Ballardong Noongar artist Rohin Kickett discusses the way Noongar art is sometimes approached. Lack of respect from key institutions builds hurdles to developing artistic practice and arts management strength.
Cultural Gate Keeping
Sometimes I think of our institutions as cultural gate keepers. These are places like our universities and major art galleries. Projects are funded and evaluated by people who come from these institutions and subscribe to many of the values and filters that they represent. For example, university educated curators define what is contemporary art and what is a lesser product that might be described as "touristy" art. It's a sorting process.
Historical Focus On Regional Aboriginal Art
Some Aboriginal groups benefit, others, like the Noongar culture, have been assigned a lesser value. They have been dismissed as just "tourist" art over a very long time and for this reason, Noogar artists have attracted a much lower level of attention and investment. You'll see this positive bias toward regional Aboriginal art over urban Aboriginal art repeated in other states. It's not just an issue in Western Australia. It's a complex problem that artists from more urban communities need to address.
Noogar contemporary art practice has been largely ignored during a time when support for more regional West Australian art practice has increased. Contemporary Aboriginal art studios have thrived in the regions and we've seen artists go from strength to strength as a result of that support. This progress has been reflected in the development of higher levels of artistic and management skill.
Demand From Public Art Projects
During that same period there has been less energy spent on the nurturing of Noongar culture, both at an artistic and organisation level. The recent rapid rise in demand for public Noongar public art has highlighted how very few artists are in a position to respond to that demand. There is also little management skill or ethical practice in place to guide this new wave of emerging Noongar artists.
Noongar art needs to be nurtured. Firstly, I'd to see it respected for what it is. It's been ignored and dismissed because people who assign artistic merit are not accepting it as the roots of something that can grow. There is a reluctance to show our work in institutional spaces because of a stigma that is attached to Noongar art. I feel as though institutional filtering is not allowing it to flourish and develop over time as other communities have been encouraged to develop over time. I'm not saying there are no advocates working hard for change. What I'm saying is that there is still a great deal of work to be done to open the doors for Noongar artists. There are still double standards and I find that frustrating.
Noongar Artists Need to Lead
I feel Noongar artists can't rely on these external institutions. We have to do things for ourselves. We need to do our own thing. We can't rely on institutions to help us. That was one of the main reasons why I wanted to start The Noongar Artist Collective because we have to have that autonomy. We can't be reliant on westernised views to define our worth and potential. To me, the institutions are often still upholding colonial values, and they don't realise it. It is an institutionalised way of viewing the world.
I use the term institutionalised and I refer it to it as a prisoner would view a prision. When someone has been in prison for ten plus years, they can often struggle to live outside that prison. This is because they are institutionalised into the system they have been living in. I find it very much the same within the arts. Once people go to university, they are indoctrinated into this system. They go into the arts and it's the same system and they can't function outside of it. It's very hard for them to comprehend anything outside it, particularly when it comes to art, because art is something that's so free and so vast. What they're teaching and what they know is a little splitter and that's what these institutionalised artists put on the canvas.
Sometimes I feel as though institutions are actually suffocating Noongar art. They're stifling it because they won't engage, support and exhibit. Young artists aren't seeing Noongar art exhibited, so there's nothing for them to be inspired by. That's when they get stuck in the trap. They go to a tourist shop, they'll see Noongar art done in a specific way. They then paint that way simply because that's what they see valued as Noongar art. They don't see Noongar art explored in a different way in institutions.
Young Artists Need To Develop Their Own Artistic Practice
I see public art as being almost a trap because it is easy money, whereas to sit in your studio and build a foundation and go on that journey of self discovery, that takes years. Before you enter public work, you should have that base foundation set. These artists are not getting that opportunity. They're being taken straight out of high school or they might have only been creating artworks for six months. Now they've been thrown into public work and I'm concerned about this. The fact is that they're getting money to do public work, but they're not really building a practice because you are doing public work. You have to tick so many boxes and your artwork has to incorporate this theme and it's so conservative and controlled. These young artists are not allowed much freedom. They haven't built a foundation for their art practice.
Right now I'm working hard to prepare for my solo show at Japingka Gallery. I'm keen to share that with younger members of my community. I want to encourage them to develop their own art practice and take contemporary Noongar art to a new place. I see this as the responsibility our own community needs to embrace. We need to advocate for ourselves, find supportive partnerships and break this mould. I see these as exciting times. There is a lot of work to do. A lot of problems to solve and conversations to be had. When it comes to contemporary Noongar art practice - I feel we're just getting started.
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