Discover Asia’s Biggest Showcase of Indigenous Australian Art

Running until September 25 at the National Gallery Singapore, the special exhibition also touches on the continent’s pre-colonial trading links with Southeast Asia.

Photo courtesy of National Gallery Singapore

Art aficionados based in the Little Red Dot should plot a weekend excursion to the National Gallery Singapore to see its latest exhibition, “Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia.” Said to be the largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art to be put on display anywhere in Asia, it offers a comprehensive look into indigenous Australian culture, history, and social action in the present.

Opening today and running until September 25, the four-month showcase is presented in partnership with Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia and The Wesfarmers Collection of Australian Art. Over 170 artworks have been drawn from both institutions, including some of their most significant pieces, with more than 150 Aboriginal and Torres Islander artists represented in all. Mediums from watercolor and video to sculpture are used in works that challenge stereotypes about Australia’s First Peoples, while amplifying voices marginalized by conventional art history narratives.

Gum tree and sandhill by Albert Namatjira, c 1938. © Albert Namatjira/Copyright Agency, 2022

“Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia” highlights key aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life and culture across six themed sections. Along the way, visitors will admire pieces by the late Albert Namatijira, considered the first Aboriginal artist to become widely popular in Australia. Namatijira was known for blending the color palettes of his Arrernte ancestors with European landscape styles to capture sites of spiritual significance. Also notable is Yam awely by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who was a pioneer of the desert painting movement in Central Australia. The nearly five-meter-long artwork reflects her knowledge of the growth cycle of the yam, an essential food source in the harsh desert environment.

Museum-goers should look out for mixed media commission untitled (walam-wunga.galang) by renowned Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones. Overturning colonial narratives of Aboriginal people as hunters-gatherers, he has used large-scale grindstones and a soundscape in the Wiradjuri language to raise awareness of the sophistication of the Aboriginal agricultural economy.

The exhibition also turns the spotlight on indigenous Australians’ historical links with Southeast Asia. Some works recall evidence of a robust pre-colonial sea cucumber trade between merchants from Makassar in South Sulawesi and suppliers on Australia’s north coast, while others point to the introduction of batik to several Aboriginal communities in Central Australia from the 1970s, sometimes through direct collaborations with Indonesian artists.

For those seeking a deeper understanding of Aboriginal art, activities such as lectures, curator talks, artist dialogues, and curator tours have been lined up over the next few months. Special events include eye-opening performances like “Painting the Dance” by artists Mariaa Randall and Henrietta Baird.

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ASH on Me, by Tony Albert (2008). © the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Gadigal Nura/Sydney

Visitors admiring Anmatyerre artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s 1995 painting Yam awely.

A detail of untitled (walam-wunga.galang) by Jonathan Jones (1978). © Jonathan Jones

Seven Sisters, a 2018 painting on linen by Tjungkara Ken, Sandra Ken, Yaritji Young, Freda Brady, and Maringka Tunkin of Central Australia’s Pitjantjatjara people. © Tjungkara Ken, Sandra Ken, Yaritji Young, Freda Brady, Maringka Tunkin/Copyright Agency, 2022

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