Urban Aboriginal art has developed in parallel with the rapid growth in Aboriginal art activity in more remote areas. Artists in urban settings and in the larger Australian cities during the 1960s and 1970s began using art as a means of powerful social comment and political expression.
Many urban Aboriginal artists now see themselves as being squarely in the mainstream of contemporary Australian art and refuse to be differentiated or marginalised into a separate category of contemporary art. Artists asserting their identity in this way have included Gordon Bennett, Judy Watson, Tracey Moffatt, Fiona Foley, Richard Bell, Sally Morgan and the late Lin Onus. Judy Watson made this point at a visual arts conference in late 1999 when she objected to a request from a major auction house to categorise her work for an auction as either “Aboriginal” or “Contemporary” – but not both.
Urban artists live in those areas of the country where the initial impact of colonisation was most strongly felt. Many of them are self taught, though an increasing number have taken part in formal training at art schools. Their work looks to Aboriginal sources for inspiration and is informed by Western, and occasionally other, art traditions.
Origins of Urban Aboriginal Art
The recorded history of such art dates back to the late nineteenth century. William Barak and Tommy McRae from Victoria are among the best known of a number of artists who were commissioned by local settlers to produce naturalistic sketches of Aboriginal life, usually of ceremonies and hunting. These images are a rare record of contemporary life, seen through Aboriginal eyes.
Well into the twentieth century, many urban Aboriginal artists continued to make and paint artefacts, such as decorated boomerangs, which were largely regarded by the art world as souvenir items or, at best, as folk art. Apart from the intrinsic value of these works, they continued artistic practices and allowed Aboriginal perspectives to persist in art.
Artists such as Ronald Bull (1942-1979) and Kevin Gilbert (1933-1993) became role models for the current generation of artists. Into the 1970s, as bark paintings and then canvases from the desert became more popular, the art of city-based Aborigines was still regarded as not authentically Aboriginal and therefore neglected. This attitude reflected generally held views about urban Aboriginal people.
Developments in the 1980s
The Contemporary Aboriginal Art Exhibition at Bondi Pavilion in 1983 and Koori Art’84 , organised by a group of Sydney-based artists, were landmark exhibitions which heralded the emergence of urban artists. However the continued lack of opportunities for these artists resulted in the formation of cooperatives, such as the Boomalli Aboriginal artists Cooperative established in Sydney in 1987, to provide shared studio and exhibition space. The greater exposure and critical acclaim gained by these artists saw them recognised by a larger audience.
The themes and subjects of contemporary urban artists are as varied as their backgrounds and the materials in which they work, although a common thread of Aboriginality pervades their art.
Artists such as Trevor Nickolls and Sally Morgan explore the notion of Aboriginal identity in a world where this has been denied to them. The paintings of Robert Campbell Jnr (now deceased) reflect the history of interaction between black and white people. Pooaraar (Bevan Heywood), a printmaker, looks to continuing local artistic traditions and celebrates pre-contact ideals. Indeed prints and political posters have been the most popular medium for urban artists.
The search for a distinct artistic language is evident in the paintings of Lin Onus and Gordon Bennett. Urban, and rural, Aboriginal artists are breaking through the barriers of prejudice and neglect to establish themselves as artists in their own right. Their work is at the leading edge of Australian art and reflects perspectives on Australian society which previously had been rarely acknowledged.