A complaint frequently voiced by some of the high profile artists in our sample was that ‘urban’ Indigenous artists generally and themselves in particular are ignored by sections of the Australian art world who tend to regard ‘Indigenous art’ as only that produced in ‘remote’ community art centres. Storylines data did enable us to measure the success of Storylines artists by standard art world criteria like inclusion in collections and art awards and to map how factors such as formal art school training, gender and age correlate with such forms of recognition. Our findings indicated that however neglectful they may have been in the past of Indigenous art from this side of the Rowley line, the major public and private collections do now acknowledge these artists’ existence in their acquisition programs – albeit replicating the mainstream art world’s so-called ‘star system’ in their acquisitions policies.
But the vast majority of artists documented by Storylines were working outside the paradigm of conceptual art work that dominates the practice of these established urban-based Indigenous artists, and is often founded on high level art school training and immersion within an urban art world. One of the most striking of Storylines’ discoveries about Indigenous art practice south of the Rowley line was the diversity of circumstances and forms of art making that challenge the dichotomy of ‘remote’ versus ‘urban’ underpinning the way Indigenous art is perceived in the mainstream art world. Most Storylines artist profiles were extremely localized and completely off the radar of city-based curators, galleries and art magazines and could be described as ‘remote’ from the Australian art world in a manner that tells a very different story to that usually evoked by that categorisation.
Although Indigenous art from ‘settled’ regions is widely seen as first emerging with the Koori Art ’84 exhibition and the establishment of the Boomalli artists’ cooperative in Chippendale in the late 1980s, many artists in our sample had been active for decades before these landmark events. Not just the high profile pioneers/ ‘founding father’ figures like Ron Hurley, Trevor Nickolls, Gordon Syron, Kevin Gilbert and Lin Onus but also many people, usually women, who worked from a very young age in ‘traditional’ media: weavers, shellworkers, egg carvers etc. not recognised until recently as employing art media. Esme Timbery claimed to have had her first shellwork making experience at seven years of age. Many people working exclusively in such media were continuing a creative practice that went back well before the contemporary Indigenous art movement gained momentum.
Many had been extremely poor for periods of their lives, and for them selling artwork had been, in a very unromantic sense, part of a hand-to-mouth existence. For many in the survey, men and women, becoming an artist had meant, if not substantial earnings and acclaim from their art making, then a significant qualitative improvement in their employment prospects, often in some area of the Indigenous arts industry. It appears that the recent Senate Report’s recommendation that more Indigenous people be employed in the industry is already happening, especially for women.
Art making was often grounded far more in family and community togetherness than individual professional development. In addition to providing subject-matter, family members also provided many Storylines artists with their only art training. This is commonly the case with Indigenous artists from remote communities north of the Rowley line, where art audiences seem to find it acceptable because it is felt that rather than art school training, these artists have culture and tradition. Urban Indigenous artists, however, are believed by these same audiences not have ‘culture’ or ‘tradition’ as such, only politics, and they can reach an acceptable place in the art world only when they work within the groove of conceptual, political art, participating within the dialogues that underline particular art genres, as a result of art school training.
The maintenance and rejuvenation of pre-colonial traditions, as well as the transfer of skills between family members, took so many different forms in so many different contexts that the Storylines team can vouch for the need for a more nuanced understanding of the role of ‘tradition’ in Indigenous art created outside the Central Desert and the Top End. The same can be said for how ‘connection to country’ shaped artists’ practice. Language groups presented Storylines with unique difficulties in terms of compilation of statistical data. There were major spelling variations for almost every language name. It was the artists themselves who insisted – vehemently – on the correctness of the variant they were supplying, pointing to the major significance of language groups as bases of Indigenous identity in the ‘settled’ regions.
In a number of cases these artists were producing work that was derivative of, or sought to emulate, the ‘dot dot’ style of the central desert, and painted images of native animals or landscapes decorated with dots. Such inclinations reflect the struggle faced by Indigenous Australians who do not come from ‘remote’ communities in having their Indigenous identity acknowledged by non-Indigenous society. For people whose family had lived under an oppressive social structure that compelled them to feel ashamed about, conceal and/or escape from their cultural identity, a shift towards embracing one’s Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander identity, and learning to feel proud and strong as an Indigenous person can understandably lead to such artistic identifications. Unfortunately it will also prevent these artists from ever being taken seriously within the mainstream art world as having their own artistic vision.
However Storylines also encountered numerous artists and artists’ groups who wanted nothing to do with the generalised and generic image of what ‘Indigenous art’ is, and were seeking to establish styles that reflected their own localised traditions, their own country, their own distinctive experiences. In some cases an explicitly defiant stance can be discerned. In the East Gippsland Aboriginal Arts Corporation’s 2008 publication ‘Not Just Dots: Aboriginal Art and Artists from East Gippsland in South Eastern Victoria’ (2008) Uncle Albert Mullett states that “The environment is part of the heart; art is a way of connecting to the environment. I never saw dots in the past – only in recent years… It is important that the Traditional Owners are supporting young people in the development of their artwork. We tell our artists they shouldn’t do dots, it doesn’t belong to this country”. While all forms of art that were being produced, derivative or original, have a therapeutic value that enriches artists’ lives, being introduced to forms beyond painting, such as sculpture, printmaking, etc., and if given the opportunity to develop skills and receive some guidance, artists can reach beyond this and discover new ways of expressing themselves that can potentially become great art. Their stories resonate far beyond art history and are relevant to Australian cultural history in general. In many cases, they are illustrative of the experiences of Indigenous Australians that have only recently come to be acknowledged and historicized as part of the country’s past and character.
In the DAAO spirit of collaborative research, we hope that researchers who continue the work of Storylines beyond the life of this project will improve the comprehensiveness of the data on this group of artists and make possible both a more complete picture and monitoring of ongoing developments.
 Myer, R. Report of the Contemporary Visual Arts and Craft Inquiry Commonwealth of Australia 2002