Column: Exhibitionist   |   Date Published: Tuesday, 23 November 10   |   Author: Vanessa Wright   |   6 years, 6 months ago

     All Together Now

There is nothing shy about proppaNOW, that’s the first thing you should know. They are a confronting, engaging, political machine - an Aboriginal artist’s collective from Brisbane, out to change the world.

An upcoming exhibition of new and recent work by the collective at the Canberra Contemporary Art Space will introduce Canberra to the provocative, compelling and mischievous work of proppaNOW, a group that promotes the work of urban Aboriginal artists while also questioning what Aboriginal art is.

Officially established in 2004, proppaNOW includes some of Australia’s most successful contemporary artists. The seven artists currently in the collective are Richard Bell, Vernon Ah Kee (who represented Australia at the 2009 Venice Biennale), Tony Albert, Jennifer Herd, Bianca Beetson, Laurie Nilsen and Gordon Hookey. Each of these artists is successful in their own right, but together the collective forms a supportive, close-knit and intergenerational working family. They produce work that is distinct and individual, yet the work of all seven artists is fundamentally concerned with issues of identity, racism and inequality, and strives to overturn established stereotypes, preconceptions and misconceptions of both Aboriginal art and Australian history.

The interests of urban Aboriginal artists are often overlooked by government funding and are underrepresented in galleries that favour more traditional work by regional artists, so the proppaNOW collective was established to give a voice and political agency to a sidelined group. The “proppa” in proppaNOW, refers to the Aboriginal phrase “proper way” meaning the proper way of doing things, which respects the community and its codes of behavior while referencing an Aboriginal way of doing things. The work of proppaNOW is also about now - it concerns current conceptions of culture and race, current political issues as well as issues such as displacement and authenticity. The artists are still very much influenced by their heritage and their community, but approach their work from a contemporary art perspective using a variety of media.

For the upcoming CCAS exhibition proppaNOW will be experimenting with forms of new media and for some this will be an exploration outside of their comfort zone. Works will be primarily photography or video pieces, familiar territory for some of the artists, such as Richard Bell. For Bell there is “no better way to convey messages and ideas than moving images”, and this preference is particularly evident in his 2008 video work Scratch an Aussie. In this work Bell is a self-styled black Sigmund Freud, psychoanalyzing attractive, half naked young men and women and questioning the often-prevalent racism of white Australia, all with a good dash of biting satire.

Bianca Beetson’s work also employs humour and satire to convey issues in her almost always pink and frequently sequined work that is primarily concerned with individual Aboriginal identity. Existing somewhere between painting and sculpture Beetson combines kitsch and pop culture references with elements of traditional work such as dot painting and burial poles. Her work critiques both what it means to create authentic Aboriginal art as well roles of beauty and the feminine in art. One of Beetson’s most provocative works is her gingerbread man series. These works deal with skin and her own issues with identity, being a fair skinned Aboriginal woman who is constantly questioned about “how Aboriginal” she is and the authenticity of her work as a result.

One motif the proppaNOW group shares is the image of the target, seen in works such as Tony Albert’s No Place 2 (2009) as well as works by Beetson. It represents how the collective is often seen as an easy target for criticism, both from the outside and within the indigenous community, because they like to stir up trouble and create controversy with their work and actions. In 2003, to accept his Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award, Richard Bell chose to wear a t-shirt emblazoned with the words, “White girls can’t hump”. It is actions such as this that form part of the strength of the proppaNOW collective, often deliberately making themselves a target for criticism and debate, while simultaneously causing interest in their art and their collective message. 

The director of the Canberra Contemporary Art Space, David Broker, views this proppaNOW exhibition as vitally important for the Canberra art scene. “proppaNOW”, states Broker, “are an exceptional example of collective activity and can set a great example for Canberra artists”. One of the potential future outcomes that Broker sees arising from this exhibition is that the exposure of Canberra artists to the work of proppaNOW will encourage local Aboriginal artists in their practice, creating the opportunity to show more local work in coming years.

proppaNOW: new-recent work promises to be a surprising, captivating and hopefully controversial exhibition. If audiences are very lucky Gordon Hookey may even use the opening as an opportunity to recite his new poem - an ode to Bob Katter! It’s a rare opportunity to see Australia’s hottest art collective in a group show outside of Queensland and an unmissable opportunity for Canberra audiences to the view the work of artists producing such compelling and intelligent art. Art that hopes to change not only Australia, but also the world.

proppaNOW: new-recent work opens at the Canberra Contemporary Art Space Gorman House at 6pm Friday December 10 and is on show until late January 2011. For more information visit

Craft ACT: A Very Crafty Christmas

For all its positive messages, Christmas has long represented all that is depressing about throwaway consumer culture. Recent years however have seen a defiant move against these attitudes, and a resurgence of  all things handmade. There are global movements, such as, as well as local activity, such as the Handmade markets, but one organization that has long championed the cause in Canberra is Craft ACT Craft and Design Centre, exhibiting and promoting cutting-edge work by designers and artisans.

In June of last year Craft ACT launched its retail shop front, responding to the calls from local practitioners for more opportunities to increase the visibility of their practice and the viability of their careers. Local makers can now produce and sell wares all year round, not just when the rare opportunity to exhibit arises. The inviting space, located alongside the Craft ACT gallery, is a feast for the eyes and imagination. One wall boasts a site-specific work by local graf artist Byrd, and the remainder is packed with diverse and innovative handcrafted goods.

Craft ACT curator Diana Hare estimates that 95% of artists stocked in the shop are from the Canberra region – making it a hub for local creative talent. Even the remaining 5% generally have some connection to the ACT, often being alumni of the prestigious ANU School of Art or artists who have previously exhibited with Craft ACT.

Because of their dealings with beautiful and unique objects Christmas has always been a busy time for the organisation and the makers with which it associates. The shop means they are able to rise to the occasion more than ever before, while also taking time to celebrate another year of creative activity in the capital.

This year the shop will burst its seams at a special one-night-only Christmas event. New works by Craft ACT’s dearest artisan friends will fill not only the shop and storeroom, but the entire foyer area too. There’ll be music, drinks, and a chance for an end of year catch-up with the who’s who of the Craft and Design community.

Central to the festivities will be a specially commissioned Christmas tree, by local designer and craftsman Tom Skien. The tree will be festooned by decorations made by some of the scene’s most well known artists – to give this centuries old Christmas tradition a contemporary spin.

Contrary to popular belief locally handcrafted goods don’t have to be bank-breakers. People from all walks of life are drawn to the handmade, so all different budgets and tastes are catered for. Ultimately, the value of these handcrafted goods is beyond monetary – being a step towards sustainable practices and production, supporting independent industry and keeping the local creative economy strong. It’s shopping with a conscience, keeping Christmas individual and keeping you free from the horrors of the mall.

Check out what’s on offer at Craft ACT Craft and Design Centre from 2-5pm Saturday November 27, upstairs in the North Building, 180 London Circuit.

In The Spotlight : The Original Sellout

Hey camera-touting kiddies, even if you are one of those red-horned soulless “advertising types” there is still hope. The first major retrospective of Anton Bruehl, ex-adverstar photographer, is currently being presented by the National Gallery of Australia. In The Spotlight showcases an extensive collection of Australian-born Bruehl’s gorgeous colour and black and white photographic works from 1920-1960.

The iconic images produced by the not-so-soulless wonder are not always immediately attributable to Bruehl, even though millions have enjoyed his sumptuous advertising imagery. He is credited as having transformed commercial photography into an art form, as one of the most successful celebrity portraiture, advertising and fashion photographers to come out of New York during the commercial boom of the 1950s.

Bruehl’s well-known portraits of a flame-haired Marlene Dietrich, scowling Katharine Hepburn or trumpet-wielding Louis Armstrong hang in the NGA alongside advertisements from Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and House and Garden. Far from selling-out, the exhibition marks the establishment of artistic lighting and styling, which has inspired contemporary Australian photographers such as Max Dupain and Athol Smith.

The NGA chose to display a representative collection of Bruehl’s works for this show, rather than his more popularly exhibited 1920s-30s modernist still-life studies and advertisements. This presented a challenge, particularly in the display of the 100 black and white photographs donated by Bruehl’s son, Anton Bruehl Junior.

“Exhibitions of similar sized photographs can look like washing on a line, so we went for a theatrical look,” said the NGA’s Senior Curator of Photography, Gael Newton. “We understood the quality integrity but also the imagination and sense of play he brought to his works. We used black painted frames and white reversed-out text on black labels”, she said.

In addition to creating an extensive collection of black and white images, Bruehl was a pioneer of colour production techniques, working with photo technician Fernand Bourges to master high-colour photography three years before Kodak released Kodachrome colour film in 1935.

“We wanted to create the sense of that hot palate, said Newton. The colour scheme in that part of the exhibition is blue and orange and we also used quotes associated with his career, like ‘colour is like dynamite, dangerous if you don’t know how to use it.’”

Dynamite Canberra photographers-in-training can take heart from the unglamorous beginnings of Anton Bruehl. Born in Naracoorte, SA and raised in Melbourne, he studied electrical engineering, only moving to New York when his German-born father was refused naturalisation during World War 1.

The injustice could not have been more fruitful for Bruehl, who never returned to Australia, but forged his skills at art school, making his mark on the big apple and on Australian photographic history.

In The Spotlight – Anton Bruehl Photographs 1920s – 1950s is on show at the National Gallery of Australia until February 6 and entry is free.


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