‘A Lightness of Spirit is the Measure of Happiness’ at ACCA

By Tristen Harwood

Ten new works unsettle preconceptions about contemporary Indigenous art

Vicki Couzens, Djawannacuppatea 2018, plywood, kitchen table and chairs, lamp, woven woollen mat, woven framed photographs, anodised aluminium teapot, personal collections, sound, 443.5 x 840.0 x 505.0cm, installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Sound: Robbie Bundle. Courtesy the artist. Photograph: Andrew Curtis

“When I’m painting, I think about when I was playing that country music when I was a cowboy a long time ago. I was teaching myself these things, and now I have all of the memories, the paintings are how I remember the country,” said artist Mr Kunmanara Pompey (1952–2018) of the two paintings that make up Cowboy Story (2018). For Pompey, painting is a language that transfers memory into the materiality of the present and brings a quality of light to the past, which might otherwise remain formless.

A Lightness of Spirit is the Measure of Happiness at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) (2018), curated by Hannah Presley, gives light to the subtle relations formed between 10 newly commissioned contemporary Indigenous artworks. The curatorial purpose is to explore the everyday life and experience of Indigenous peoples, and includes artwork that spans painting, sculpture, installation, photography and film. The exhibition is a constellation of works that give form and meaning to different Indigenous lifeworlds without relying on settler terms of classification.

Lisa Waup’s 10 doll-like sculptures, Family (2018), Ancestors (2018) and One (2018), sit on two waist-high tables that mimic the gallery’s obtuse architecture. To make her animistic avian dolls, Waup weaves together at-hand material. Feathers reference Indigenous body adornment, and copper is a symbol and resource of the mining industry. She also uses wings, shells, ceramic and glaze. The lively figures disrupt the notion that “traditional” and “contemporary” are distinct categories. In Ancestors, Family and One the contemporary is always derived from tradition and history.

Yhonnie Scarce’s Remember Royalty (2018) draws on family history. The work consists of four archival images of Scarce’s family members screen-printed on large ceiling-hung fabric sheets, accompanied by hand-blown black lustre glass objects set in different cases. The delicate glass objects, for which Scarce is renowned, sewn to one of the sheets and, underneath the other three, encased in chests and a toolbox, resemble bush plums and yams, perfectly sized as if to be held in the hand.

The glass plums and yams invoke touch and taste. Yet the size and position of the images make vision the artwork’s primary sensory mode, rendering the glass pieces as lustrous tributes.

Iconic imagery is the subject of Kaylene Whiskey’s eight vivid paintings Seven Sistas (2018). Pop icons and superheroes are depicted as fantastical protagonists in her narrative portrayal of the Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) songline, with the painted surface becoming like a television screen. With joy, Whiskey refigures popular icons as participants in and transmitters of Indigenous cosmology.

Seven Sistas shares the exhibition’s most cacophonic space with Pompey’s painterly Cowboy Story, which depicts scenes featuring the artist and his wife. In the first scene, which is divided vertically by microphone stands and horizontally where sky meets earth, the couple are radiant as country musicians. In the second, softer hues of lilac, honey, berry and cerulean produce a pensive tone, with Pompey and his wife painted beside a still river. Together, the two paintings share the characteristics of the best country music, meticulously simple in form, potently storied, simultaneously roving and grounded in place.

Adjacent is Tiger Yaltangki’s installation TIGERLAND (2018), its large scale commanding space. A compilation of vibrant faces, guitars and a superhero are suspended in front of an intricately illustrated wall-mounted canvas. However, the experience of viewing the elation of Yaltangki’s Dionysiac figures is slightly chaotic, displayed as they are in a small room in close proximity to other artworks.

Projected on the back wall of the same room is the short Western Never Stop Riding (2017) by Peter Mungkuri, Alec Barker and Pompey. Despite being washed out by the gallery lighting and audio setup, this Aboriginal remake of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) conveys incisive humour. A loose story of gold theft on a cattle station told in seven acts, Never Stop Riding replaces the classic Western’s nostalgia for a receding frontier with a celebration of the Aboriginal cowboy lifestyle.

Vincent Namatjira’s humorous painting Welcome to Indulkana (2018) is a self-portrait of the artist gliding in his great grandfather Albert Namatjira’s iconic green ute, flanked by a frenzied Donald Trump and a shirtless Vladimir Putin. Three shoe prints float in the foreground of the painting. By using his shoes as a stamp, the surface of the painting gets caught between the objectness of Namatjira’s literal stance in the world beyond the canvas, and the pictorial political landscape he satirically inserts himself into. By placing his shoe and so himself at the centre of the world in this painting, Namatjira produces biomythography – epistemology, history and biography.

Benita Clements’ My life with Albert – My Family (2018) uses vivid watercolours overlaid with pen to depict scenes from her life. The 13 scenes include a UFO landing, her great-grandfather Albert Namatjira, and fireworks. Albert Namatjira’s influence on Clements is evident in her palette and use of mountainous background forms. However, she departs from Albert Namatjira’s style, with her defiance of watercolour-painting conventions by drawing outlines with felt tip pen. In Albert in his truck going to Ntaria (2018), Clements draws Albert Namatjira’s famously green ute and colours it lavender, transforming the iconic vehicle into an intimate artefact.

With Ngarigo Queen – Cloak of Queer Visibility (2018), Peter Waples-Crowe has painted the interior of a possum-skin cloak with the colours of the rainbow flag. Waples-Crowe takes the possum skin cloak, an artefact and symbol of Aboriginal history in the south-east, and reinscribes it with a queer Aboriginal presence. The cloak’s form explains its use, beckoning potential wearers with its warm colours and texture.

Vicki Couzens’ Djawannacuppatea (2018) invites viewers into the immense wooden skeleton of a teapot. Inside, a dining setting, personal collections of teapots, family photos and woven human figures recreate domestic space. The title of the work transforms a phrase uttered in Aboriginal English into a single word – “djawannacuppatea” – looking like it could be from one of the many Aboriginal languages.

Tea and sugar were strictly rationed to Aboriginal peoples on missions as a form of control and to create dependence. Couzens uses recalcitrant language to indicate that drinking tea can be a joyful Indigenous practice that disrupts rather than sustains colonial discipline.

Robert Fielding’s Objects of Origin (2018) also makes reference to rationing – old flour buckets arranged in the corner of a darkly lit room have been pierced and instead of flour, the buckets pour light.

Fielding’s four large photographs are also permeated by light. In one photograph, broken bike frames are suspended in the branches of a wiry tree. Shot at night, the tree is flooded with light, creating a sense of exposure, as though the bike frames and tree were at the threshold of metamorphosis. Likewise, with Fielding’s other images, discarded prams, mattresses and the buckets are shape shifters. While these commonplace items may seem unusable, the light pouring forth from them traces the form of their potential energy, which is creatively harnessed by Fielding and members of his community, who meaningfully reinvent them.

The exhibition is bookended by works that allude to flight, Waup’s sculptures at one end and Jones’ installation untitled (gidyirriga) (2018) at the other. Untitled (gidyirriga) includes Jones’ personal collection of mass-produced porcelain budgerigar figurines, individually wall-mounted, and an infectious audio track of children’s voices repeating the Wiradjuri word “gidyirriga”, which, bastardised as “budgerigar”, has become the common name for the colourful native parakeets. Here, the word “budgerigar” describes domestication as a process of erasure and control, while the cadence of the word “gidyirriga” uttered repetitiously situates the native bird in an Indigenous present.

The connection between the 10 new artworks exhibited in A Lightness of Spirit is the Measure of Happiness is informed by Indigenous histories, experiences and expression. Not concerned with presenting a window into the “Indigenous world”, the exhibition unsettles preconceptions structuring the classification of Indigenous art. Like Namatjira’s shoeprint in Welcome to Indulkana, the exhibition positions contemporary Indigenous art at the centre of its world.


A Lightness of Spirit is the Measure of Happiness closed on September 16.

Tristen Harwood

Tristen Harwood is an Indigenous writer, cultural critic and researcher, now living in Naarm (Melbourne).

Vicki Couzens, Djawannacuppatea 2018, plywood, kitchen table and chairs, lamp, woven woollen mat, woven framed photographs, anodised aluminium teapot, personal collections, sound, 443.5 x 840.0 x 505.0cm, installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Sound: Robbie Bundle. Courtesy the artist. Photograph: Andrew Curtis

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