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.
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.
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.
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.
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