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On entering Future Perfect’s intimate gallery space, visitors were met by a mesmerising plane of colour and form. Dispersed over an earthy-green expanse, yellow dots, red strokes and black markings gravitated towards a central cluster, pulsating with gentle rhythm in spite of their fixed state. The piece—an acrylic painting on canvas by indigenous artist Maudie Jerrold—was a representation of Coolabah Seeds common to arid coastal regions of Western Australia. Yet this fact seemed secondary to the work’s invocation of ineffable forces, and the dependency of symbolic form on visual structures to convey meaning.
Such meditations on form and content were characteristic throughout Yinjaa-Barni. The exhibition displayed a concise selection of recent paintings by three artists belonging to the eponymous artists’ group—Maudie Jerrold (b.1950), Aileen Sandy (b.1951) and Clifton Mack (b.1952). The group’s first presentation outside Australia, it delivered a focused look at contemporary Indigenous art from the region, all the while revealing subtle differences between the three artists’ practices in style and content. Evidence of the widening scope of Indigenous art today, Yinjaa-Barni provoked thinking about this kind of art’s mediation in a gallery context and its understanding by audiences less familiar with its formal lexicon.
If Maudie Jerrold’s dots, lines and strokes owe their lineage to traditional Aboriginal painting, they are by no means derivative. Rather, her works demonstrated a consummate use of foundational motifs that tested the veracity of human vision and fused emblems of the past and present. Picket Fence was almost anything but, its white slats barely visible beneath strokes of green, purple and coloured dots. It was an understated work, which revealed tensions between methods of land demarcation favoured by the West and the more immaterial strategies of Indigenous societies. In a similar vein, Rain-Bow alluded to the creator-ancestor figure of the rainbow serpent, but could also be read as a reflection on colour itself. The invasion of the rainbow’s spectrum by yellow-red spots, for instance, reminded viewers of the ephemeral nature of colour as a component of light.
Aileen Sandy’s minimalist paintings further stretched notions of nature and landscape. In contrast to the other artists, Sandy is relatively ‘new’ to painting (she has been painting since the last decade) and as a result, is arguably more radical in her interpretation of Aboriginal motifs. As if to illustrate this point, her work Blue Bells built up coloured lines in such a way that it was difficult to discern their logic. By discontinuing them at unexpected points, she defied logic per se, preferring more intuitive processes of structuring, like the basket weaving she also practices. Her allusion to materiality and particularly fabric also triggered a kind of haptic vision, whereby her works’ surfaces could be felt through the very act of looking.
The canvases by Yindjibarndi elder Clifton Mack were the most enigmatic of the exhibition because of their simultaneous tendencies towards abstraction and representation. Mack’s fields of dots, for example, equivocate between markings, strokes and convex shapes. In Ochre Through the Rocks and Increasing Site, sight was blurred, as in a desert haze where forms simultaneously recede, contract and expand. This ‘viscosity’ of vision is also a testament to Mack’s interest in bodies of water. In his Light House series, Jarman Island and Dawson’s Well, the artist depicts existing monuments from the Pilbara region that were created by European settlers to navigate the surrounding coastline and to draw water, respectively. There is a manifest ambiguity in Mack’s treatment of these vestiges of colonialism, which are rendered precarious through their painted construction. Although these works use a sense of perspective unusual in Indigenous painting, up close their two-dimensionality is revealed for all to see, their sense of depth created through simple combinations of colour and repetitive pattern.
Dawson’s Well was somewhat the black sheep of the exhibition; a status not only affirmed by its presence behind the dividing wall between the gallery space and office, but the work’s muted palette and utterly ambiguous content. A block of yellow bars clearly formed the well, but the ochre path leading up to it was as much a reference to water and blood spilt under colonial oppression. It was in this work that the back and forth between depth and planarity and the layering of multiple meanings within single entities were most prevalent.
This uncertainty over meaning, or rather its manifold forms, is intrinsic to Aboriginal painting. Within Indigenous societies, the right of a viewer to access spiritual meanings is determined by their social status within a kinship group, which also extends to the artist’s right to use certain idioms in their work; Clifton Mack’s grandfather was the Yindjibarndi community’s guardian of knowledge about water. When greater outside interest in Indigenous painting emerged in the 1960s and ’70s and artists transferred the materials and language of their art to painting on canvas, there were concerns among Indigenous people about the unregulated circulation of sacred Aboriginal motifs and meanings. These concerns led artists to invent new strategies that would safely conceal such meanings within their work, all the while remaining open to new interpretations by wider audiences.
In this sense, Yinjaa-Barni’s exhibition at Future Perfect was not as problematic as it could have been, given the awareness of its artists about issues of translation. Indeed, these paintings on canvas were likely made for the purpose of exhibition and thus clearly acknowledged their viewing context. The fullness of their meaning might have evaded a foreign audience, but they also enabled such an audience to find their own meaning through their complex structures, a search that was private and entirely subjective. This openness in interpretation had less to do with postmodernist refutations of meaning in art and more with these artists’ acknowledgment that all knowledge comes with a responsibility to question and act upon it. The artists in Yinjaa-Barni demonstrated a clear avowal of this responsibility, to stirring effect.
Clifton Mack, Dawson's Well, 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 1200 x 740mm. Courtesy of the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore.
Aileen Sandy, Colour of Rocks, 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 760 x 695mm. Courtesy of the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore.
Maudie Jerrold, Rain-Bow, 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 790 x 670mm. Courtesy of the artist and Future Perfect, Singapore.
Installation view. Courtesy of Future Perfect, Singapore.