Creative exchange in shades of grey in Black White & Restive
It was a “lovely fluke”, says exhibition curator Una Rey, that Black White & Restive opened on the first day of National Reconciliation Week this year. But to focus solely on that, she explains, would be misleading. This survey of cross-cultural art practices between Indigenous and non-indigenous artists at Newcastle Art Gallery might have its hopeful and promising moments but it doesn’t shy away from the troubling and challenging either. “It’s not all beautiful,” Rey says, “but some of it is beautiful and there are tentative steps in a positive direction.”
Drawing in part on the gallery’s extensive holdings, the exhibition begins almost exactly 80 years ago with the friendship between Albert Namatjira and Rex Battarbee. Focusing on painting as the dominant point of creative exchange, with occasional forays into printmaking, photography, ceramics and multimedia work, Black White & Restive fast-forwards through to the present, stopping at second wave Hermannsburg watercolours, the Papunya Tula movement and artists such as Gordon Bennett, Vernon Ah Kee and Danie Mellor along the way. At the same time, there are glimpses at contested boundaries. The exhibition includes work considered by some to be examples of exploitation, appropriation or racism, by artists such as Margaret Preston, Imants Tillers and Lucas Grogan.
As such, Black White & Restive hews closely to the cartographical connotations of the word survey: it presents a map of where we’re at today rather than plotting a route forwards.
After all, it has an academic genesis in an Australian Research Council Discovery-funded study by Ian McLean titled The Impact of Aboriginal Art on Contemporary Urban Australian Art, for which Rey was employed as a research assistant. Between 2011 and 2015, they interviewed some 50 artists about cross-cultural practices and uncovered a raucous and diverse range of responses that informed the exhibition.
Contrary to the title, nothing in this arena is as clear as black and white; however, a strain of restiveness does run throughout. Although Black White & Restive is a visually rich and aesthetically pleasing exhibition, there’s an unease, a lack of resolution, hanging in the air like a fog between some of the artists and their works, approaches and beliefs.
The “lovely fluke” of the exhibition taking place at the start of National Reconciliation Week is a fortunate fluke but not for the reasons one might initially expect. Cross-cultural art practices may not clear a straight and simple path towards reconciliation but, when presented in proper context, they show the complexity involved and explain why understanding this complexity is so important when taking steps in the right direction.