Tony Albert's Reverse Ethnography of Aboriginalia
In his exhibition at Sullivan+Strumpf in Sydney, Conversations with Margaret Preston (18 March–10 April 2021), Tony Albert dissects 20th-century Australian artist Margaret Preston's iconography with a reverse ethnography, using his personal collection of Aboriginalia.
Tony Albert, Conversations with Margaret Preston, Protea (attributed) II (2020). Acrylic and vintage appropriated fabric on Arches paper. 57 x 76 cm. Courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf.
As one of the iconic creators of Australian art, Preston was inspired by Aboriginal art, finding rock engravings near her property in Berowra, New South Wales, during the 1930s.
Preston believed that Aboriginal art was essential to establishing a visual language that reflected Australia's landscape and soul. These motifs began to weave themselves within Preston's artworks, using the dried, burnt colours as seen in bark paintings—all while acknowledging her sources to recognise the traditional Aboriginal artists.
However, later analysis of Preston's practice reveals an appropriation in Australia that ultimately exploits First Nations artists, unintentionally opening the door to cultural pillaging.
'I was fascinated by Margaret Preston's ideas surrounding a national identity', Albert reflects. 'I feel there is a missing dialogue when it comes to the use of Aboriginal imagery within her work and the role in which she played in Aboriginal art entering the realm of home décor.'
Albert has long had a fascination with a term called 'Aboriginalia', which uses Aboriginal imagery, often found within home décor. Exploring objecthood through this mode of viewing, Albert exposes the complex result of appropriation that disregards the spiritual concept behind the motifs and symbols.
The contrast between fine art and home décor plays out throughout the exhibition, showcased in the industrial art gallery with sleek aesthetics juxtaposing the kitschy iconography—burnt, umber tones; dried native flowers; appropriated fabrics.
In the staggering Conversations with Preston: Christmas Bells (2020), on two panels reaching 300 by 400 centimetres, Albert depicts Preston's familiar imagery of flowers with found Aboriginalia collaged onto the vase, based on Preston's hand-coloured print, Christmas Bells (1925). The fabric reveals Aboriginal art and symbolic references and text that reads 'Aboriginal Art'.
Albert shares, 'I actually started to collect Aboriginalia as a child. I had a great love of seeing Aboriginal imagery replicated on this iconography. It came from a very innocent child's perspective with no understanding of the more sinister undertones of that.'
As such, Albert uses the exhibition to return his collection of Aboriginalia and Preston's art to one of First Nations origins, integrating his own artistic practice in the process.
Upstairs in the gallery, Albert again juxtaposes the distinction of fine art and home décor with his installation of a cast iron bed with a quilt sewn by the artist from his vintage t-shirt and material collection, with cast glass lamps titled Nguma and Yabu (both 2020).
Albert has been collecting these fabrics for over two decades. 'Fabric enters into my collection through printed material, bedding, curtains, cushions, placemats, and wall hangings,' the artist shares. 'I made a quilt that was just for fun or as a hobby. I really fell in love with the outcome, and that gave me the courage to engage with the fabrics within my contemporary art practice.'
This series of works also furthers his connection to activism, using art to expose 'visibility and invisibility' of Aboriginal people in contemporary media. 'That tangent between the visible and invisible is the crux of my work,' Albert explains. 'It is that tension that I am interested in. Activism is the visibility. Squashing the visibility of that activism causes silence and invisibility.'
Through his art, Albert sets out to reclaim the misappropriations of the past, or one that continues into the present day. As Angela Goddard writes, 'Albert's interest lies in the consequences of Preston's encouragements—these kitsch caricatures of Aboriginal designs and motifs still found on tea towels, tablecloths, table runners, handkerchiefs, placemats, and lengths of fabric, rather than the sophisticated abstraction she envisioned.'
Goddard continues, 'Their motifs include a melange of caricatured Aboriginal faces, stylised boomerangs and other weapons; motifs and animal shapes borrowed from Yolngu and Tiwi bark paintings, to north Queensland rainforest shields and jawun baskets, to desert body painting designs, all mixed in together.'1
By contrasting Albert's fabric and Preston's iconography, Albert reveals the damaging effects of Aboriginal imagery rendered meaningless through unconsidered appropriation and racist mimicry.
Conversations with Margaret Preston exposes the harm in 'harmless' practices that continue into the present, digging deeper into how Aboriginal art has been routinely misused, resulting in waves of exploitative tropes and interpretations. —[O]
1 Angela Goddard, essay published in Sullivan+Strumpf March/April Issue, on the occasion of Conversations with Margaret Preston, Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney (18 March–10 April 2021), p.36: https://issuu.com/sullivanstrumpf/docs/marapr_2021/32?ff