Urban Aboriginal art has developed in parallel with
the rapid growth in Aboriginal art activity in more remote areas.
Artists in urban settings and in the larger Australian cities
during the 1960s and 1970s began using art as a means of powerful
social comment and political expression.
Urban artists have experimented in a wide variety
of media and modes of expression - ranging from paintings, prints
and pottery to photography, digital work and installations.
They have often had to battle against a stereotyping of Aboriginal
art which sees works in ochre or on bark as being more "authentic"
than work using non-traditional techniques and media. While
the attraction of traditional work is strong, it is unfortunate
if this diminishes appreciation of the authentic, living culture
which we see in the work of contemporary Aboriginal artists
using different media.
Many urban Aboriginal artists now see themselves as being squarely
in the mainstream of contemporary Australian art and refuse
to be differentiated or marginalised into a separate category
of contemporary art. Artists asserting their identity in this
way have included Gordon
Foley, Richard Bell, Sally
Morgan and the late Lin
Onus. Judy Watson made this point at a visual arts conference
in late 1999 when she objected to a request from a major auction
house to categorise her work for an auction as either "Aboriginal"
or "Contemporary" - but not both.
Urban artists live in those areas of the country where the initial
impact of colonisation was most strongly felt. Many of them are self
taught, though an increasing number have taken part in formal training
at art schools. Their work looks to Aboriginal sources for inspiration
and is informed by Western, and occasionally other, art traditions.
Origins of Urban Aboriginal Art
The recorded history of such art dates back to the late nineteenth
Barak and Tommy McRae from Victoria are among the
best known of a number of artists who were commissioned by local settlers
to produce naturalistic sketches of Aboriginal life, usually of ceremonies
and hunting. These images are a rare record of contemporary life,
seen through Aboriginal eyes.
Well into the twentieth century, many urban Aboriginal artists continued
to make and paint artefacts, such as decorated boomerangs, which were
largely regarded by the art world as souvenir items or, at best, as
folk art. Apart from the intrinsic value of these works, they continued
artistic practices and allowed Aboriginal perspectives to persist
Artists such as Ronald Bull (1942-1979) and Kevin
Gilbert (1933-1993) became role models for the current
generation of artists. Into the 1970s, as bark paintings and then
canvases from the desert became more popular, the art of city-based
Aborigines was still regarded as not authentically Aboriginal and
therefore neglected. This attitude reflected generally held views
about urban Aboriginal people.
Developments in the 1980s
The Contemporary Aboriginal Art Exhibition at Bondi Pavilion
in 1983 and Koori Art'84 , organised by a group of Sydney-based
artists, were landmark exhibitions which heralded the emergence
of urban artists. However the continued lack of opportunities
for these artists resulted in the formation of cooperatives,
such as the Boomalli Aboriginal
Artists Cooperative established in Sydney in 1987, to provide
shared studio and exhibition space. The greater exposure and
critical acclaim gained by these artists saw them recognised
by a larger audience.
The themes and subjects of contemporary urban artists are as varied
as their backgrounds and the materials in which they work, although
a common thread of Aboriginality pervades their art.
Artists such as Trevor
Nickolls and Sally Morgan
explore the notion of Aboriginal identity in a world where this
has been denied to them. The paintings of Robert
Campbell Jnr (now deceased) reflect the history of interaction
between black and white people. Pooaraar (Bevan Heywood), a
printmaker, looks to continuing local artistic traditions and
celebrates pre-contact ideals. Indeed prints and political posters
have been the most popular medium for urban artists.
The search for a distinct artistic language is evident in the paintings
of Lin Onus and Gordon Bennett. Urban, and rural, Aboriginal artists
are breaking through the barriers of prejudice and neglect to establish
themselves as artists in their own right. Their work is at the leading
edge of Australian art and reflects perspectives on Australian society
which previously had been rarely acknowledged.
Note: the above article is based on the entry "Urban Art"
in the Encyclopaedia
of Aboriginal Australia - used with permission from AIATSIS.