"Magical" is the word several of them used in relation to their experiences in Kakadu. Their keen sense of the natural beauty of the environment was matched by an awareness of an enduring Aboriginal presence in the places visited. The art they produced responded to the natural surroundings and focussed on the Aboriginal meanings of the places.
The escarpment and the stone country
beyond proved of enduring interest to the artists who were flown over and
into it, as well as viewing different aspects of it from the ground at
various sites. For Made Budhiana from Bali and Sylvester Jussem from Sarawak,
the rock formations and all of nature at Kakadu were enlivened by Aboriginal
spirits. Paintings such as The Aborigine and Nature by Budhiana and the
Faces at Nourlangie series by Jussem reflect the spiritual fusion they
observed between Aboriginal people and the natural environment.
ARTISTS IN THE FIELD - a retrospective
Throughout the 1980s the Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory (MAGNT) hosted a series of bush camps, enabling over forty artists from interstate and overseas to spend time in the Top End. They were encouraged to produce art based on their experiences, for exhibition at the Museum the following year. Behind this creative venture was the founding Director of the MAGNT, Dr Colin Jack-Hinton, whose imaginative vision for a multi-disciplinary museum and art gallery, focusing on the nature and culture of the Northern Territory and its regions, was reflected in the ‘Artists in the Field’ project. His meeting with esteemed Australian artist, Frank Hodgkinson, at a time when the latter had begun to visit the Top End, was the trigger for a highly praised series of camps, generating a great volume of art in response to what was, for almost all the artists, a new place.
The ‘Artists in the Field’ venture coincided with a decade in which the Australian landscape tradition was being pervasively interrogated and abandoned. Much of this was in concert with the politicisation of land management and ownership issues in Australia, through indigenous land rights and environmental movements. At the same time there was a proliferation of alternative means of visual expression taken up in varying degrees by Australia’s artists. The residual traces of modernism had city-based artists still exploring colour field painting and pop art. Minimalism, installation, reproductive technologies and conceptual art were announcing the death of painting. New media and performance art had established themselves. Literary theory had killed the ‘author’, although ‘women’s art’, enthusiastically identifying its exponents, still ebbed and flowed as a potent category.
So, in a decade when their academic friends were confirming the bankruptcy of plein air art, the exhaustion of landscape as a subject, the obsolescence of easel painting and the death of the artist (as hero or anything else), what does one make of forty mature artists jumping at the chance to further their practice by a camping adventure in a remote area of the Australian tropics?
The MAGNT artists might aptly be compared with explorer or immigrant artists whose interpretations of the antipodean landscape were formulated by ideas of land and nature forged in other places. Many of the artists invited to the camps had already developed national reputations and most were stylistically mature, their art refined by the philosophical and cultural legacies of western modernism. This background was brought to their experiences in the field as they lent an existing vision to new stimuli. Like the explorer artist, most of the MAGNT artists were entering unfamiliar terrain ? a different kind of bush. However, unlike explorers or immigrants, most had already absorbed (albeit exoticised) ideas and images of the Top End which were in currency through tourism and visual media such as film.
The difference for MAGNT artists from most other 20th century Australian landscape artists was that the land they were encountering was understood by them to still be Aboriginal land. Indeed several cited this as the reason for joining the camp. The Kakadu area was not seen as pastoral land or under cultivation. It had not been subjected to industrialisation or overrun by housing estates. It had not figured strongly as subject matter in the Australian landscape tradition. There was no feeling that the images captured were motivated by a need to establish ownership, even in the sense of national identity. The Top End experience enabled new states of mind to be brought to the apprehension of surroundings, including how for centuries the land had been and continued to be overwritten with Aboriginal meanings. The eloquent silence of the rock art bore testimony to that for the participants.
Like most visitors to the Top End, the MAGNT ‘field’ artists felt themselves held at a threshold between change and permanence. Those who had not been before spoke of how unusual it was to be surrounded so completely by nature and its rhythms, and to apprehend new life against a background of ancient stillness. The impact of the elements ? wind, water, fire ? drew the attention of several artists
The Artists in the Field camps were an extraordinary venture for the MAGNT and for the forty artists and more who participated in them. Among the most frequent observations by the participants was that the opportunity gave them a substantial passage of uninterrupted time to think and work in surroundings that encouraged contemplation. Many said they worked all day alone in areas seeing no-one, enjoying the freedom to work, but welcoming the camaraderie, even with strangers, back at the camp at the end of the day. The ‘work’ might only have consisted of thinking and photographing, but it exhausted and energised. There was a sense of being the first to ‘discover’ a place, set against the knowledge that the first peoples had been there for thousands of years and were still intimately engaged with the area.
A key achievement of the Artists in the Field camps sponsored by MAGNT in the 1980s was as a grand museological venture resulting in the acquisition by MAGNT of over eighty works of art, depicting Northern Territory subjects, created by accomplished Australian and overseas artists. In addition there are hundreds more similar works by these artists, and others who followed in their steps, in public, corporate and private collections throughout Australia and overseas. Foyers, boardrooms and airports are now graced with new versions of ‘the essential Australia’. Where the Northern Territory had previously presented Uluru and the Olgas, it now offered less familiar (and less emblematic) edifices in Ubirr and Nourlangie. As well the works exposed the tropical face of the Top End in paperbarks, waterlilies, rock art, anthills and escarpment images. So, in a sense, the camps were the pretext for commissioning of what might be called portraits of the Top End landscape.
More than forty artists over eleven years participated in the camps. As with most portrait commissions the artists were selected because of established reputations for work produced previously. The ‘commissions’ were displayed in exhibitions mounted each year by the Museum from which they purchased works or accepted donations, which eventually comprised ten percent of the collection of non-indigenous Australian art.
The Artists in the Field camps conducted by MAGNT provided a rare opportunity for artists of note to engage with a unique World Heritage area which continues to be an arena of dispute in Australia’s unfolding cultural history.