The Newly Discovered

Dr Ian McLean
The Undiscovered Keynote Speech

Undiscovered – irresistible title for a symposium. Many Indigenous people around the world complain bitterly about being discovered, unless of course they are artists.
It reminds me of one of my most memorable moments in teaching, in an Honours seminar on the gaze – which gives you an idea how long ago that was. The reading was Sartre’s classic essay about the dread of hearing the floorboard creak behind you when peeping through a keyhole: the dread of the discoverer being discovered – what he called ‘the shock of being seen’. One of my students, a woman about 50, disagreed. The shock for me, she said, was no longer being seen. Sartre got it wrong: we want to be seen, to be discovered. The issue for Indigenous Australians was not being discovered but undiscovered: terra nullius.
I am a Queenslander who has lived substantial periods of my adult life in Tasmania and Western Australia. I have, you might say, walked the outskirts of invisibility. So when I wander through our national collections in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, I often have an eye on where the art on show is from. My impression is that if you see a Tasmanian work it is from the nineteenth century, and if you see a Queensland or Western Australia work, it is probably by an Aboriginal artist.
This is the report card for the MCA in Sydney, last Saturday, not counting one French artist who had a retrospective on the top floor: Annette Messager. The two West Australians were Brian Blanchflower and Rebecca Bauman. 29 of the 30 Aboriginal artists came from Martumilli Artists in the Pilbara.
However, I thought an analysis of the art and artists included in the recent Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, which was organized with the National Gallery of Australia, would be a better test. I reasoned that it would represent how the nation is being presented in a considered and official way to our former colonial masters – the discoverers of Australia. Because many people would be watching and counting, and because we must factor in Canberra political correctness, I expected something a little different to my anecdotal experiences. To my surprise there were surprising equity issues.             
Well not entirely to my surprise – I did expect figures something like this, though the race comparison is surprising as these figures only include artists working since WW1, and Aboriginal art has only had a significant place in Australian art since about 1990. There was no Aboriginal art in the previous large national exhibition of Australian art in London in 1962.
If our measure of being discovered is getting into the Australia exhibition, then the big equity issues are gender and race: you have an uphill battle if you are female or non-Aboriginal – remember that Aborigines and Torres Strait islanders account for only 3% of the total population.  I’m not a mathematician but I think this means you are 30 times more likely to be discovered if you are Aboriginal.
But for the figures you have been waiting for. The winning state by a long shot is the NT. It overperforms per head by 2,400%. ACT gets just the right proportion, as you would expect. Tasmania 30% better than it should, SA about 25% better, Queensland underperforms badly, NSW underperforms a bit and Victoria underperforms by a good margin. WA does very well comparatively.
If I had calculated these figures from the contemporary period only, Victoria and NSW would do even worse and the NT, WA and Qld would do better.
There is a not-so hidden statistic here. There were only two WA non-Aboriginal artists: Howard Taylor and Brian Blanchflower. In Queensland there are four non-Aboriginal artists, and in the NT none. Aboriginal artists are so over-represented these days that they distort the statistics. If we do a comparison of white artists, then NSW and Victoria are the best performers. WA and Queensland are the worst performers. And what does the difference in numbers between artists and artworks tells us: that Victorians make the best art.
That’s the facts – or the stats. Is there a way of changing it? The statistics tell the remarkable story of Aboriginal art in Australia. How was it able to achieve such an amazing visibility, especially since it has no state apparatus or national gallery to support it? Does it offer any lessons for non-Aboriginal WA artists – I’m not too worried about WA Aboriginal artists as they have been well and truly discovered, though to the incomprehension of British critics of Australia.
One obvious move is to collaborate with Aboriginal artists. Others are beating you to it.  For example, the collaboration between the Sydney filmmaker Lynette Wallworth, the New York transgender singer Antony – of Antony & The Johnsons – and Martu artists from the Martumili Art Centre featured at the recent Adelaide Biennale.
Currently the Italian artist Giorgia Severi is doing a collaborative artwork with Balgo artists for next year’s Venice Biennale.
You might think that this is a cynical move but these non-Aboriginal artists saw something in WA Aboriginal art that spoke to their own projects as artists. Severi, for example, is deeply interested in the ancestral connections one trips over every day in Italy, and believes that such connections hold a key to dealing with current world problems, which she blames on those great forces of modernity, capitalism and nationalism.
This brings us to an important reason why Aboriginal art was discovered at the end of the 1980s. Modernity and capitalism may show no signs of ageing but nationalism is giving way to the forces of globalism. The Sydney Nolan generation was the last and arguably the first to be interested in the question of national identity, and even then it appealed mostly to a British sense of what our national identity should be, which is why Nolan, Boyd and Drysdale spent so much time there.
However, the idea of contemporary art is orientated to globalism not nationalism. Here Aboriginal art is ahead of the pack. It was discovered when it began to be marketed as contemporary rather than primitive art. As primitive art it served a national agenda, giving white Australian art an historical pedigree ­ – as in Margaret Preston’s art. But once liberated from the straightjacket of nationalism it never looked back.
Closely connected with this post-nationalism was the postcolonial theory associated with it, which in the 1990s focused artworld attention on the rest, not the West. This turbo boosted Aboriginal art while at the same time being an impediment to art that was closely associated with Westernism. Nowhere is this more evident than in Terry Smith’s book on contemporary art. One of the few that actually includes Australia in its scheme, Aboriginal artists dominate his account of Australian contemporary art.
Secondly, postcolonial theory introduced ideas like world art, globalism and contemporary art to artworld discourse. As we heard Terry Smith tell us at UWA in 2011, the idea of contemporary art is now fully theorized – it is an ontology, a theory of being. Not simply art made today, what makes art contemporary now is the contemporaneity of its elements (or simultaneity of its differences); thus contemporary art is geared to cosmopolitanism, globalism, creolization and diasporic relations, discourses that are hostile to identity discourses, be they national, sexual or racial. To be discovered artists need to engage this new world in ways that challenge existing thinking. Amongst the most discovered in WA are right here at UWA, Symbiotica, who engage with a very global issue, biotechnology and related issues of anthropocentrism.
The discourse of the nation state will always privilege the culture of the centre, where the power of the nation state is located. Yet remote Aboriginal artists, who live in the most disempowered far flung places in the nation, are among the most discovered. Globalism has the potential to free local communities from the agenda of the nation state even though the artworld is an increasingly bureaucratized place administered by the state. This is evident in the important role that biennales have played in contemporary art – biennale being organized by cities not nation states. For example, Documenta – the most prestigious and influential exhibition of contemporary art – is an enterprise of the city of Kassel, which only has a population of about 200,000. At the last Documenta there were seven Australian artists, three of whom were Aboriginal and three of whom were born in WA: two now live in both WA and NSW, and one each in NT, Victoria and QLD. Three of these were urban artists represented by Milani Gallery in Brisbane, one of the most globally orientated commercial art galleries in Australia. The seven artists were      

  • Doreen Reid Nakamarra (1955-2009), born Mummine near Warburton, border of WA and NT, lived in Kiwirrkurra WA.
  • Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri (c. 1959 - ), born near Lake Mackay, border of WA and NT, lives Kiwirrkurra, WA
  • Warwick Thornton (b. 1970 -), Born Alice Springs lives Alice Springs
  • Stuart Ringholt (1971-), born Perth lives Melbourne
  • Khadim Ali (b. 1978), born Quetta Pakistan, lives Sydney
  • Gordon Bennett (1955-2014), born Monto Qld, lived Brisbane
  • Margaret Preston (1875-1963), born Adelaide, lived Sydney

Interestingly, you don’t have to be alive to be a contemporary artist. I’ll show you some pictures so you can see what the discovered look like. Is there a pattern here?
Not only were there an unusually large number of Australians at this last Documenta in 2012 but for the first time remote Aboriginal art was exhibited Despite the phenomenal success of remote Aboriginal art in Australia, it has generally failed to capture the imagination of international curators. Urban Aboriginal artists have been more successful. They are the discovered internationally.
The reason is that they better fit the paradigm of diaspora, whereas remote Aboriginal art is, like nationalism, too associated with identity discourses.             
Desart’s logo ‘Culture First’ and the anxiety to protect it from the outside that one hears from remote communities only adds to this sense. For example, Nicolas Rothwell reported the chair of Tjala Art at Amata, Frank Young, saying:
A lot of people are trying to get into the world of our stories. Outside people want to come in. When an exhibition's on, they want to know the real, inner story. And here, this way, in these paintings, now, we draw the line.[1]
Rothwell also reported its best-known painter, Hector Burton, as saying that they make art ‘to defend their children and grandchildren from the dark temptations of modernity’.[2] This is a far cry from the spirit of globalism and cosmopolitanism. The question for remote Aboriginal artists who want to be discovered is how to make it cosmopolitan?
This is explicitly evident in the curation of Okwui Enwezor. He has not only been singularly successful in his mission to have the artworld discover African art, he is amongst the most successful curators of contemporary art. Like Bourriaud, he has articulated an influential theory of the contemporary as a cosmopolitan and anti-nationalist practice. He is mainly of interest to the symposium because he has probably been responsible for the discovery of more previously marginalized artists than anyone else. He brought to the artworld’s attention the art of a whole continent and its diaspora.
Enwezor’s salesmanship played a large role in the success of African contemporary art. This is because he had a clear sense of where the past and future lay. “Transnational, transurban, transdiasporic, transcultural practices,” he declared, “are transforming the ways in which we understand the world.”[3]
To the past he consigned all identity discourses, and especially those of nationalism and indigenism. Indeed, any sign of nativism or what we would call Aboriginality, strikes a raw nerve, as evident in his scathing criticism, in 1997, of South African art that reinvests in “the so-called endangered Bushman.”[4] Thus he excludes indigenousness as a theoretical object, as if the very concept stands in the way of thinking the contemporary: This was particularly evident in his globalist conception of the Second Johannesburg Biennale (1997), called Trade Routes, which sharply distinguished itself from the First Johannesburg Biennale, called Africus—the latter focusing on issues of “cultural difference and identity,” including the “effect of colonizing cultures on indigenous art forms,” and South Africa’s long isolation from the artworld.[5] Enwezor is particularly dismissive of identity-based discourses, which he describes as “wrong-headed and regressive.”[6] Because they presume “cultural and political grounds that were too reductive and simplistic, specific and limited,” identity-based discourses are “incapable of transcending that specificity and aspiring to universal culture.”
The main complaint that African artists have against Enwezor is that he has really brought to the artworld’s attention the African diaspora and not that of the continent. The Australian artworld has largely ignored African contemporary art, and Enwezor has ignored us. This is not because he is ignorant of Australian art. In his 2002 Documenta there was only one Australian artist, the urban indigenous artist Destiny Deacon, from Melbourne. And there was only one other Indigenous artist in the whole Documenta, an Intuit film collective. He was recently in Australia preparing for the Venice Biennale, of which he is the artistic director next year. I wonder what he found?
In trying to learn from Enwezor we must remember that that the experiences of colonialism here and in Africa were very different. Unlike here, the colonists trained an African elite who either took the country back or had it given back to them in the form of modern nation states. Given the symbolic place of African art in the discourse of Western modernism—to quote Enwezor: its “savage body uncorrupted, and shielded from the ravages of modernity”[7]—one might think that nearly all of today’s one billion Africans are indigenous. Indeed, this is how Africans were often categorized in historical accounts. However, today only about 5% of the population is counted as indigenous. At some point in the late twentieth century 95% of Africans exchanged their indigeneity for the mantle of modernity. Like Europeans, they became citizens. Yet, much like Australia, many African nations use Indigenous symbols to create a national ideology – a move that Enwezor vehemently resists. As Mahmood Mamdani wrote in the catalogue for Enwezor’s acclaimed exhibition The Short Century (2001) – the only way forward is “to challenge the idea that we must define political identity, political rights, and political justice first and foremost in relation to indigeneity.”[8]
I can’t see the Australian artworld going down this track in my lifetime. We have our own demons to slay. Yet there is an important lesson to be learnt by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian artists from Enwezor’s success: that to be discovered the local must be thought in terms of how the ‘transnational, transurban, transdiasporic, transcultural practices are transforming the ways in which we’ experience it. Demanding a fairer representation from the bureaucracies and galleries of the Australian nation state won’t get you far. Even if this representation was forthcoming, the dominant discourse of the nation state, which is centred in the Bermuda triangle of Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, would remain. This is why the University Melbourne, and not the University of Western Australia, is about to create the Hugh Ramsay Chair of Australian Art History. Let’s hope Enwezor applies. How could they refuse him? 

Dr Ian McLean was the keynote speaker at The Undiscovered: A National Focus on Western Australian Art, a symposium co-presented by Artsource and The Cultural Precinct of the University of Western Australia.

For  more information about this event you can read :

  • Keynote Speaker, Ian McLean – The Newly Discovered
  • Media Panellist, Ted Snell – The Tyranny of Myopia
  • - See more at:

[1] Nicolas Rothwell, 'Mysteries of Desert Kings Stay Concealed among the Trees', The Australian, March 01 2012b.

[2] Nicolas Rothwell, ‘Mysteries of desert kings stay concealed among the trees’, The Australian, March 1, 2012.

[3] Enwezor, Basualdo et al, “Introduction”, 16.       

[4] Enwezor, “Reframing the Black Subject”, 28.

[5] Ferguson, L. 1995, “Reflections on the Question”, 10.

[6] Enwezor, “The Postcolonial Constellation”, 226.

[7] Enwezor, “Redrawing the Boundaries”, 4.          

[8] Ibid., 27.