Aboriginal art was redefined at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin, Australia on Friday night, the 14th of August. This shift in cultural attitudes was expressed at the awards ceremony for Australian Indigenous art known as the 26th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA).
Announcement of the winner of this prestigious prize was like a decree that has broadened the definition of Aboriginal art. Albert Namatjira’s landscape painting ushered in a new era in which the use of European art styles in Aboriginal art was sanctioned in Western (European) society. The latest Telstra Art Award ceremony announced a new attitudinal shift towards Aboriginal art being accepted in its own right as an art style and an art movement that can include European art styles in combination with social commentary.
What we are observing with this year’s decision by the judges of the Telstra Art Award could be objectively referred to as a dialectic or watershed synthesis of the past developments in the Aboriginal art movement involving Albert Namatjira and Richard Bell.
However, Danie Mellor’s stylistically Expressionist sophistication has converted what is Richard Bell’s front-line “social activism” into “social commentary” that is digestible to the art mainstream or “art establishment”, for want of a more-focused term.
Wax crayon, pencil and glitter pen on paper were employed to create the winning drawing of the interior of a Freemason's lodge complete with Aboriginal dancers, native Australian animals and Masonic iconic ornaments and ceremonial objects. Sadly, the Indigenous elements seem to be contained, confined and constrained by the European architecture and institutional structure. The composition and structural juxtapositioning of this content in the drawing tends to transmit a sense of the tension between the built-environment and European culture, on the one hand, and the natural environment and Indigenous culture, on the other.
The “Australian art establishment”, in awarding the major prize to Danie Mellor’s drawing on paper, has sanctioned a new, expanded definition of Aboriginal art which incorporates Expressionism. The juxtapositioning element of Surrealism and the social and political commentary of Social Realism are clearly evident in the oeuvre of Danie Mellor and certainly in “From Rite to Ritual”. In fact, this drawing combines these two Modernist styles with European and Aboriginal / Antipodean content to produce a defining moment in Aboriginal Art, the world’s greatest contemporary art movement.
The defining moment is the birth of the Magic Realist strand within Aboriginal Art. “From Rite to Ritual” is the first major work in this style. Magic Realism has also been common in the latter-twentieth century Post-Modernist literature of settler societies where the Indigenous peoples are repopulating the cultural landscapes, their landscapes with their spirits and their rituals.
Danie Mellor’s Aboriginal mother’s country is the Atherton Tableland area west of Cairns in Far North Queensland. The 38-year-old artist is from the Mamu and Ngagan language groups and was born in the Queensland coastal sugar city of Mackay.
He is now in the process of serving both his people and his country – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. Danie Mellor is re-colonising our cultural landscape with art that subtly, though directly addresses the conflict between European culture and Indigenous culture, as well as social and political issues of race, colour, creed and Australia’s institutionalised power structure. His Magic Realism is part-conjuring trick and part-miracle, which, I daresay, is partly performed from a place deeply beyond his self-consciousness.
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