To celebrate NAIDOC Week 2020, I have compiled a short list of my favorite Indigenous Australian artists from the fields of the visual arts, film, and music.
For those who are not aware, NAIDOC Week celebrations are held across Australia each July to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. NAIDOC originally stood for ‘National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee.’ Due to COVID-19, the 2020 celebrations were moved to the week of 8-15 November.
Here are some Indigenous painters, directors and musicians whose work I reckon you should know (if you don’t already).
CLIFFORD POSSUM TJAPALTJARRI
This piece is Untitled, but google his name to see more of his incredible acrylic painting style known as ‘dot art’, of which he is a grand master. An Anmatyerre man from Papunya in the Northern Territory, he became a founding director of the Papunya Tula Artists school in 1972. He tragically died in Alice Springs on June 21, 2002 — the day he was due to be awarded the Order of Australia medal for his services to art and the Indigenous community.
On her beautiful debut album Better In Blak, Plum relates her experiences as a young Gamilaraay woman negotiating love, life, identity and the intergenerational trauma of colonialism and racism. Citing her influences as Paul Kelly, Marianne Faithful and Vashti Bunyan, Better in Blak has everything from Tom Petty-mode country-rock driving songs to socially-conscious retro-soul. Songs like ‘Homecoming Queen’ and ‘Do You Ever Get So Sad You Can’t Breathe’ will tear your heart out. And the final song ‘Made For You’ features none other than Paul McCartney who heard an early recording and invited himself to play on it!!
Every Aussie my age will remember Albert Namatjira’s pictures hanging on our school walls. His work was ubiquitous. The watercolor painting above is of Mount Zeil and titled The Grandeur, MacDonnell Range, 1957. An Arrernte man from the MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia, Namatjira’s Western-style watercolour paintings not only introduced Aboriginal art to us, but gave many of us our first glimpse of the landscape of the outback. Namatjira became so popular he was granted Australian citizenship in 1957, ten years before a referendum granted every Indigenous person that right. A man caught precariously between two worlds, Namatjira experienced dislocation from both. There are so many layers to his story that make him, and his work, so compelling.
Warwick Thornton is a Kaytetye man, born and raised in Alice Springs, and one of Australia’s great emerging film directors and cinematographers . In fact, one of his films, ‘Samson and Delilah’ (2009) is regarded as a genuine Australian masterpiece. Thornton was either cinematographer or director (or both) on such important films as ‘Sweet Country’ (2017), ‘Radiance’ (1998), ‘The Sapphires’ (2012), and the ground-breaking television series, ‘First Australians’ (2006). He’s also a remarkable stills photographer. The photo above is entitled ‘Lake’ from his Stranded series, 2011, featuring a black Australian hanging from a neon cross.
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, commonly known as Gurrumul and also referred to since his death as Dr G. Yunupingu, grew up as a member of the Gumatj clan on Elcho Island, off the coast of tropical North East Arnhemland. Born blind, he embraced music early, learning drums, keyboards, guitar (a right-hand-strung guitar played left-handed) and didgeridoo. But it was his fragile yet powerfully emotive voice that affected us so much. His high tenor voice had a transcendental beauty and Elton John, Sting and Björk were among his fans. He sang about identity, spirit and connection with the land, its elements and its past. Those interested in knowing more about him should watch ‘Gurrumul’ the documentary film about him. You can view the trailer here.
Why don’t more people know about the amazing Dr Bronwyn Bancroft! A fashion designer, artist, writer, scholar and activist, she is a proud Bundjalung woman from Tenterfield, NSW. In 1985, she started her own company Designer Aboriginals to bring the work of Indigenous fabric artists to the world, going on to show her own fashion designs in Paris. She then turned mainly to painting and illustration. Her use of colour is vibrant and her designs are gorgeously dynamic. Bancroft cites her influences as Georgia O’Keeffe, Joan Miró, Wassily Kandinsky, and Marc Chagall, and Australian Indigenous artists such as Emily Kngwarreye and Rover Thomas. Do a Google images search for her work. You’ll love it.
I love Richard Bell’s work, but I realize he’s not everyone’s cup of tea. He’s a pretty edgy bloke and his pictures are playful, prophetic, angry and cheeky at different turns. A member of the Kamilaroi, Kooma, Jiman and Gurang Gurang communities, Bell is a thoroughly modern Aboriginal artist, working with video, painting, installation and text to tackle the debates and issues concerning Indigenous people in the 21st century. One of our most world-famous artists, in 2003, Bell helped establish proppaNOW, a Brisbane-based Indigenous arts collective for emerging artists.
Danzal Baker, known as Baker Boy, is a rapper who was born in Darwin and grew up in the Arnhem Land communities of Milingimbi and Maningrida. He raps in both English and his native Yolngu Matha (he’s the first artist to rap in his Indigenous language). There aren’t many artists who play major festivals without having released an album, but then again, there aren’t many artists like Baker Boy. Check out his singles, ‘Cloud 9’, ‘Cool as Hell’, ‘Better Days’ and ‘Marryuna’ (meaning, ‘to dance with no shame’), which features his cousin, songwriter Yirrmal. Baker Boy’s music is brilliant, infectious, and full of pride. And you should see him dance!
Ivan Sen is one of Australia’s finest film directors. The son of a Croatian father and a Gamilaroi mother, he grew up in Tamworth, NSW, but regularly took refuge with his mother at the Aboriginal mission at Toomelah to escape his father’s violence. The mission was the last destination of three forced relocations of the Gamilaroi people in the 1930s. Sen’s third feature film, Toomelah (2011) focused on the life of a ten-year-old boy growing up there. Ivan Sen’s debut film Beneath Clouds (2002) is a masterpiece of Australian cinema, centering on two young Aboriginal people on the run. He also directed Mystery Road (2013) and its sequel Goldstone (2016). All his films deal with the themes of dislocation, place and identity. They’re all beautiful to look at even if they tell an ugly story of post-colonialism, racism and injustice. See them all!
Film and television director, producer, screenwriter, advocate and activist, Rachel Perkins is an Arrente woman from Central Australia, although she grew up in Canberra with her politician father Charles Perkins. In 1992, she created Blackfella Films, a production company that produces documentaries, film and television programs focused on Indigenous Australian stories. She is the director of such films as Radiance (1998), Bran Nue Dae (2010), Mabo (2012) and Jasper Jones (2017), and the producer of the breakthrough TV series Redfern Now (2013-2015) and the multi-award winning seven-part documentary series First Australians (2008). In fact, First Australians should be required viewing for every Australian. You can can view it here.