An exhibition of Aboriginal art at the Auckland Art Gallery traces an arc from the country's bloody colonial history to today's diversity of experience. Adam Gifford reports

Bruce McLean grew up dancing. When his grandfather was thrown off the Cherbourg Mission 300km west of Brisbane for demanding wages, he moved to the city and became part of its Aboriginal society, helping to establish social services. McLean, of the Wirri/Birri-Gubba people, kept his large extended family connected to the country through activities such as dance, both for meaningful cultural opportunities and as a way of raising money.

So when McLean, the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art's curator of indigenous Australian art, selected works from the 1100 items in the gallery's collection it was not as an outsider but as someone who grew up engaging with traditional ideas and practices - and engaged with what Aboriginal people have been through and where they are now.

The show can be read as a part of a dialogue about what Aboriginal art is and how it fits in the wider context of Australian contemporary art.

Rather than visitors starting in the desert with the dreaming paintings, they walk into a room of artists grappling with colonial history. It was a history that brought blood and suffering and, as Fiona Foley shows in her photographic re-enactment of a woman being seized from a Queensland beach, slavery.


A highlight is Carnavon Collision (Big Map) from 2006. It shows artist Vincent Serico's traditional country around the Dawson River in southern Queensland overlaid with figures representing incidents in the 1850s when clashes with settlers led to a long-running attempt to wipe out his Jiman people.

It was Serico's last painting, done in a larger format than his usual output, and is a rare example of an Aboriginal view of a story usually told, if at all, by white historians.

In the next room, Vernon Ah Kee has taken two small photographs of his grandfather, Kuku Yalandji, taken in the 1930s as part of an ethnographic study aimed at recording a dying race, and drawn them to heroic scale, alongside a portrait of his infant son. He says the aim of the 2005 work was to present the idea of the Aborigine as a contemporary human, stripped of ideas of noble savage, romantic, virtuous, good, bad.

"As Aboriginals we relate to each other as people, but that's not the way Australians relate to us, so I wanted to show emotional depth, sophistication, intelligence, what everyone else in Australia is allowed to be but not us," Ah Kee says.

His son gazes out of the drawing with the same stubborn intensity of his grandfather and father, showing "we won't go away".

The middle part is artists' responses to contemporary issues. McLean says that by going through the collection he was able to identify clusters of works about issues such as deaths in custody, racism, the Stolen Generation and Kevin Rudd's apology.

For her work on the Palm Island riot that followed the 2004 death in custody of Mulrunji Cameron Doomadgee, Judy Watson pushed red and grey pigment into canvas, backgrounding a series of white curves such as Mulrunji's broken rib bones. (The arresting officer, Chris Hurley, was tried for murder but acquitted by a jury.)

Gordon Hookey responded to the rise of Pauline Hanson, and of John Howard's use of her as a weathervane to see how far he could push repressive policies, by painting the pair on opposite sides of a punching bag.

The piece shows signs of wear, as in some venues viewers have seen the boxing gloves that go with the piece, painted with the Aboriginal colours of black for the people, red for blood or the land, and yellow for the sun, as an invitation to get some hits in.

Hookey also created the Kangaroo Crew installation, a free area at the end of the exhibition where kids can make kangaroo masks and posters, play arcade games and let rip.

The last section includes some of the desert or dreaming paintings that may be more like what people think of as Aboriginal art.

For McLean, these are not just the attempt by an older generation to show their children and grandchildren the cultural meaning of the country they have been taken away from, but they also can provide the money to take their grandchildren back to the country and even establish outstations.

"Toyotas don't grow on trees."

The paintings also assert themselves as contemporary objects.

Doreen Reid's painting of ridged lines is like the sand on the stony desert she comes from. She has created the shimmer that is prized as a signifier of water in the desert, and like all her work it is Untitled although they all have a story behind them.

The room also contains From Dreamtime to Machine Time, a 1979 painting by Trevor Nickolls, one of the first city-based Aboriginal artists to make an impact. Nickolls' painting seemed to be viewed with a certain awe by the artists who came for the show's opening.

"There is a debate about where desert painting sits - it's not pure enough for a museum but where does it sit in the context of art history, particularly as viewed by western people who run those institutions.

"In the Australian context those works are firmly ensconced in those museums, but as a museum curator and also as someone who has a strong history in the Brisbane community and a strong political history as well, I have a particular focus on representing the realities of most Aboriginal people. The exhibition we had at GOMA was mostly contemporary works.

"Often when you see exhibits in state galleries, particularly when you see touring exhibitions, nearly all the works are from the desert, and that contributes to this idea of the singular identity or idea of the Aboriginal person, the Aboriginal artist and culture, whereas the reality is it is a lot more dynamic.

"It's very diverse and not homogenous, so there are lots of different voices and experiences."

Gordon Hookey feels little in common with the desert painters.

"As a blackfella artist I have more in common with whitefella artists than tradition-oriented artists in the desert or the bark painters, simply because I am operating in the discourse [of contemporary art]," he says.

"With urban-based artists, culture is a dynamic and diverse thing that is constantly changing, and we are making art about that change."

The proppaNOW collective to which Hookey and several of the other artists in the show belong have critiqued the time warp in which desert art is placed, in particular through Richard Bell's essay Bell's Theorem: Aboriginal art, it's a white thing.

Their challenge is to be seen as part of Australian contemporary art, rather than put in the box labelled "Aboriginal".

"We all live in Brisbane and none of us have been shown at APT (Brisbane's Asia Pacific Triennial)," says Vernon Ah Kee, who is also in proppaNOW.

"The fact of us identifying as Aboriginal people clouds the way the galleries, the festivals, the biennales, the collections, the acquisitions budgets see us all."


What: My Country: Contemporary Art from Black Australia
Where and when: Auckland Art Gallery, to July 20