These joint acquisitions by MCA and Tate include three paintings by Helen Johnson (Seat of Power 2016, Bad Debt 2016, and A Feast of Reason and a Flow of Soul 2016), an installation by Richard Bell (Embassy 2013-ongoing) and a video by Peter Kennedy with John Hughes (On Sacred Land 1983-84). In May 2016, the two institutions acquired artworks by Susan Norrie, Vernon Ah Kee, Gordon Bennett and Judy Watson.
Helen Johnson comments: “It is an important moment for me to have these three paintings jointly acquired by the MCA and the Tate. Addressing, as they do, the depredations of British colonial culture in Australia, and some ways in which we perpetuate it, it feels appropriate for these works to be entering the shared custodianship of the MCA in Sydney and the Tate in London.”
Peter Kennedy and John Hughes add: “Specific to Australia, On Sacred Land – its subject matter and content – now has the potential to take its place in an international mainstream. Its inclusion in both Tate and MCA Collections adds significantly to its cultural value.”
Richard Bell concludes: “I’m very proud to be part of this project. I recognise the stature of the Tate and the MCA and the consequences of their acceptance of my work.”
Made possible through a $2.75 million corporate gift from the Qantas Foundation, this ground-breaking collaboration announced in 2015 is enabling an ambitious five-year joint program through which a range of major artworks by contemporary Australian artists will be acquired for the collections of MCA and Tate, owned and displayed by both institutions.
Richard Bell was born in 1953, Charleville, Queensland and lives and works in Brisbane. He is a member of the Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang communities and is a founding member of the Aboriginal artist collective proppaNow.
Bell works across video, painting, installation and text to address contemporary debates about identity, place and politics. Embassy, for example, is an installation that includes a large military-style canvas tent, with four painted placards that include proclamations of Aboriginal land rights and dispossession such as ‘White Invaders You Are Living on Stolen Land’; ‘…Why! Preach Democracy’; ‘…Wuz Robbed’ and a board that names the tent as the ‘Aboriginal Embassy’. The slogans are characteristic of the artist’s approach. Describing himself as an activist as well as an artist, Bell uses humour to highlight the serious and ongoing consequences of colonisation and its impact on race relations in Australia.
Bell’s Embassy has important historical antecedents. The world’s longest-running protest, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established on the lawn of Parliament House in Australia’s capital city Canberra in 1972 to challenge the status, treatment, and rights of Aboriginal people. As a direct quotation of this activist strategy of protest, Bell’s own Embassy (2013-) is a public space for imagining and articulating alternate futures and reflecting on or retelling stories of oppression and displacement.
The work includes Alessandro Cavadini’s Ningla A-Na (1972), and archival material of all past iterations of Embassy. Cavadini’s historically significant documentary – whose title translates as ‘hungry for land’ – tells the story of 1970s Aboriginal activism in South-East Australia. This film, along with other archival material associated with previous presentations of Embassy, can be used to activate the installation. Embassy also serves as the setting for a series of talks, performances, other screenings and workshops by performers, activists, artists and thinkers.
Helen Johnson was born in 1979 in Melbourne, Australia and lives and works in Melbourne.
In her paintings Johnson often addresses colonial history and its ongoing impact on Australia’s political and social realities. Her work blends figuration and abstraction, by representing people, animals and objects from the past in full and in fragments or silhouettes. She draws on a range of sources ranging from ‘emojis’ and cartoons to religious European painting and Greek mythology.
The complicated colonial relationship between Australia and Britain and the ongoing tension between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians are key ideas informing Johnson’s work. Bad Debt 2016, for instance, is a large unstretched acrylic painting on canvas that depicts layers of overlapping images, including a bedroom interior with a smashed window, non-indigenous animals, such as foxes and rabbits, and people dressed as a cat, a horse and a man. Foxes, rabbits and smallpox are examples of the species and diseases introduced to Australia by colonists. The painting’s composition is based on the layout of Australia’s capital, Canberra, which is one of the few capital cities worldwide designed from scratch. In 1911, the Chicago-based architect Walter Burley Griffin won the international competition to design the city. Despite his idealist approach, his plan ignored the original inhabitants of the land.
In the painting the combination of introduced animals and people dressed up painted over the architectural footprint of a constructed city portrays Australia as a country with an unstable and conflicted identity. Rather than being overtly political or literal, however, Johnson’s paintings convey a reflection of history and reality through the language of painting. Some images are more prominent while others are barely legible, implying that representation is always partial and subjective, rather than complete or absolute.
A selection of Helen Johnson’s paintings, which were co-commissioned by Artspace and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, will be shown at Artspace, Sydney in January 2018.
Peter Kennedy was born in 1945 in Brisbane, Australia and lives and works in Melbourne. He is a key figure of the Australian avant-garde scene of the 1960s and 1970s and has worked across different media, including film, video, performance, sound art and neon light installations. In 1971, together with Mike Parr and Tim Johnson, he established one of the first alternative art spaces in Australia: Inhibodress. This artists’ run space in Sydney focused on conceptual art and experimental performances.
John Hughes was born in 1948 and lives and works in Melbourne. Hughes’ projects cross boundaries of film, television and media art practice with video, gallery installation and film work. Presented nationally and internationally, his documentary projects explore Australian film, Indigenous rights and political and cultural activism and histories. His documentary output is formally innovative and research driven. A writer-director of essay films for broadcast and festivals, his published work advocates for the creative documentary.
The video On Sacred Land 1983-84 is a politically engaged and ground-breaking work of postmodern video art, which sets Australian Indigenous politics of the 1980s against the colonial and capitalist history of white management and institutionalisation, particularly in regard to issues of indigenous rights, self-determination and Native Title disputes. The title refers to sites that are sacred in Aboriginal culture but used and exploited by white Australians for financial reasons.
On Sacred Land exemplifies Kennedy and Hughes’ critical viewpoint on the colonial history of Australia and contemporary representations of ‘Aboriginality’, as well as imperialism and White domination of land in general. It typifies the serious political concern of both Kennedy and Hughes’ 1970s and 1980s works while being a pioneering work of video art, combining found film footage, photographs, drawings and newly filmed scenes in an experimental and yet accessible collage.