In Who’s Afraid of Colour?, likely the largest exhibition ever of its kind, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) Australia is acknowledging and actively working to correct the institutional erasure of Australian Indigenous art, “the world’s longest continuing art tradition,” which has endured for some 40,000 years. The exhibition includes 200 artworks by 118 artists, all of whom are Australian Indigenous women. Since the beginning of the continent’s colonization, Indigenous peoples’ artworks have been denied their rightful place within the Australian art scene. Sentiments finally began to change in the 1960s, after centuries, but Indigenous women were still steadily excluded. The NGV itself is guilty of mounting a survey of over 300 Indigenous artworks in 1981 and not crediting a single female artist.
Nevertheless, Australian Indigenous women artists have worked hard to earn their growing recognition, marked by a number of significant milestones including Emily Kam Kngwarray, Yvonne Koolmatrie, and Judy Watson representing Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1997; the first sale for over $1,000,000 at auction of Kngwarray’s Earth’s Creation in 2007; and this year, the selection of Tracey Moffatt to represent Australia in the first Indigenous woman’s solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale.
The large-scale exhibition at the NGV presents the full spectrum of contemporary Australian Indigenous art. Numerous woven baskets, necklaces, ceramics, and string bags—objects that might be considered craft in other contexts—are all included, and rightfully so, since craft and utilitarian works are defined as art objects in the Indigenous art discourse. Across most Indigenous cultures, the act of making art objects and paintings using traditional methods is a way to enter into Dreamtime, a nonlinear, expansive dimension of space and time wherein the landscape, objects, animals, and human beings were once created, and where all ancestors and events continue to exist throughout time. Howard Morphy describes how across Indigenous cultures, “Art established a line of connection with the foundational events and enabled people to maintain contact with the spiritual dimension of existence… [Art] keeps the past alive and maintains its relevance to the present.”