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 www.ccas.com.au.