Australians have been engaging with London and its museums since 1792 when Governor Phillip brought back Bennelong and Yemmerawanne, who visited the Parkinson Museum in London that housed objects from Cook’s voyages. In the mid-1800s Aborigines, such as those on Flinders Island in Tasmania and in the state of Victoria, made appeals to and sent diplomatic gifts to the Crown. At one level, the curation of this exhibition and the engagement of contemporary Indigenous artists in its creation and related events is an extension of this ongoing relationship between Indigenous Australia and the UK, but it puts Indigenous Australians in the centre rather than the periphery.

In the coming two weeks, the British Museum will be visited by a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, artists, and museum professionals who will be participating in discussions, giving lectures and seminars, and reconsidering the legacies of colonialism for contemporary museums.

This includes a special event on Friday 1 May: The art of country: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art today, and the conference: Challenging colonial legacies today: museums and communities in Australia and East Africa on Saturday 2 May.

These and other events offer British audiences the opportunity to hear more about the nuances and regional variation in this rich story. I hope visitors to the exhibition and those who attend the related events appreciate the beauty of, and knowledge embedded in, the objects presented, the diversity of Indigenous cultures across Australia, and the complexity of the engagement with outsiders since 1788. Despite being affected by direct violence and the impact of new diseases, this history demonstrates that rather than being passive victims of an aggressive British colonisation, Indigenous Australians have since 1788 engaged with outsiders in strategic and diplomatic ways that continue today.

Land rights placard from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy erected, as a site of protest, in 1972 at Old Parliament House, Canberra

Land rights placard from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy erected, as a site of protest, in 1972 at Old Parliament House, Canberra. Paint on Masonite board; H 485 cm, W 815 cm. National Museum of Australia, Canberra

I would like to acknowledge the generosity of those Indigenous communities and individuals in Australia who participated in discussions about the objects and the exhibition (not all of whom may agree with my views). I would also like to acknowledge the input of my colleagues in Australia at the National Museum of Australia and the Australian National University who, with the help of funding for research through the Australian Research Council, have contributed significantly to the exhibition and associated publication.

*Sheep came with the First Fleet of British settlers and convicts in 1788 and merino sheep, famous for fine wool, in 1796. Spot the beautiful woman’s apron made of wool in the exhibition.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015
Supported by BP
Organised with the National Museum of Australia
Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , ,

The long march to Jingdezhen, China’s porcelain city

Family business. © Roger LawRoger Law, artist and satirist

It was a long march from London’s East End to China’s Jingdezhen. The first step was closing the factory gates on the satirical puppet workshop Spitting Image. Moving to Australia, it turned out, was the next great stride. No one can live in Australia for long without becoming very aware of the influence of China, both culturally and economically. As fast as the Australians miners can dig raw materials out of the ground they are shipped to China. And the cultural exchanges between the two countries follow thick and fast. Australia is China’s favoured concubine.

Ah Xian, a Chinese contemporary artist now an Australian citizen, introduced me to Jingdezhen, China’s Porcelain City. First through his work exhibited at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney in 2001, and then when he was kind enough to meet up with me in Jingdezhen.

Family business. © Roger Law

Family business. © Roger Law

I was surprised to discover that most of the workshops in Jingdezhen are highly specialised, family businesses – skilful pottery sweatshops, not unlike my Spitting Image puppet factory. Porcelain City was as busy making things as the UK in the 1950s, I felt oddly at home in this strange culture.

I travel extensively in Australia drawing surreal and exotic creatures found in the wetlands and seas around that sunburnt country – everything from Weedy Sea Dragons to Cheer-leader Crabs. I was looking for a way to use this Aussie bestiary.

Finding a way to work collaboratively with artisans in Jingdezhen is problematic. I began working in Porcelain City when failure was affordable. And fail I did. My failures gave me a better understanding of the properties of porcelain and carving seemed to be the way to use my Australian drawings.

Dancing cheerleader crabs charger, by Roger Law. Photo by John Lawrence Jones

Dancing cheerleader crabs charger, by Roger Law. Photo by John Lawrence Jones

Finding craftsmen to work with me was also difficult. ‘Why should I learn to do something I shall never need to do again?’ was one very good answer I received. Finally a young carver, Mr Wu Songming, was willing to risk working with me. The Cheer-leader Crabs and Weedy Sea Dragons started to appear on fine porcelain.

Carter – Jingdezhen. © Roger Law

Carter – Jingdezhen. © Roger Law

Jingdezhen calls itself Porcelain City with good reason. Over a million pots a week are made there – a small city by China’s standards with most of its 700,000 residents involved in making ceramics. On my first visit to Jingdezhen the workshops were busy turning out copies of copies of traditional designs. The last decade has seen a creative and economic revitalisation of its workshops. The traditional blue-and-white ware of Jingdezhen, Qing Hua, is still the city’s bread and butter, but new designs reflect demand from the growing Chinese middle class.

Jingdezhen workshop. © Roger Law

Jingdezhen workshop. © Roger Law

On my first visit everything in Jingdezhen was filthy – except for the people. How the workers achieved it is a small miracle. After a day on the earth floors of the workshops, strewn with slabs of wet clay and porcelain dust, the men and women emerge spotless, the women’s high heels as clean as the day they were bought. The workshop conditions were grim. No doors in the doors, no glass in the windows. Humid in the summer and brass monkeys in the winter.

I have seen the city change unrecognisably. The bicycles have morphed into motorbikes, the motorbikes to cars. The workshops now have concrete floors but the potteries still ensure plenty of carcinogenic intake of copper, lead, zinc and solvents etc.

Joey Zhou and Roger Law. © Roger Law

Joey Zhou and Roger Law. © Roger Law

My translator, Joey Zhou, refrains from translating when a conversation becomes heated. I can become very volatile in 100% humidity. Joey will wait until things calm down. I asked him why Chinese are not more direct when dealing with problems. ‘That is not the Chinese way.’ Joey replied sagely. ‘They will say nothing and hate you secretly.’

Roger Law, co-creator of the satirical TV puppet show Spitting Image, is contributing to the Ming Late: courtly pleasures, Friday 14 November, 18.00–21.00 in the Great Court. Free, just drop in.

ROGER LAW is at Sladmore Contemporary from 30 October to 15 November.

The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum to 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

Filed under: Ming: 50 years that changed China, , , , , ,

London, a world city in 20 objects: Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan

Ilkurlka by Simon HoganPolly Bence, British Museum

This painting is one of almost 6,000 objects from Australia and the Torres Strait Islands in the British Museum. This is a growing collection; the Museum continues to acquire contemporary Indigenous Australian objects, including contemporary art works.

Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan

Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan

Ilkurlka was painted by Simon Hogan, a senior custodian of Linka, the place where he was born and raised in Western Australia, known as Spinifex country. The Spinifex people or Pila Nguru live in the Great Victoria Desert of Western Australia, adjoining the border with South Australia.

Hogan’s paintings tell stories from his land, depicting specific places within Spinifex country. As is often characteristic of this genre, the painting collapses time: it shows several successive events on top of each other. The large U-shape in the painting is a rockhole with water in it known as Ilkurlka and the trees are mulga trees (wanarii). When describing this painting Hogan explained: ‘those trees belong to that place’.

The painting tells the story of a man who was camping at this rockhole. He woke up and travelled to another place where there was a very powerful watersnake that he was trying to capture.

In describing the painting the artist explained that in it the man is trying to eat the snake and at the same time he has eaten it – he is both a man and a snake. The oval shape depicts the man lying down, feeling sick having eaten the snake – but the man now has a great deal of power.

During the atomic tests at Maralinga in western South Australia during the mid-1950s, the Spinifex people were driven from their homelands. Many found themselves dispersed and others were forcibly relocated to mission stations hundreds of miles away. In the 1980s people returned to their land to find that specific settlement areas had been designated for them and some areas had been selected for mining.

The 1990s saw an arduous and lengthy period of negotiations over land rights and native title claims, and it was during this period that the Spinifex Arts Project was developed to help the group document and illustrate their Native Title claims. This decade of discussion culminated in 2000 with ground-breaking legislation and a new understanding: Spinifex people were finally recognised as the traditional owners of 55,000 square kilometres of land in Western Australia. Spinifex artists produce work to demonstrate and share their complex history and traditions.

The British Museum is working towards a major Indigenous Australian exhibition which will open in 2015, which will include Spinifex paintings.


This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 7 February 2013.

Ilkurlka by Simon Hogan is on display in Room 37

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It's #NAIDOC2015 – a week celebrating the history and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We’ll be sharing objects each day this week from our #IndigenousAustralia exhibition.
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