Painting the darker side of Down Under

A new series of exhibitions in Sydney traces the development of an Australian identity through the country's art. Sue Hubbard reports
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The Independent Online

To our eyes it may be the land of sun, surf and Home and Away, but underneath this superficial image of Australia lurks a darker, more complex struggle for identity. This is the land that recently said no to becoming a republic, where as late as the Sixties - as John Pilger notes - Queensland school books likened Aborigines to "feral jungle creatures"; a continent that has some of the driest deserts and most beautiful coastline in the world, and is about to host the Olympic Games and the Olympic Arts Festival in Sydney.

To our eyes it may be the land of sun, surf and Home and Away, but underneath this superficial image of Australia lurks a darker, more complex struggle for identity. This is the land that recently said no to becoming a republic, where as late as the Sixties - as John Pilger notes - Queensland school books likened Aborigines to "feral jungle creatures"; a continent that has some of the driest deserts and most beautiful coastline in the world, and is about to host the Olympic Games and the Olympic Arts Festival in Sydney.

The city has organised a number of sports-related visual arts events. "One Thousand Years of the Olympic Games" at the Powerhouse Museum and "Sporting Life" at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) aim to explore the traditions and conventions of sport, the athletic body and the relationship between sport and art. But on another level, the programme seems infused with a desire to define a clear sense of national identity, to explore the complexities of moving from being a colonial to a postcolonial society and also to make real the much talked about national reconciliation with the appallingly treated indigenous Australians. Shows such as "Australian Icons" at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, "Sydneysiders" at the Museum of Sydney and above all, "Urban Dingo, The Art of Lin Onus 1948-1996", at the MCA, seem to chart something of this struggle going on in the Australian psyche.

"Australian Icons" is selected from the museum's permanent collection to illustrate more than a century of Australian art. A number of themes stand out. The continuing awe that so many artists feel at the vastness of the landscape. The battle from the late 19th century onwards to turn their backs on European academicism and find a truly authentic Australian visual language; and how, apart from a handful - such as Sydney Nolan and Arthur Boyd - most are largely unknown to a wider audience.

The exhibition highlights the growing concern of artists to relinquish a European vision in order to embrace the metaphysics of wilderness, the unremitting, sometimes hostile, space that is Australia.

Educated in Europe, G W Lambert was a well-known society portrait painter, when in 1899, he painted an heroic horizontal canvas of a 13-strong horse team pulling a wagon across the dry bush. It is one of the first paintings to capture something of the spiritual - as well as practical - necessity of conquering this uncharted landmass.

Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts' robust vision, to reject painting Australia as if it were France, is illustrated in Roberts' Bailed Up, 1895, with its synthesis of paint and light, depicting a stage coach hold-up in the bush. Women artists such as Grace Cossington Smith and Margaret Preston were surprisingly instrumental in opening the doors to Modernism. Cossington Smith's The Curve of the Bridge, painted in the 1920s, captures the sense of optimism at a landscape potentially tamed by man's vision of the mechanical. Russell Drysdale was, in the Thirties, to articulate, in his melancholy Hoppersque works, something of the haunting loneliness of the human condition - and for the first time highlight the lives of Aborigines. In the muscular vision of Fred Williams, European abstraction was, in the 1960s and 1970s, fused with a deep knowledge of the local terrain, depicting the underlying bones rather than a surface reality, so that the landscape became indivisible from a sense of "Australianness". Rightly included here are the bark paintings of two Aboriginal masters, Mungurrawuy Yunupingu and Mawalan Marika. For the Aboriginal sense of self is embedded in both landscape and place, and art is the outward expression of this relationship.

The life and art of Lin Onus, whose career spans the period from 1974-1996, parallels the rise of urban based Aboriginal art. The only child of Bill Onus, a Yorta Yorta man from Cummeragunja in Victoria, a champion boomerang thrower and maker, and a Scottish mother, Onus died in 1996 aged just 47. He occupies, what must be a unique position. Inheriting a strong sense of social justice from his Communist parents, he was involved as an activist, as well as an artist, in the struggles of indigenous Australians for social, political and cultural recognition. The hallmark of his work is his interweaving of strands from both his Aboriginal and European heritages, and an ability to bring together dualistic views; one western, representational and cognisant of movements in contemporary art, and the other Aboriginal and spiritual. He has been called a "cultural terrorist of gentle irreverence", for his work is always inclusive, filled with wit, humour and poignancy. During the Seventies he refused the art market's ghettoising insistence that as an Aboriginal artist he should paint in the "authentic" (and highly collectable) style of those from Arnhem Land and the desert. A self-taught artist, he held many jobs, from volunteer fireman to snake-catcher. One day, his wife found him painting. Remarking that she didn't know he could do that, he replied neither did he. From then on he spent the rest of his life as a painter.

By the mid-1980s, Onus's struggle to express his Aboriginality through his work resulted in the development of a hybrid style, which in its breadth and eclecticism is postmodern in the true sense of the word. His natural representational skill, along with his incorporation of traditional striped Aboriginal rarrk design produced something greater than the sum of these two parts. Borrowing from high art and popular culture, his work has instant appeal. The dingo, clad like a football player in his striped Aboriginal colours, became for Onus, not a symbol of the excluded underdog, but that of the adaptable survivor. This image, often used alongside that of the stingray, led to a series of mythological works, The Ongoing Adventures of X and Ray, where the animals perform social and political roles. One of the most engaging is where the dingo X is seen using Ray as a surfboard to ride one of art history's most recognisable images, the wave from Hokusai's Japanese woodcut. There is a huge breadth to Onus's work. From sculptural installations such as Maralinga (1990) and They took the children away (1992) - showing the abduction of the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children - to highly sophisticated paintings such as Fish, Ferns, and Rocks (1991), where the concept of transparency, of "seeing below the surface", learnt from his Aboriginal mentor, Jack Wunuwun, suffuses the work with something close to a sublime spirituality.

In an effort to find his own identity, Onus worked in what the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss called that "in-between space", a space between multiple worlds where new meanings are wrought between contradictions. It is this space that seems to point towards new possibilities for an uniquely Australian culture, free from ties of Empire, confident in its own history and multiculturalism. In a larger world setting, the cynical, market-orientated positioning of much of the London art scene may well have something to learn from this impassioned engagement. Yet it made me uncomfortable that at the press view there was not an indigenous Australian in sight, except for Onus's son who only has a quarter Aboriginal blood and would pass for white. The only Aborigines I saw were in downtown Sydney lying a dozen deep in drunken piles of poverty. It is true that there is a now a tiny Aboriginal elite, artists such as Tracey Moffat, but there is the nagging sense that white society is now embracing a culture that it has done its best to kill off.

"Sydneysiders" shows an easier face of cultural diversity by photojournalist Lorrie Graham. From the old Australian males of Irish and Italian descent playing bocce on Bronte Beach, their rotund, leathery bodies covered with baby oil, to the outsized nine-year-old Fiona Anderson hugging her prize rat Pinky at a Fancy Rat Show, to the staged Ballroom Dancing - all yards of tulle and spangles - outside Sydney Opera House, these images suggest that in a country this huge it is possible to construct a multiplicity of meanings of what it means to be a contemporary Australian.

* ' Australian Icons': Art Gallery of New South Wales to 29 October; 'Sporting Life': MCA to 13 November; 'Urban Dingo, The Art of Lin Onus 1948-96', MCA to 29 October; 'Sydneysiders': Museum of Sydney to 3 December; 'One Thousand Years of the Olympic Games': Powerhouse Museum to 29 October

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