Ted Snell On The Emergence of Contemporary Aboriginal Art

Professor Ted Snell is Director of the Cultural Precinct at the University of Western Australia. Over the past two decades he has contributed to the national arts agenda through his role as Chair of the Australian Council of University Art and Design Schools, Chair of Artbank, Chair of the Asialink Visual Arts Advisory Committee and as a Board member of the National Association for the Visual Arts. He is currently Chair of the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council.

In this interview Ted reflects on his personal experience of the emergence of contemporary art, the first paintings he collected and how Western audiences view art.

Aboriginal Art in Australia in the 1950’s

Q: For a long time there was no interest in aboriginal art in mainstream Australia. When did the first signs of interest in Australian aboriginal art appear in the broader population?

There was a change in tide, an interest in aboriginal Australia that was from the '50's. It tended to be on the kitsch end of appreciation, this included great spreads in the Women's Weekly. Everybody in Australia knew about Namatjira. Everybody was aware of Margaret Preston's appropriation of aboriginal patterning rather than really understanding what it meant but just as pure visual decoration.

There was a general interest in taking aboriginal cultures and meshing it with contemporary Australian ideas of a vibrant society. That was as long as it was moving more into the western than the other way around. Hence, the experience of an artist like Namatjira and what he had to go through. The Carollup School is another example of that. I certainly didn't know anything about it when I was a kid. Those works toured the world and Mary Durack wrote the book Child Artists of the Bush. That was published and went with the exhibition. All of a sudden it became quite an international movement. People were really interested in the artistic ability of these kids in Katanning. I guess that was part of that general interest in how aboriginal culture might integrate with European culture through the '50's.

First Contemporary Aboriginal Art Purchase

Q: When do you remember first seeing contemporary aboriginal art in Perth?

I guess my first memory is going to see Mary Macha at the top end of St. Georges Terrace and walking into that gallery and seeing all of the work she had been gathering together. This was 1973 and I was just completely blown away because I was really unaware of it. There weren't too many outlets in Perth where you could find this work back in those early days. It was really surprised to see such diversity.

I bought a Wandjina painting for my friends. Mary said to me, "I've got something really interesting in the back room. You really should have a look at his work." It was work by Rover Thomas. I said, "Oh they're great." Sadly at the time I couldn’t afford the $220 to buy one. Those were my first experiences and memories of contemporary aboriginal art that wasn't strictly traditional art as you would see in the Kimberley.

Geoffrey Bardon

Q: What was the reception to the acrylic works on canvas produced with the assistance of Geoffrey Bardon in Papunya in the early 1970’s?

The first reception of that was, "This isn't true original aboriginal art because it's acrylic on canvas." Then after a period of time, when it was much more available, it all of a sudden started to infiltrate people's visual memory and visual field. There still wasn't a lot of work to see.

Our generation, as we were growing up, saw very little work. There was no opportunity and really almost no contact with aboriginal people. The current Welfare Dreaming exhibition points out through that map of exclusion, which includes all the western suburbs, the whole city and southern bank of the Swan River. Aboriginal people weren't allowed to be there from dawn until dusk. It's not surprising we didn't know about aboriginal people in our early lives.

Then, all of a sudden, post Geoffrey Bardon, post the movement in the central desert, Papunya and all of a sudden proliferation of material and then it started to be reproduced in magazines. Then I think people started to see that this was something that was not separate and the art of the other or whatever. It was actually a part of an Australian understanding of what contemporary culture and contemporary life is about.

The Stand Out Jimmy Pike Exhibition

Q: Were there any early exhibitions that particularly stood out for you?

I do remember one very important exhibition and that was the Jimmy Pike exhibition. The first one that was held at Praxis in Fremantle. David from here at Japingka and Steve had been working with Jimmy in the prison. We still have the painting we bought at that exhibition. I love that painting. It was a painting of a waterhole. That would have been early 1980’s.

More recently I've heard Jimmy Pike's family say Jimmy used to talk about his deed. "We got to paint our country before we lose it."

Mary McLean at The Fremantle Art Centre

Then, Mary McLean was the other big exhibition. John Keane had an exhibition of Mary McLean's work in the Fremantle Art Centre. I bought a couple of small ones from that show. It was probably a bit later, but that was maybe the early ’90’s.

How Contemporary Aboriginal Art Was Received Internationally

Q: Tell us about what was going on in the broader art world when contemporary aboriginal art started to first appear.

Large non-figurative works, abstraction, had been dying a slow death because it was seen as being vacuous and without substance. All of a sudden, here is this work which is so charged and so full of meaning and yet it is, in many senses, similar to the formalist ideas that were underlying this form of abstraction.

Everyone was very fond of abstraction. It was a practice that everybody wanted to engage with. Then conceptual art and the trans-avante garde art came along with all of the new movements of appropriation. I think that was the moment when people started to realise internationally that abstraction had had its day. People started thinking ”Okay abstraction is then just pointless, vacuous nonsense. Why would we be interested in that?" Then all of a sudden, contemporary aboriginal art appeared and people felt "Ah. This has meaning. It has significance. It is telling very important narratives. It is carrying forward a history which would be forgotten without it.”

How Audiences View Art

Q: What can you tell us about how Western audiences view art?

The first thing that they do, Westerners or European traditionalists, is to go and look at the label. You read the label and then you stand back and look at the work. Then you go back and check the label again. It's always the label first. The words always have the privilege.

When you think about these things, it's so silly because really it's the work itself which is going to tell you so much more. The label actually will probably send you off in a whole different direction, which has got to be quite unhelpful. What does it look like? I don't care what it looks like like. Art is much more about energy - what energy does the work bring with it?  What is the emotional impact?

That's probably much more important than knowing it's done by a particular artist from a particular period with a language or a skin group. All of that sort of overlay of European knowledge doesn't help you come to an understanding what the work is about.