Robert Andrew: Recalibrating Country.
Urban Aboriginal art is not new. It has been celebrated for as long as Aboriginal artists have been producing art in urban settings. (1) Indigenous Australian art – both Traditional and Urban – has never been a static form of representation. (2) It morphs and transitions according to the individual artist’s Dreaming. And whether those Dreamtime stories harness energies from a deep past, unimaginable future or palpable present, to suggest that one art form holds an authenticity that the other does not illustrates the levels of rhetoric at play within a white market driven global art pitch.
The life, culture and Dreamings of the Urban Aboriginal is just as valid, palpable and important as any other. However when we read these few overtly prosaic lines by Benjamin Genocchio in the Murdoch press circa 2001 we can clearly surmise the overwritten colonialist faux ‘spirituality’ assigned by the predominantly white art marketing departments with regard Traditional Aboriginal art. Indigenous Australians have been battling this form of advertorial profiling for years.
To say that Aboriginal art is the last, curious exponent of the colonialist primitive is not to denigrate it but to insist that a misty veil of exoticism and strangeness still clouds its interpretation and display, and in many ways is the secret of its allure. (3)
Romanticised, insulting and profoundly promotional, there is nothing secret about this form of racism by stealth. What is being insinuated here is the naive stereotypical idea of Australian Aboriginality wrapped and served up in a palitable albeit pitiful form of new age, mythological spiritualism. (4) And whilst this form of writing may impact the Museum counters and keep them clicking, this white palimpsest of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s and their culture is simply a text that commodifies the Other. A script that has been refined ad nauseum within the colonising trope since 1788.
When we begin to seriously look at the Contemporary Urban Indigenous artworks of Robert Andrew you would be excused if thoughts of a supersymmetry began nudging their way in from the periphery of your conscious mind. There is no need to be alarmed as this supersymmetricality is simply an aspect of the Indigenous Australian Dreamtime. It pulsates with residues of the past and future histories – in this case of art – to be inescapably and forever placed in the present. The work of Andrew is heavily process driven, experimental and oozes a rare authenticity for one so young. Technologically precise in its gesture toward country, it evokes a rich, deep and knowledgable experience of country and the journey he has undertaken to immerse himself in that Dreaming.
This is the contemporary Aboriginal artist making a declaration of the legitimacy of his links to country, an honest portrayal of the natural world through urban eyes. (5)
The reductive illusionism of Andrew’s mark making hint toward expressing potentials of being incorrectly placed within the white Western Canon. With conversations abounding within particulars of both modernism and Post-Modernism, these seemingly strong aspects and alignments are simply a false flag. And whilst this form of musing may momentarily excite an art historical mind, it remains arguably academic. Irregardless of whether we are able to locate all of these elements and more in the work, the work itself remains Contemporary Urban Indigenous Art.
When we look at Family Landscape #8 for example what we begin to see is the image becoming detached from its ground with it demanding to be perceived in tactile terms that does invite the viewers touch. And whilst within this single art object we are able to fantasise connections ranging from Orlitski’s severe reductionism toward Rauschenberg’s conversation with Pollock about the horizontal and vertical to Morris’s stain and onto Louis’s embrace of Naive Abstract Illusionism, we simply cannot for this piece and all of the works in Robert Andrew’s oeuvre are specifically about family, are a celebration of country but perhaps most importantly at this juncture of the artists life, they are more an exploration of the physical, psychological and phenomenological return to country. And at a relatively early stage of his career the works impact as holding a maturity and knowledge beyond the artists years. This has the affect of exhibiting a combined ancestral awakening that is gently guiding Robert Andrew into playing a role of mediation between himself, between cultures and country. This is the conversation we all need to attenuate – we need to navigate these dualistic binaries – upon entering the liminal space that these artistic objects promote.
“I am a descendant of the Yawuru people from the the West Kimberly region of North Western, Western Australia or more specifically the Broome area. In this region are the towns and surrounding communities of Broome, Derby and Fitzroy Crossing including communities on the Dampier Peninsula and in the region south of Broome heading toward the Pilbara.
Whilst previous generations including my grandmother were from the Broome area, Mimi (mother’s mother) at some point moved from Broome to Derby where my mother was born and grew up. Mum and Dad moved from the West Kimberly region to Perth and this is where I was born and raised. Suffice it to say, as a family unit, we had lost all connection with indigenous culture and until I was thirteen years old I didn’t know that part of my history.
Within the makeup of white Australian culture at this time, there was no concept of being an Urban Aboriginal. And it is this – the Urban Aboriginal – that my artwork is beginning to investigate. Primarily what it means to be labelled a Contemporary Urban Indigenous Artist whilst looking at the particular histories of Urban Aboriginals and attempting to coherently bring these stories forward toward a process of recognition, understanding and healing.
Because what I had learnt at school in relation to Aboriginal people primarily followed an early Australian colonising script which to all intents and purposes involved the cliche surrounding concepts of an imagined Arcadia with the noble savage standing on one leg holding a spear whilst peering intently toward an imagined horizon. And of course what I gleaned from the media at the time which was and continues to be inherently negative with regard Indigenous Australian and Torres Strait Islander peoples.” (6)
Fulfilling our vision would see us achieve the objective of Closing the Gap in the life experiences of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians across key indicators. However, our agenda is more than just material wellbeing. We are not content to achieve social and economic development but lose our identities, languages or cultures—we do not want assimilation. (7)
“My original intention of involving myself with the department of Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art (CAIA) situated at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, Brisbane, was to primarily undertake family research. Initially the art practice was of a secondary importance to me. However it didn’t take long for me to realise the heightened levels of satisfaction I gained from the processes of researching and expressing that research in ways that I’d never before considered.
Now I’m probably not the best person with words and yet the forum underpinned by CAIA – that of research followed by the exhibiting of distilled thoughts which in turn extend the original artistic premise toward a comprehensive understanding of the three dimensional art object – is so much more powerful than any words that I could choose to use. Perhaps this relates somewhat to the levels of pragmatism I’ve learnt to employ throughout my life, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that the English language is a central part of the colonisation process.
In fact I view the English text and language as a colonising binary that has been utilised in attempting to force and maintain a form of acceptably white homogenisation upon conquered cultures. It forcibly removes the rights of individuals and ‘Others’ to pursue culturally specific activities. And yet what I’ve found throughout my association with CAIA is that the artistic processes I’ve learnt and implemented successfully navigate around this binary and very much become a communicable visceral experience for the viewer.
And so it’s no surprise that my work operates around concepts of colonisation and colonising technologies and utilising those technologies in a way that excites me artistically as opposed to their prescribed use. At the forefront of my mind is subverting these technologies to make them my own within the matrix of Urban Aboriginal mark making, thereby arriving at the table with a conversation that encompasses both production and consumption and unpacking how this in and of itself can readily translate to blood.” (8)
The nature of the palimpsest is two-fold; it preserves the distinctness of individual texts, while exposing the contamination of one by the other. Therefore, even though the process of layering which creates a palimpsest was born out of a need to erase and destroy previous texts, the re-emergence of those destroyed texts renders a structure that privileges heterogeneity and diversity. (9)
Strangely whilst both heterogeneity and diversity are high on the white rhetorical list of descriptors for a free democratic contemporary Australian society, as an Urban Aboriginal man in search of family, this form of rhetoric quickly disintegrates toward rightfully resembling a form of unhinged white sophistry. There are of course limits to the levels of heterogeneity and diversity a privileged white society can be seen to be upholding, especially in relation to the Indigenous populations of this country. This is simply a disgraceful indictment on the severity and the unceasing ruthlessness of the colonisers intention which has been enforced since arrival. (10)
“Now the Family Landscape series of works basically started at an exhibition held at The Hold Gallery in 2014. The works were produced in part by the ideas surrounding a palimpsest and in particular a personal desire to erase that which has overwritten Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. The original idea was to critique the educational system with specific relation to what I was or more importantly what I wasn’t taught at school as a child. And so early examples of the reductive processes that I utilise can be seen in works such as the studio based reductive processes of 2013 that exploited the blackboard covered with chalk and importantly the action of erasure.
The machine that I put to use in the early reductive processes effectively squirted timed blasts of water that removed elements of the chalked up blackboard. This machine was handheld. However over time the machine has developed from this humble beginning to a system that brings into play hacked 3D printing technology. With this comes the X or horizontal axis and the Y or vertical axis. I’m able to then program the machine to precisely control where the head of the printer will travel.
Where 3D printing is an additive process I’ve substituted the original head of the printer with a fuel injector powered by a driver that squirts controlled amounts of water in a predetermined sequence which corrupts what the machine was initially designed to do.
This redeployment of the 3D printer can be viewed as achieving a sucessful outcome. For myself the additive processes involved in most forms of printing becomes a metaphor for the colonisers expropriation of Indigenous culture, language and country. This attempt of writing over an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history is a globally favoured colonising trope.” (11)
With specific reference to Australia it remains a ‘problem’ that continues to this day, in my mind, firmly consolidating itself with Prime Minister John Howard’s orchestration and employment of Keith Windschuttle and the conservative voice of the government sponsored Quadrant magazine in initialising the now infamous Australian history wars. A prime example of this intransigent attitude can be found in Windschuttle’s self-published ‘magnum opus’, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. As Robert Manne goes to great lengths to explain, much of Fabrication is false, employs an intellectual methodology of overt poverty and is nothing other than under researched racist pulp. (12)
“However, the second breakthrough development of my artistic processes involved the preparation of the backing board. Whereas initially this involved rubbing chalk on a primed blackboard it wasn’t long before I considered this as a slightly one dimensional way of achieving what I wanted. And yet it was through the experimentations with incrementally reducing the surface white chalk from the blackboard that I became enamoured with the residues as they freely dripped onto the floor. This inspired me to modify my spray gun which resulted in the application of many extremely thin layers of ochre onto the board or wall that I then finish with layerings of calcium carbonate which is more commonly known as crushed limestone.
This technique of application gives me a wonderfully even surface with no bleed through. The ochre literally disappears under the carbonate. Blink and you miss the results of process and conceptually inspired experimentations within a studio environment. And it was through this constancy of experimentation that I began to see these residues of ochre and limestone as being indicative of the story I wanted to tell. These residues readily stain any surface that they come into contact with and become increasingly difficult to erase. It was through my infatuation with these residues that I began to understand that metaphorically they enact the colonisation of people and clearly allows us all to bear witness to that which remains post colonisation. The uncovering of histories. This is the point that my practice departed from the school blackboard and onto what I consider a celebration of family and that of country.
Initially the objective was to employ the technology to gradually reveal images of my grandmother and great grandmother. And while I can still see these images there was a moment in the studio where I realised that the objects wanted to be landscapes of the West Kimberly region.
This was a significant moment for me, for as I was unhappy with what I was endeavouring to produce and as intent as I was to create portraits of mimi and my great grandmother, the surface demanded it all come back to country. Importantly, as the work required, it needed to be back to country.
In the Broome area there are an innumerable amount of tidal flats, rivulets, creeks and eddies that empty into the Indian ocean. And when viewing aerial photography of country it looks remarkably similar to the runoff of water, ochre and carbonate that is caught by the board that I place on the horizontal axis. It was at this moment that I realised how central this pooling of runoff was to the work. The importance of incorporating these stains into the exhibited work can be viewed for example when we look at Family Landscape #8. Now whilst bookending is viewed as a curatorial trope that when used correctly builds the energy of a well constructed exhibition, what I’ve done is simply acknowledged this by applying it to a single work. This can’t help but energise the central piece which keeps the eye moving.
To reiterate, my work throughout its development relies a lot on myself catching fleeting glimpses of specific instances of processes as they play out in the studio environment to actually take the next step forward. Now whilst this methodology can be critiqued as a chance event, it is simply one of the many ways artists choose to create. The underlaying material events that take place within a studio environment have for myself unashamedly become the backbone to my practice.
Thinking, researching, feeling and observing the doing and undoing of what unfolds in the studio are all an accepted part of recalibrating an artistic practice for myself. And where initially my practice was augmented by the shame involved in not being able to produce exactly what I had set out to achieve what I’ve come to accept is the importance of observation and listening as drivers for ongoing artistic developments.
And as much as I don’t like aspects that seemingly echo thoughts of the fear of failure, what I’ve come to realise is that an overcoming of this fear in itself can bring forward new opportunities and new ways of seeing.
Importantly I don’t want to lose this aspect to my work. However this is not something you can channel or have any control over, it is not a certified procedure that you can take with any certainty. It simply is what it is and as an artist I’ve learnt to take from it. And whilst this ‘it’ may reside in the unconscious or metaphysical I tend to view it a little more pragmatically as a form of cataloguing a range of mistakes, false starts and failures with thoughts of actually learning something that can be incorporated into future works.
What I’ve seen and learnt from visiting my aunty back on country following my time within CAIA can be seen as nothing short of remarkable. Certainly I had learnt a lot more about country, moiety protocols and culture and certainly I felt a lot more informed and empowered to return. And yet on my most recent trip I went with the intention of interviewing aunty. On reflection I realise just how uncomfortable she felt with respect to this mooted interview and likely viewed it more as a form of interrogation. And in all reality I later realised that I’d approached the interview with the attitude of an early Anthropologist. However, when I bought it up she suggested that we go fishing. Now Aunty’s fishing trips – as opposed to just heading down to the beach – usually involve a three day process of getting out and into country.
As a result Aunty actually gave me so much more that meant a great deal to me at the time. I will always recollect this moment where she gently reminded me of what it is that country signifies. The songs of a place, the smell of an area, a certain feeling under foot and temperature. In fact you feel your senses expanding in their capacity to read and experience country. It is nothing like a body of text that overlays what the experience was. It is a living, breathing experience. Something that cannot be taken away from you as it becomes you. It becomes a knowledge that authenticates a deeper understanding of country and where you stand within that place.
And so what you’ll see in all of my work are expressions of my Indigeneity. And the questioning of why the Indigenous aspect to my life was and to a degree continues to be denied. A capacity to place myself with family on country and a personal resolution of the concept of struggle. Existing in one world with a very strong connection to another. Whilst this physical and psychological dualism may not be considered a world changing struggle – in many ways I’m still trying to piece it all together – the main driver of my work then becomes that of an exploration of authenticity.” (13)
Completing his Bachelor of Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art in 2012, Robert continued at the Queensland College of Art accepting his Fine Art Honors in 2013. Currently Robert is a candidate for his Doctorate in Visual Arts at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, Brisbane and morphs between a sessional lecturer and tutor at the same institution. The artworks of Robert Andrew have been exhibited extensively throughout Australia including though not limited to, Endless Circulation, TarraWarra Museum of Art, Healesville, Victoria in 2016. Moving Backwards into the Future at the Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria in 2015 and Solid! at the Cairns Regional Gallery in 2014. Robert has numerous works in both private and public collections. Of note his work has been collected by the National Gallery of Victoria, the St Andrew’s Hospital Collection and Gadens Lawyers. In 2015 Robert was a finalist in the Churchie National Emerging Art Prize, Griffith University Art Gallery, Queensland. He was a finalist in the Geelong Contemporary Art Prize, Geelong Gallery, Victoria in 2016 and in the same year achieved short listing as a finalist in the R&M McGivern Painting Prize.
All images courtesy and © copyright the artist. All text courtesy and © copyright the authors. All rights reserved.
Please feel free to connect with the work of Robert Andrew through either of the following links:
Resources and Further Reading.
1. Morphy, H. Aboriginal Art, Phaidon Press Limited, London, 1998.
2. Neill, R. ‘Culture reigns on the Seine’, The Australian, p.14, October 12, 2004.
3. Genocchio, B. ‘Opinion’, The Australian, March 14, 2001.
4. Verghis, S. “Indigenous Art and Stereotypes a Bark up the Wrong Tree.” The Sydney Morning Herald, July 10, 2002.
5. Chapman, K. Spirit and Vision, Aboriginal Art, 2004.
6. Robert Andrew in conversation with Simon Marsh, Griffith University Art Gallery, The Churchie Art Prize, September 2015.
7. Empowered Communities. Our Vision, 2016. Taken from, http://empoweredcommunities.org.au/vision.aspx
8. Above n6.
9. Bornstein, George and Williams, Ralph G. Palimpsest: Editorial Theory in the Humanities. The University of Michigan, 1993.
11. Above n6.
13. Above n6.
Chapman, Katrina. Positioning urban Aboriginal art in the Australian Indigenous art market. Asia Pacific Journal of Arts & Cultural Management. University of South Australia. At http://apjacm.arts.unimelb.edu.au/
Neale, Margo. Learning to be proppa : Aboriginal artists collective ProppaNOW. At https://www.artlink.com.au/
Kleinert, Sylvia and Koch, Grace, eds. Urban Representations: Cultural expression, identity and politics. At http://aiatsis.gov.au/