WARNING
This website may contain the voices and images of Aboriginal people who have died.

Heart of Artness is a Conradesque journey into the labyrinthine world of some of Australia’s Aboriginal artists and the non-Indigenous folk who interact with them to produce cutting edge contemporary art. It allows us to hear their voices directly, as a radio documentary and podcast series. The podcasts are based on 35 oral history interviews with Aboriginal artists, art centre staff, art dealers, volunteers, activists, curators, critics and others.

Listen to the trailer for the podcast series

The series derives from a University of Wollongong research project led by Professor Ian McLean and funded by the Australian Research Council. It examines cross-cultural influences and relationships at three Aboriginal art organisations: Warlukurlangu Art Centre inYuendemu, NT (approx. 280 km north-west of Alice Springs), Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, NE Arnhem Land (approx. 700km east of Darwin) and proppaNOW, an artists’ collective in Brisbane.

This series is devised and produced by Siobhan McHugh, Associate Professor in Journalism at the University of Wollongong, in association with art historian Ian McLean, Hugh Ramsay Chair of Contemporary Art at the University of Melbourne, and Margo Neale, Senior Indigenous Curator at the National Museum of Australia and Adjunct Professor at the Australian National University. The oral history collection is proposed for archiving at the National Museum of Australia.

This short article, "Aboriginal Art: is it a white thing?" describes one aspect of our findings.

Episode 1: The Conquistador, the Warlpiri and the Dog Whisperer

Cecilia Alfonso and Gloria Morales

Cecilia Alfonso’s aristocratic Chilean family cheered when the socialist President Salvador Allende died in a coup led by General Pinochet in 1973. Gloria Morales’ family were indigenous serfs in an undemocratic society that drove her to leave Chile to pursue art conservation. Their tough pragmatism has made Warlukurlangu Art Centre an international success. But can the spirituality of the Warlpiri people survive a ruthless market – and can these two women from opposite ends of the social and political spectrum co-exist, way out in the Australian desert?

This episode was produced for ABC Radio National Earshot. It's presented by Margo Neale and produced by Siobhan McHugh. The sound engineer is Russell Stapleton and Executive Producer is Claudia Taranto.

Listen to Episode 1

Episode 2: Heart of Art, A Two-Ways World

Larrakitj (ceremonial poles)

Garawan Wanambi’s rosy-hued paintings are made with the ochre, or ‘gapan’ of the land itself – they channel his deep relationship to country. Gunybi Ganambarr, a co-caretaker of Yolngu country around Gangan, NT,  uses found materials such as PVC piping as well as traditional media such as hollow logs to create diverse and beautiful art. Yinimala Gumana, ranger and artist, is the former chair of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre. These three artists take us to the site of a terrible massacre of their people in 1911 – and beyond it, to the art and heart of Yolngu culture today. Though it can cost around $600 to get a ‘bush taxi’ to convey their art to Yirrkala, they will not forgo living on country and upholding its rituals – an option derided as a ‘lifestyle choice’ by one former Australian prime minister.

Will Stubbs was a criminal lawyer from Sydney doing Aboriginal Legal Aid, when he ‘got sung by a Yolgnu chick’ from Yirrkala, in North-East Arnhem Land. Their teenage daughter now negotiates the two worlds that, as manager of the Buku-Larrnggay art centre, Will has bridged for over twenty years. He sees himself as a ‘dung beetle’, who picks up the shimmering art the Yolgnu ‘deposit’ as the detritus of the ceremonial and spiritual practice that infuses the pure art that is their life. Luckily, it sells.

Listen to Episode 2

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Episode 3: Art as Title Deeds

Wukun Wanambi and Will Stubbs

The ‘mintji’ or traditional cross-hatching the Yolgnu paint with ochres on barks, hollow logs and other artefacts is mesmerisingly beautiful. It also radiates power. It encodes sacred knowledge about the land and sea and documents the Yolgnu’s connection to country over 60,000 years. Within three decades of the arrival of white colonists in 1935, the Yolgnu had used their art for political gains. They revisited the tactic in the courts, winning crucial land and maritime rights.

In this episode, anthropologist Howard Morphy, who has lived among the Yolgnu for over 40 years, and Will Stubbs, veteran manager of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre, trace the ways art, law and politics are inextricably linked.

 

Listen to Episode 3

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