Wally Caruana - art galleries and museums [ORAL HISTORY]
Synopsis: Wally Caruana speaks about the historical divide between art galleries and museums and the different ways this divide has impacted on the reception and understanding of Aboriginal art. He also talks about the approach that the emerging curators in the project have taken.
Art centre(s): CSR Project
Language spoken: English
Catalogue number: CSROH_200_Wally_Caruana
Location Recorded: William Street, Northbridge
Cultural Protocols: Public Access
Full transcript: [Talking about the difference between art galleries and museums]
I suppose what’s really interesting about this project, and we spoke about it on previous occasions even on tape, is that in Australia still and in many parts of the world, there is this …
In the course of art history, if you like, or museum history, the way things have developed in Australia and overseas, is there always seems to be a conflict between the art museum or the art gallery and the museum, in so much as what they collect but also in the way that they display things to the public. And this is very much I guess … it’s got a very historical basis, especially in terms of Aboriginal art and Aboriginal objects. Traditionally, the way things developed in the Western world, the art gallery was a place for ‘fine art’ paintings and sculpture, where as the museum was a place where ethnographic objects were collected and displayed. And that’s got a lot to do with the whole notion of colonialism and the fact that things were brought back as trophies of other cultures. In the course of time attitudes have changed a little bit, but even now, like two hundred years after the first public museums were opened, even in Australia there’s still this discourse between what should go into an Art Gallery and what should go into a Museum – and by museum we mean a museum of social and cultural history, we’re not talking about museums of plants and animals and things like that. So there’s this debate about what comes first, the object or the narrative, what’s most important?
Now traditionally in Western art, pictures are exhibited, and have been for a long time, with just minimal information beside them on the wall. In other words you would have the artist’s name, their birth and death date, perhaps what country they came from, the title of the work, the date it was made and the materials from which it was made. Now, when people started to exhibit, in the late 20th century, especially when people started to exhibit Aboriginal art, this debate started to rage whether you needed to describe the works on the walls or whether that simple very brief description was enough. What people tended to forget was that traditionally, again in the Western model, people would, through their education, we’re talking about Western Europe, people who grew up with art around them, down the street there’d be religious statues and in the churches that they’d go to would be paintings, their history and their art is intertwined – and people grew up knowing about the history of these things, as they do in other cultures, especially in Asia. So when they come to an art gallery there’s really, traditionally, been very little need to have further explanations because people come with a certain amount of knowledge. Now when you place Aboriginal art into the same context as the Art Gallery, you’ll have an audience, a non-Aboriginal audience, that’s coming through and that doesn’t understand the background to these works. So in a sense in that way you can’t really present them in the same way, if you want to achieve the same level of understanding. So one of the challenges that people in museums face is how do you get that information across … in art galleries rather, how you can get that information across, but also how did you get that across but still retain the primacy of the work of art. In other words, paintings, works of art and this, particularly relevant to this project because there are so many narratives, so many stories, so many oral histories etc.
But a work of art is not merely an illustration of these things, it’s also got a life of its own. And also that people have an experience of going to a work of art, it’s not like looking at an illustration in a book, the physical presence is very important. And that has a lot to do with, traditionally European nations but also traditionally Indigenous nations, and I’ll explain it this way, that a work of art actually makes you feel things that you can’t experience any other way. For example, in the Western world we’re very much accustomed to listening to music and feeling emotion from music, even if it’s music without words, if it’s abstract music so to speak. But we find that more difficult to do with pictures because we’ve lost the ability, or we haven’t been trained to have the ability, to actually respond to paintings in that sort of abstract way. Now, in traditional Indigenous art as well what these paintings, especially say in this exhibition, are about is surely they’re about the ancestral narratives and in this case they’re about the Canning Stock Route and more recent histories and that sort of thing, but it comes back down to this notion of what is it that the paintings do beyond illustrating all that. And a lot of this has to do with that physical sensation, in other words artists in many cases are celebrating their ancestral country, their lands, and they want to express this notion that the land is full of the power of the ancestors. Now how do you paint the power of the ancestors, what sort of formula do you use?
Ok, this sort of thing has been, I suppose, a problem for artists in every culture throughout time. In Christian art for example, in the history of Christian art, how did artists express the grace of God? And they found various solutions to do that, in Western art for example, in Christian art the use of gold leaf was predominant, especially in medieval times, because it gave you a surface that was shiny, that was reflective, that was animated, it wasn’t just flat paint on a flat surface. So it started to move out of the two dimensions of the picture and produce a different sort of effect, and it’s exactly the same sort of effect that you’ll see in a lot of the paintings in this exhibition you see in a lot of Indigenous work, where you get exciting visual surfaces – which take you away from that … you forget that it’s just paint on canvas, or ochre on bark, it’s now become something else. So you’re taking people into another dimension. So that, in a sense, explains the necessity to see the original work of art, to actually get the full experience and to treat it as something more than just an illustration.
But that whole history of how Indigenous art has been viewed and received in the West, and exhibited, it’s an ongoing process. Until the end of the 19th century, really as far as Australia was concerned, in fact some of the early explorers wrote that Indigenous people were such poor people that they were people without art, which of course they were failing to see a lot of things that actually existed. By the end of the 19th century people were collecting Aboriginal artefacts as ethnographic examples of the way … of people’s material culture, the things that they made and used to survive in the world. They had very little understanding, although that was the beginning of investigation and research into the fact that notions of Aboriginal spirituality and thinking beyond the mundane and looking at examples of how this is expressed – other than just the obvious ones like dance and ceremony and song etcetera. And it was a bit difficult to collect body paintings, it’s also very difficult to collect ground paintings, but these things began to be recorded around the turn of the century. By the early 20th century we had the first official collections of Aboriginal art as art. And one of the prime movers in Australia was an anthropologist called Baldwin Spencer in Melbourne who went to West Arnhem land in about 1911, 1912 and started putting together collections of bark paintings. Where he actually paid the artists for their work, which 100 years ago was pretty phenomenal, and then eventually in 1927 had an exhibition of Aboriginal art at the Museum of Victoria.
So this was the beginnings of looking at Aboriginal work as art, still there was a lot of controversy, I mean people in hindsight, and that can be a bit difficult too, saying, ‘well, why is it in the museum and not in the art gallery, not in the National Gallery of Victoria?’, and even at that time people were already talking about this thing, ‘well if it’s art it should be in the gallery’. Over the following decades there was more art being collected and produced, and it was collected mostly by anthropologists in museums; now that sort of makes sense too because it was the anthropologists really, apart from the missionaries, who had the most contact with Indigenous people, especially in what we call remote parts of Australia. So there was a tradition of Aboriginal art going into museums of Social and Cultural History. That all began to change after the Second World War. People like the anthropologist Ronald Catherine Byrne from here in Perth were doing field work in the desert, up at Balgo, up at Yukala and Arnham Land, and they were collecting things, and in fact in 1957 they put together the first exhibition of Aboriginal art here in Perth, where the artists were actually named, their biographies were given, their clans were given, their kinship associations were all recorded. So these people were treated as individuals as artists and it wasn’t … and this is another myth, this notion that everything has to be so communal that, in Aboriginal society, that the individual disappears.
A few years later at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, the Deputy Director, a guy called Tony Tuxon, who was also actually a practicing artist as well, through the help of a benefactor called Stuart Scugel, went to Arnhem Land in the top end and started to collect art for the art gallery. So that was the first time there was a concerted effort to look at Aboriginal art as art and collect it for an art museum within this country. But really it wasn’t until the 1980s and this gradual, what became actually a very rapid interest in Aboriginal art by the public and by galleries and museums, that Aboriginal art began to be collected by the art institutions. And now, just about every public institution in Australia collects Aboriginal art as art, but you know the museums still collect it to, but they’re looking at it from different perspectives, which is reasonable, but you can imagine there’s a lot of crossover.
In my experience, I remember going back twenty odd years ago, that the two people who knew about Aboriginal art by then were the anthropologists and the art historians, but try and get them in the same room and that was impossible, that’s all changed thank goodness and people realise that a lot of these barriers are quite artificial because, in a sense, people are looking at Aboriginal art as being one dimensional, in other words, is it art or is it anthropology? Well it’s actually a lot of things, and more besides, and you can look at it in various contexts. So therefore with this project, one of the beauties of this, we’ve got the opportunity of addressing that debate. I’m not sure how it’s going to resolve itself at this stage, but it’s important that we understand that, what the history of how work like this has been treated and exhibited before. And look forward to coming to solutions that cross over those boundaries and I think we’re all committed to do that and it’s important that this becomes an essential part of the final project.
[Talking about an exhibition with no painting information]
But in some ways you think that’s such a beautiful way of showing work. And in fact there are exhibitions, and I’ve seen and even worked on exhibitions where you actually present the work that way, but you … there are certain things that … it all depends on context. For example, if that was an exhibition of a single artist’s work it’s a lot easier to do that sort of thing. In other words, what we’re looking at were paintings on the walls with no information whatsoever around them but they looked pristine, you could contemplate the works very easily, you were drawn to them and you felt a certain piece in being able to appreciate what you were looking at. And in some ways you often want to achieve that sort of effect, but you can do it in a number of various means, I mean there are exhibitions where for example you would have a list of the works, on a typed list or a sheet that you’d take with you, or a little pamphlet, so you don’t need that information on the walls because you’ve got it in your hand as you walk around. Sometimes people will put numbers on the skirting board on the bottom of the wall so you can match it up to your list and you know exactly … all the information is there and it’s not detracting visually from your experience and interaction with the actual work and I think that actually works quite well. And I’m not suggesting that this will be the solution in our case, although you never know.
[Tom was saying that he felt great about his name going overseas]
Yeah well I think that’s a great reaction because again it takes away from this notion of anonymity. Look, there’s this, even though we’ve … non-Aboriginal people have got to know Aboriginal society fairly well, to some degree, I mean there’s a long way to go obviously, but there’s still this popular belief that everything that Aboriginal people do has to be so communal that the individual is not important. Which seems unnatural. We are all individuals and we’re all social people too. And you behave in different ways in different circumstances. I mean you show me an Indigenous dancer at a ceremony who doesn’t want to show off how good they are. We’re all human after all. And isn’t it the same with artists, with painters. So, yeah. The two things aren’t in opposition at all, you behave individually, you behave socially and sometimes you do both at once.
[What was your experience yesterday?]
Yeah, I suppose this is, in some ways, it’s one of the high points in a project of this sort. You do all the leg work you’ve collected 200 canvases, you’ve sorted, you’ve discussed, you’ve analysed. A group of people working along such a long and incredibly interesting process, but that’s one of the first highlights, when you actually take them off the floor literally and have them displayed in such a way that they look … you’re doing the works physical justice, you’re giving them … well, close to proper lighting which we had yesterday, close to pristine walls, not quite. But it’s that experience of actually, suddenly you’re elevating them from something that’s … they actually don’t change, it’s your attitude towards them that changes, you know. They’re always as great as always, if you turn off the lights in a room the pictures are still great. But it’s this thing of just presenting them in such a way that this is where they’re going to be doing their work, in other words expressing things to the public, to other people. And just to be able to get to that stage and see the first of the paintings properly stretched, properly hung, properly lit, they glow, and the glow’s always been there, it’s just that you’ve done the right thing by the pictures. And that was I think a valuable exercise in this whole process because of course we’re going to be doing it on a grander scale with four times the number of works and grander spaces, bigger spaces. And because of the tour, it’s not going to be one space, it’s going to be a number of different spaces.
In the coming stages of the project we’ll be looking at the design of the exhibition, we’ll be looking at the themes that are going to run through the show and how we’re going to align the works with the themes so to express them to their fullest degree. But I think it was important simply firstly just to see the pictures up on a wall with air around them so you could look at them, from our curator’s point of view especially, to actually appreciate what it is that your working with. But one of the real interesting things that I saw, that I noticed last night at the reception, what there were two hundred people walking around there, not a lot but quite a number of the people who were there last night had at some stage seen some of the canvases, either here or in the other venues we’ve worked in as we’ve gone through the project. But they’d seen them unstretched lying on the ground, and you could see that they were walking around thinking ‘hmmm, oh yeah’ but that weren’t actually 100 per cent convinced that these were great works of art. And those very same people, when they saw them on the walls last night, were incredibly effusive about what brilliant things these were, and they’re looking at the same things. But it only goes to show that the presentation is paramount in getting people excited, interested, and once you do get people interested and excited, then you can start to get messages across.
[Is their way of looking at the paintings different? (The young curators)]
Well I suppose there are a number of things. Yes, everyone’s background is different anyway and you have your own personal experiences that train your eye, because as a curator that’s what a large part of your job is, or the training and the process is to get your eye. In fact people talk about having a good eye or a bad eye and that doesn’t mean that you can’t see properly or you need glasses, it’s being able to appreciate works of art. So everyone’s got their own personal journey to get to developing their particular eye, but of course it’s not just a matter of another culture, it’s also your particular environment and your own education and history. So everyone, even in this particular case, I mean, Hayley, Louise, Terry, they bring not only their cultural eye but their own personal eye from what they’ve experienced. But what I’ve found fascinating about this process is, and we’ve done that right from the very beginning, despite the wealth of information that we’re dealing with here we’ve always gone back to looking at the pictures as paintings and talking about them as powerful pictures, why things work, why … so in a sense talking in the abstract but about the aesthetics of the work. And suddenly you find that in fact a lot of the language and the ideas that you’re talking about are identical, there is a whole lot of overlap. So it really is a reflection of a human condition, this is where as human beings we are actually able to … we do share a lot in common, even though histories, experiences, all sorts of things are very different, you come down to the essence of things. And I’m not musical, but I think with music you can do the same sort of things when you start talking about tone and pitch and sound and all that sort of thing. You’re taking away all the narrative in a sense and your looking at the elements which go to making a work of art.
[Overall, how did they do with their first hanging?]
Out of ten? Hehehe. I thought it looked great last night. I though the installation, and it was their choosing … Well we’d already selected the works that were intended to go to Beijing, but… and we did that at the last curatorial meeting, earlier this year, two months ago, whenever it was. But the actual installation, the decisions where pictures went on the walls and how they were hung, was theirs. And I thoroughly enjoyed it, I mean there were things there that you look for in exhibitions, there were rhythms, there was excitement, there was surprises. Each of the artists was done justice by the way their work was hung, there was no one hidden around the corner or anything like that. For me the proof in the pudding was the public reaction to it last night, people were … we could have sold a whole collection last night, people were so enthusiastic. And you know, in a sense, I suppose the essential thing about that hang too last night, and I think this is one of the things I think is important to all exhibition design if you like, you want to make the installation look really natural, like it falls into … this is the only way you could hang it, it falls into place really and it looks clean and simple. And you think, yeah, it’s rational, it makes sense that this picture’s here and that one’s opposite it and that one’s there. But to get to that pure essence of clarity, and it’s clarity, because you don’t want to put too many obstacles between the viewer and the work and the experience of the exhibition, you want to make that experience as immediate as possible, so you need clarity in the way you display things. The hardest thing is achieving that clarity. You do a lot of work to get to the most simple solution. And in fact quite often you’ll see really badly installed exhibitions that are just full of stuff, to the point they become confusing and you’ve put obstacles between the viewer and the work. Is that okay Clint? KJ? Can I sneeze now?
Video format: DVD/MiniDV/Quicktime movie
Video recording: Tape 37
Rights: Cultural Owner & Storyteller: Wally Caruana; © FORM, transcript only
Provenance: This material is sourced from Ngurra Kuju Walyja — the Canning Stock Route Project, which was initiated in 2006 by FORM and developed in partnership with Birriliburu, Kayili, KALACC, Mangkaja, Martumili, Ngurra, Papunya Tula, Paruku IPA, Warlayirti and Yulparija artists and art centres.