1. Getting hooked on Aboriginal art

I need to go back to the mid 1990s to consider how, and why, I became interested in Aboriginal art, though a late 1996 diary entry states bluntly ‘I’m not sure how I first became interested in Aboriginal art’.

It began with a feeling rather than an objective. I didn’t really know where, or how, to begin and I wasn’t thinking about ‘learning’ about Aboriginal art, so much as just looking at some with no particular aim in mind. 

As an Australian adult I felt I should know more about Aboriginal people and culture. In my formal school education I’d learned very little about Aboriginal-Australian history and virtually nothing about art. It seemed there was something lacking in my life. I had read the occasional book, seen a few films and attended some exhibitions, but nothing stands out… though Yothu Yindi’s album ‘Treaty’ was one of my favourites in the early 1990s.

The first place I recall going to specifically to see Aboriginal art was the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. It housed Aboriginal art on the lowermost floor in the Yiribana Gallery. I was impressed but unsure about what I was looking at, and there was so much variety. I wrote in my diary after that visit, ‘I was not confident that I could go along there since I thought I might stand out as the person who didn’t know anything about this’.

I asked Yiribana’s volunteer staff where to see Aboriginal art in Sydney and they suggested three commercial galleries: Utopia Art Sydney, Hogarth’s and Cooee, each of which I subsequently visited. On work trips to Melbourne I visited Gallery Gabriele Pizzi, Australian Gallery of Dreamings and Kimberley Art. In the mid to late 1990s I attended numerous exhibitions and gravitated toward art from the Kimberley region and Central Australia. I appreciated staff who had their own opinions about what they liked and didn’t like. My longest conversations were with Christopher Hodges at his unassuming upstairs gallery, Utopia Art Sydney, in Stanmore, a Sydney suburb. [The master from Marnpi, pages 15-16]

Aboriginal art gave me a new interest outside of work and family, a casual outing on Saturday afternoons. I went to new places and met new people, and saw a range of art from around Australia; too much to absorb. It was a little like a hobby or a pastime, a pleasant change to my regular work engagements – designing and conducting adult education programs.

I tended to think that all Aboriginal art was ‘amazing’ and became increasingly interested in the ‘story’ aspect of the paintings, rather than the artist’s technique. I began buying books for beginners on Aboriginal art. I attended Aboriginal art auctions in Sydney and Melbourne and soaked up the catalogues. Aboriginal art sales' records were being set and broken at Sotheby’s Aboriginal art auctions so it was a fascinating time to be an onlooker.

Soon enough my involvement led to buying. At first I bought a few small paintings without knowing a lot about the artists or their work. I didn’t know how to evaluate what gallery staff told me, so I tended to accept everything, slowly learning to become more discerning. I liked talking with people who had met Aboriginal artists and I was easily impressed. At the outset I had no collecting objectives or criteria. 

In the mid 1990s we had a family Christmas holiday in Perth so I visited the Art Gallery of Western Australia’s collection. I found out about the Creative Native gallery in the city and other outlets in Fremantle. I met and was inspired by the manager, Steve McGrath, with his entertaining stories of outback travels and his work with several artists.

The first painting I bought was by Gladys Kemarre, a senior woman from the Utopia region north-east of Alice Springs. I purchased it from the Creative Native gallery. It’s an acrylic on canvas dot work – an amorphous field of red, green and yellow dots, representing the Bush Plum story. We still have that work on our wall and we (Helen and I) still like it.

One habit I started in those early years was keeping a diary – exhibitions, auctions, snippets of conversations. In late 1996 I gathered together my notes and scraps of paper to type up a summary of thoughts and experiences, and sat down at my computer.

These were my initial headings:

  • An emerging interest
  • Early connections
  • Gallery at the Rocks
  • Emily leaps into view
  • The Hogarth Gallery
  • Starting an art file
  • Dealing with art and acquisition syndrome, or ‘jee I wish I had that one’
  • My motivations and purchase of works, names, dates and events
  • Galleries and exhibitions attended

I was actively looking for advice too. At an art talk by Fay Nelson at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on 16 May 1997 I wrote down these tips:

1 It helps you to appreciate Aboriginal art if you understand more about it first,

2 Need to know where the art comes from, and,

3 It’s helpful to know the story associated with the art or with a particular painting.

My first outback trip was a thrilling adventure to Australia’s remote outback, to see Aboriginal art. I saw over five hundred paintings in five days… I’ll tell you all about it in Blog #2.

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