Contemporary or Traditional?

Although Indigenous Australian art is in the permanent collections of all large art museums of Australia, it is still difficult to convince museums or art associations in Germany to exhibit it. German art academics often argue that the works would be better placed in ethnological museums.

A regretable episode in this context took place in Art Cologne in 1994:

The renowned Melbourne art gallery Gallery Pizzi, which has specialized in Indigenous Australian art, successfully applied in 1993 to participate in the Art Cologne fair, one of the foremost art events in Europe. When it applied again in the following year, it was rejected. The selection committee, which according to its own statements consists of “outstanding museum curators and progressive gallery owners“, deliberated upon the 1993 exhibition from the Gallery Pizzi and wrote in their notification letter that:

“After taking all aspects of your application into consideration, it was not possible to grant you selection for Art Cologne 1994 because you do not exhibit authentic Aboriginal art, as the '93 exhibition jury observed, but contemporary art by artists following in this tradition. As you know, or as you can see from the conditions of participation, folk art is not permitted at Art Cologne." (1)

This caused a small scandal in Germany and a larger one in Australia, where this decision was seen as indicating racist views. During a German panel discussion, which was broadcast on West German radio (WDR), the Indigenous artist Lin Onus drew an appropriate comparison to characterize the pigeonholing of Indigenous art by the German art profession: the committee of Art Cologne was considering Indigenous art in the same way as cuckoo clocks made in the Black Forest.

Following the wave of protests from Australia, Gallery Pizzi was admitted to Art Cologne in 1994; however for the year thereafter the committee ordered that only works by urban artists would be allowed, whereupon Gallery Pizzi withdrew their application to participate in 1995. At the same time, the Art Cologne changed its statutes in such a way that ethnographica - a polite euphemism for folk art – could not comply with the admission criteria.

It is perhaps no accident that the year 1993, in which the Gallery Pizzi participated without any controversy in Art Cologne, was the United Nations International Year of the World's Indigenous People.

This historical incident, so embarrassing to German art academia, occurred after the first extensive exhibition of Indigenous art in a German art museum, i.e. after “Aratjara“ (April 24th to July 4th, 1993) in the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf, which was accompanied by a very comprehensive exhibition catalogue. The admissions committee of Art Cologne, and any others with the inclination, could thereafter easily inform themselves about Indigenous Australian art.

Lüthi, B. (ed.): Aratjara. Kunst der ersten Australier, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, DuMont, Köln 1993, exhib. cat., ISBN 3926154160Furthermore, the exhibition “Eine Reise zu den großen Dingen“ (March 8th to April 30th, 1995) at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, another leading museum for modern art in Germany, had been accompanied by a bilingual and informative catalogue (2). The admissions committee of Art Cologne should have known better, based on the two exhibitions and catalogues, than to restrict their selection criteria.

A time will come, even in Germany, when these attitudes will seem laughable and the incidents merely anectodes. So far, however, the arguments in Germany over acknowledging Indigenous art as art have not concluded.

Don't the works of Indigenous artists qualify as art? There are innumerable definitions of what is art. Art theory currently has no unambiguous criteria to determine what counts as art and what not. Particularly since “Fountain“ by Marcel Ducham in 1917, the question has been hotly discussed and remains unanswered. Art is mutable, like the world itself, and it crosses over into many areas. One field is the communication of ideas, or of reactions to incidents and events. But art covers also the fields of perception, intuition, emotions and naturally also aesthetics.

The nearly complete relegation of Indigenous art into ethnological museums (in Germany) is a mistake, because the first approach by the art-viewing public to this art is via its aesthetics. Even though the question of the meaning of a work of art always arises, perception precedes apperception.

Knowing and understanding the contents of works of art is not the sole priority. Art comprizes both aspects, content as well as colour, form, proportion, light etc. Both aspects are important, require careful consideration and are key differentiating characteristics between works of art and ethnographic exhibits. If content were the only factor, artists would not need to worry about uniqueness of style and execution, and artworks would degrade to stereotypes. The sensual aspects would be lost, and it is questionable whether art which so neglected the emotions and aesthetics would still be  regarded as art.

Many of the Indigenous artists who live in the outback of Australia or in Arnhem Land or on the northern islands still practice their pre-colonization religions and promulgate the related oral traditions as history / morals. They therefore celebrate and communicate in their art something which is real and personal to them in today’s world. The fact that the ceremonies and moral rules can change is a common fact of life, because naturally the Indigenous people do not live in isolation.

Bernhard Lüthi, curator of the exhibition “Aratjara“ and himself an artist, writes:

“Viewed closely, the strategy of the Art Cologne has fragile foundations: it contradicts itself. Contemporary art, which follows “tradition”, is a priori “authentic”, in particular when it is created by legitimate descendants in a continuously developing community. The terms “Authenticity” and “tradition” are not frozen in a particular time and space.

All cultures change, independent of their geographical location, in accordance with their own reality or in reaction to external pressure. The events in a culture are automatically labelled contemporary to a particular time period, until they are themselves inevitably displaced into history by change and progression of time, becoming part of the next generation’s “tradition”.

By exclusively demanding a veneration of “tradition”, we move onto shaky ground.  “Tradition” is a historically timeless term. It redefines itself continuously in the course of historical and social changes. We are embedded in the process of innovation, and concomitantly in the paradox of the term “tradition”. Tradition becomes relative: an imprecise definition of an idealized time.“ (3)

The use of the term “tradition” is problematic, since it implies a status quo. Some of today’s European artists use the 2000-year-old symbol of the Christian cross in their work. That is not seen as an excuse for art academics to label those works as traditional. This is because the artists interpret the symbol in relation to today's life.

Irrespective of all the conceptual differences between Indigenous art and art by western Europeans, it is not legitimate to assert that today's use of historical symbols by western-european artists is contempory art, but in the case of Indigenous artists it is “traditional”. Just as German artists can use the cross without being labelled as "following tradition", an Indigenous artist can use ancient symbols without the works being classified as “traditional”.

Since the start of the art movement in the 1970s, the artists of central and north Australia have created their artworks for public viewing. The artworks were never created for another purpose than for public display, to communicate aesthetics and culture. They are not religious objects; they differ strongly from sacral art in their new aesthetics and innovative elements. They reflect not the past, but today's living culture.


(1) Letter of May 19th, 1994, quoted from Lüthi, Bernhard: “Terra Incognita? Europe, the history of art and the art of Aboriginal Australia”, in: Aboriginal Art Gallery Bähr (Ed.): “Das Verborgene im Sichtbaren. The Unseen in Scene“, 2nd ed., Speyer 2002, exhib. cat., p. 81.
See also McDonald, John: “A Snub For Aboriginal Art“, in: Sydney Morning Herald, August 5th, 1994, ( gesehen am 01.07.2012).

(2) Lüthi, B. (ed.): Aratjara. Art of the First Australians, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, DuMont, Cologne 1993, Exhib. Cat.
Brody, Anne, Krempel, Ulrich and Bähr, Elisabeth (eds.): Stories. Eine Reise zu den großen Dingen. Elf Künstler der australischen Aborigines, Sprengel Museum, Hanover 1995, exhib. cat.

(3) Lüthi, Bernhard: Terra Incognita? Europa, die Kunstgeschichte und die Kunst Aboriginal Australiens, in: Aboriginal Art Galerie Bähr (ed.): Das Verborgene im Sichtbaren. The Unseen in Scene, 2. ed., Speyer 2002, exhib. cat., p. 92f