Emerging Elders

honouring senior Indigenous artists

3 October 2009 – 14 June 2010 | Project Gallery

Events | Highlights | Listing


image: Ningura Napurrula Untitled 2006 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2009, Copyright the artist licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency, 2009

Ningura Napurrula Untitled 2006
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 2009
© the artist licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency, 2009

Within the arts, when we think of ‘emerging’, we think of ‘youth’. The two seem almost synonymous. However, in Indigenous Australian arts, beginning a career in painting or sculpture later in life is neither new nor uncommon. Quite the contrary is true: it is practically the norm for many Indigenous Australian artists living in remote or regional areas to start painting or sculpting after a lifetime of other endeavours.

Emily Kam Kngwarreye, Albert Namatjira and Rover Thomas are just some of the many famous Aboriginal people whose works have had a significant impact on the artists’ own communities as well as a huge cultural and aesthetic impact on the arts nationally and internationally. The recent explosion of diverse styles, designs and various depictions of ancestral stories has further enriched non-Indigenous peoples’ understanding of and exposure to Indigenous culture. This can be seen through the significant rise in interest in Indigenous art in the commercial market.

The artists featured in Emerging Elders are self-taught and have only recently, over the last decade, created and consistently shown their work throughout Australia. Although considered emerging artists, years of personal experience and cultural knowledge inform their work. Their ability to visualise significant stories gives rise to some of Australia’s most dynamic and stunning contemporary works of art.

This year’s National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) theme of ‘Honouring our Elders, nurturing our youth’ has inspired this exhibition. Elders perform a vital and honoured role in Indigenous society. They are admired and respected as keepers and enforcers of law, stories and culture. They guide communities today as they have done for generations. Because of their cultural knowledge, wisdom and strength, Indigenous culture is as strong and diverse today as it has been in the past. Art is intertwined with the economic, social, political and spiritual aspects of Indigenous life, and allows the ongoing transferral, maintenance and reinforcement of cultural knowledge.

There are many factors that determine the status of Elder. Traditionally, this status was bestowed on an individual after years of participating in ceremonies, maintaining important cultural protocols and abiding by and respecting instructions from senior members and other Elders within the community. This lifelong journey prepares them to lead their communities. For some, it is only when social demands diminish that they have time to further explore or produce their art. Not only does making art provide an economic benefit to their communities but it also allows for invaluable social interaction. The singing, storytelling and performance that often accompany the making of a work are also useful ways to teach and share knowledge with younger artists.

image: Weaver Jack Yulparija people Nannarri 2005 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 2006

Weaver Jack Yulparija people Nannarri 2005
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 2006

In many communities, only certain individuals or families receive the right or authority to paint particular designs and stories passed down through the generations—and usually only after an artist has served an ‘apprenticeship’ or long periods of tuition with senior artists. Individual and collective histories are often reflected in Indigenous art, whether in the retelling of cultural stories about law and ancestral creations or in the abstract and literal depictions of country. This gradual transfer of cultural knowledge reinforces the power and integrity of the stories depicted in Indigenous art. Unfortunately, the life expectancy of Aboriginal people living in remote area is far shorter than that of non-Indigenous Australians, which also means that many artists’ careers are often short-lived.
The works in Emerging Elders are bold and contrasting and they illuminate the individual artists’ culture and individuality. The Gallery recognises the important role Indigenous Elders play in our society and their valuable contribution to the arts, and is honoured to showcase the many diverse but complementary Indigenous works in the national collection. These important works of art will no doubt engage audiences on many different levels.

Tina Baum
Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art