Transcript of Bonus episode – Visual arts, conversations and appropriation in the artworld
This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity. Listen to the podcast (36:14).
Jackie – The following podcast is brought to you by the Creative Arts Curriculum Team from Secondary Learners, Educational Standards Directorate of the New South Wales Department of Education.
As we commence this podcast today, let us acknowledge the traditional custodians of all the lands on which this podcast will be played around New South Wales. Their art, storytelling, music and dance, along with all First Nations People, hold the memories, the traditions, the culture and hopes of Aboriginal Australia. Let us acknowledge with honour and respect our elders, past, present and future, especially those Aboriginal people in our presence today who have and still do guide us with their wisdom.
Welcome to the Creative Cast podcast series. My name is Jackie King and I'm a Creative Arts Project Advisor with the new south Wales Department of Education. Today we're going to have a visual arts bonus episode and I'm joined by our Creative Arts Curriculum Officer Alex Papasavvas to talk about a visual arts case study that was released early this term. So please welcome Alex.
We interrupt this podcast for a very special announcement. The Creative Arts Curriculum Team announce our Creative Casting Call. This initiative provides two exciting ways that you and your students can get involved in our podcasts and earn some much needed funds for your creative arts faculty budget. First, compose our podcast music. Compose some music we could use for the intro and outro for our podcast next term. The best composition will be used in our podcast next term and win your school a $2,000 grant for creative arts. The second is design next term's promotional tile. Our podcast theme for next term is where to from here.
The best tile will be used for our ‘where to from here’ podcasts next term and also win your school a $2,000 grant for creative arts. Find the full brief in the Creative Arts Statewide Staff Room. Entries for next term close on the last day of term three with the winning composition and tile to be featured and credited in term four’s podcasts. This initiative is only available to New South Wales Department of Education schools 2021.
So at the start of this term we released a visual arts case study for year 12. So can you tell us a little bit about the case study?
Alex – So in this case study there is a lot of Aboriginal content. So, I do just want to take a very brief moment to acknowledge that I'm here on Aboriginal land and pay my respect to Elders past, present and emerging. I'm also going to use the term Aboriginal throughout this. That's a term that's used in the resource and is the one that we tend to use a lot in New South Wales in the education space. So, this is a pretty big resource. It's a case study that picks up the thread in Australian art history and just follows it. The point at which we pick up this thread and start following it is in the 1920s with the Australian artist Margaret Preston and I think I might just take it from there and explain the big ideas and the story that this case study really follows. So, to set the scene a little bit for Margaret Preston, we begin following some of her artworks, ideas and writing in the 1920s. At this stage, she's around 50 years old. She's already spent some time before World War I, traveling in Europe and experiencing and participating in the art scene there, including in Paris, which was sort of still the centre of the art world at that time and really dominated by these big new ideas about modernism. So there are some big name post impressionist artists here like Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse. She's viewing and experiencing their work and participating in this art scene. She comes home and starts to think about what Australian modernism might look like and she decides that there's this huge untapped potential in Aboriginal art and starts looking at influence her own practice. So, we can situate this in this prevailing trend in modernism that we now call primitivism.
And there's some really well known examples of this in practices of artists like Gauguin and Picasso who are already in the process of exploring themes and motifs from various indigenous peoples in French colonies, in Africa and the pacific. So to take the example of Picasso in developing his cubist aesthetic. One thing that he does is visit museums and look at artefacts like masks and we can track this mask influence for a lot of his major works including Les Demoiselles d'Avignon often held up as this river watershed moment in European art history, very influential in this progression through modernism towards abstraction. A great example of this like flavour of European modernism where these men that we now call the great artists of the early 20th century studying new movements and new aesthetics, but following this very colonial mindset of taking material from indigenous peoples and using that in their own practice. So that's what primitivism is. And this is something that Margaret Preston starts exploring pretty earnestly in the 1920s. So, she's come back to Australia. She has established herself in the art scene. She's got friends in the major art journals and in the museums and she starts doing her own versions of these primitivist investigations into some of the Aboriginal artefacts that she's able to find. And I think she starts at the Australian Museum in Sydney and then starts branching out from there. So, she starts looking at the kind of artefacts that had already been collected by the museum and put on display and held in the collection there and the kind of artefacts of things like shields that have been carved decorated, painted, carved trees and other cultural and ceremonial artefacts that have been taken and taken to the museum basically.
So, Margaret Preston starts looking at some of these artefacts and she's looking at them with this eye of a visual artist designer to try and look at what are the visual qualities of these artefacts that I can appropriate to borrow to take and use in my own work. She has a strong motivation for doing this. She wants to develop an Australian version of modernism. She wants like to explore the Australian national identity through her art making and she thinks the best place to do this is from our own Indigenous peoples as other European artists have done over there. We can do the same thing here and get this Australian style of modernism going. So, what she does is basically, I guess almost copy. Like she would look at a shield and then do her own small painting, a bit of art making with that design. And what she does with these works is not just exhibit them in galleries, but she starts writing for this journal Art in Australia accompanied by these images to say, hey, we've got all this untapped potential here. If you're an artist, if you're a designer, look at this stuff and use it in your own art making because that's how we're going to get an Australian style happening. It's a little bit like nationalism. Like there are a lot of artists and writers in the 1920s who were thinking, what is our Australian national identity? Australia's only been a federation for about 20 years at this point, there's this trend across academia and other intellectual circles to be like, what's it going to look like here in Australia? So, this becomes a big part of Margaret Preston's practices and artists. Now she's developing her own major artworks which are often based on landscapes or compositions involving flowers. She's really well known for these, but they start to be really influenced by the, the kind of Aboriginal artefacts that she's been looking at. And sometimes this is like abstract parts of the design. Like she might look at a tree carving with a very geometric kind of V shaped and then we see some of those shapes come back in her works. She starts thinking about colour that's influenced by things like ochre paintings by other bark paintings that she's looked at. If you look at her body of work over her entire career, there are some works that are really, really obvious, like she's painted an Aboriginal myth with recognizable Aboriginal figures. So, I say painting a lot of these works are actually prints. She was well known as a printmaker. She did some painting as well, but there are also a lot of her works where the influence is a little bit more subtle and you might see things like, she's made a print of a landscape, but she's used a lot of these sort of ochre colours to populate that landscape.
Printmaking was a big thing for her and she wrote a number of articles over quite a few years. There's a big one from 1925 referenceing this resource, there's another one from 1930 and she's really trying to get other artists and designers to take this influence from the world of Aboriginal artefacts in making their own art and design works. The way the story unfolds is that it's a slow influence, but it does end up being a strong influence. So, by the 1930s and 1940s, there's another big publication out of the Australian Museum, which is a book of photographs of Aboriginal artefacts, you know, and there also is someone that Margaret Preston was working with when she would do these museum dives. And this book just contains like hundreds of images of these artefacts, things like shields and paintings. And so eventually as this book gets published, and within this context of Margaret Preston really pushing and saying, hey, let's use Aboriginal art in our own designs. People do start doing it. And so, you start to get this phenomenon through the first half of the 20th century, in Australia. Where these influences of art and design from Aboriginal artefacts do start to seep into Australian art and design more generally.
Jackie – That sounds really interesting Alex, how she's trying to create an Australian style through using these Aboriginal artefacts. So, the title of the case study is called Conversations and Appropriation in the Art World. You've talked a bit about that appropriation and where that started. Can you explain to us then the conversation is part of the case study and where that takes us?
Alex – Yeah, sure. So, the conversation comes in a lot later in Australian art history and really kicks in with some postmodern artists. I feel like some of the big ideas that we have in our syllabus about postmodernism which are about things like appropriation, humour, irony, challenging art histories become a lot stronger in the 1980s and 1990s. But I do want to mention that there was this very strong design trends in mid century, like in the 1950s and 60s, like Margaret Preston's sort of wish came true. And Aboriginal motifs, themes, imagery in art and design almost exclusively made and produced and sold by non Aboriginal people became really, really popular, especially in what we call home decor. So, like design objects for use for decoration around the home. And so, in the nineties, we have this significant artist, Gordon Bennett start to come through in the Australian art scene. So, Gordon Bennett is an artist who had sort of a dual heritage. This is the way he self describes as having an Aboriginal and an Anglo Celtic heritage and his art making practice for his whole career pretty much becomes about exploring that tension between Aboriginal and non Aboriginal, both as part of his personal identity and as part of the Australian identity in the 1990s. This is a really big time for postmodernism. A lot of new ideas through in philosophy and in the art world about challenging the ideas and experiences of modernism. So, one thread that Gordon Bennett picks up on is some of this work by Margaret Preston.
So, Gordon Bennett goes back to Margaret Preston’s publication from 1925, where she's made these little paintings of designs based on shields and trees and things and he sort of takes them back and he makes these really big paintings out of these. And remember, like the Margaret Preston versions, they're very small, they're published in a magazine, she's saying, hey, take these and go off and design stuff. When Gordon Bennett takes them, he brings them back into the Art Gallery context and they're like 6ft tall. These are big, big abstract paintings that are almost exact copies of these small Margaret Preston works, and he calls it the Home Decor series. He does quite a few of these in different versions. And his point is really to start asking this question of like, what was the impact of this person's legacy? She's a non Aboriginal artist. She's taken all of this content from Aboriginal art. It was hugely influential in Australia to be used as decoration. And that's the way that this kind of Aboriginal knowledge and history has become accepted and become part of the national identity and become part of the prevailing art and design trends and for Gordon Bennett, it's really a way of challenging this idea of primitivism and bringing it back, I guess, back into an Aboriginal space, back into a fine art gallery kind of space, but also as a vehicle for him to explore his own personal identity as an Aboriginal person, as a non Aboriginal person is bringing all this stuff together. And it was something that was a huge part of his practice. And he's often quoted as saying, you know, he became really successful as an Aboriginal artist, or described as an urban Aboriginal artist, as opposed to a traditional Aboriginal artist. And he was uncomfortable with this, like, to be labelled in that way. And a lot of his work becomes about exploring these really complicated ideas about race identity at a personal level, but in a way that's also mirrored at the national level by what was going on in Australia at the time. Gordon Bennett turned out to be a really, really influential artist.
A lot of Aboriginal contemporary artists claim influence from Gordon Bennett and he did a lot of really important work, I think, in the art world, in Australia. In, I guess, similar to what Margaret Preston did for modernism, you could say that Gordon Bennett has done similar things for postmodernism in Australia, but also for bringing, you know, and that label of urban Aboriginal artists, one that gets used in Australian art history. So, use it again here. But bringing that into the mainstream in the art world in Australia. And this is a big influence on artists that came after him. People like Richard Bell, Tony Albert and Vernon Ah Kee. And so that takes us into the next part of this case study where we start looking at Tony Albert's work.
Jackie – And he's exhibition is actually called Conversations with Margaret Preston, isn't it? So that is how it brings it all back in. Can you tell us about Tony Albert?
Alex – Yeah, so Tony Albert's exhibition Conversations with Margaret Preston actually happened this year in 2021. So, this is very, very recent work, just for a little bit of context. Tony Albert's very open about having been influenced by Gordon Bennett. So, just a little, a little story, a little bit of trivia. One of Gordon Bennett's favourite artists was Jean-Michel Basquiat. One thing that Gordon Bennett does is appropriate Basquiat's work in his own painting, but he also starts writing Basquiat letters after his death. Like these open letters to say, hey, you've really influenced me the way I think about blackness, you know, the way we think about race and identity. And these letters to Basquiat are a big part of the Gordon Bennett story. Gordon Bennett also dies a few years ago. And Tony Albert has also written post humus letters to Gordon Bennett. Right? So, there's a clear thread again of influence here, from Gordon Bennett to Tony Albert. Tony Albert returns to this idea of Margaret Preston in 2021 with his exhibition Conversations with Margaret Preston. Now, aside from the fact that he's a big fan of Gordon Bennett, there's another thread here, where a huge part of Tony Albert's practice is about collecting these objects, which he calls Aboriginalia that are these design objects or home decor objects that feature either representations of Aboriginal people or just, you know, decorative versions of Aboriginal art in design objects. A lot of the stuff that he collects is from the mid-century 50s and 60s. They are things that were not designed or made by Aboriginal people, but these are the objects that establish, you know, like this visual culture in Australia is what does Aboriginal art look like before Aboriginal art by Aboriginal people started to come into prominence and become more popular, which didn't really happen until the 1970s.
This has been a part of Tony Albert's history for a long time. And ultimately, like the origins of these design objects are from Margaret Preston telling people to go out and use Aboriginal ideas when making their own visual designs and he's been using these objects for many years. But in this exhibition Conversations with Margaret Preston, he kind of brings it back full circle and what he does is appropriate Margaret Preston's work. So, he's got this sort of collection of Margaret Preston images, which he recreates, he blows them up. He makes them really big. Similar to what Gordon Bennett did. And just to paint a mental image, you may have seen artworks by Margaret Preston which are these really nice little prints or woodcut prints of flowers, like floral compositions in a vase of Australian native flowers. And what Tony Albert does is recreate those on a large scale. But the colour like instead of printing with colour, he uses this collage material, of found fabric featuring these Aboriginal designs and representations of Aboriginal people. So, like literally the artefacts that Margaret Preston was telling people to go out and make, he brings them back and puts them into her work to make this comment or to have a conversation of like, there are huge problems with some of these objects and the way that Aboriginal people were represented. The fact that Aboriginal designs were taken without permission or compensation and used in this way. But the other side of it, and this is something that Tony Albert says, is that she was very influential in getting the Australian public to care or to care about or accept Aboriginal art, even though it's happened in this way. That like on reflection in 2021, we can think, well, you know, that's a bit uneasy. We don't really like this idea of cultural appropriation or copying, but it was very influential and did it set the scene for the Australian public to accept art made by Aboriginal people, maybe. So that's basically it. So, there's this like 100 years thread of these big Australian artists saying, what should Australian art look like? It should look Aboriginal. And then it's become this huge trend in home decor and design, particularly in the 50s and 60s. And then in the late 20th century, in the postmodern period, in the early 21st century, we have these two Aboriginal artists saying, hold on, maybe we should talk about this a little bit and recognise that that is Margaret Preston’s legacy, that some of these objects are problematic and some of these representations are not good. And this idea of taking without permission or compensation should be reinvestigated. But also saying that part of her legacy, it could be said that part of her legacy, was it made it easier for Aboriginal art to enter mainstream Australian society.
Jackie – Fantastic. What a hugely deep dive that is. I love though, that you're able to take the time to really do a lot of research on this to be able to do a subject like this or the subject matter to really do that justice. And I know that you worked with the Aboriginal Outcomes and Partnerships team a lot on this to really ensure that it was culturally respectful.
Alex – Yeah.
Jackie – And you've got that really deep dive of research there for teachers as a backing. So, the resource is a student workbook and a really comprehensive teacher workbook with a whole range of different activities and it goes for a few weeks?
Alex – About six weeks. Yeah.
Jackie – So, now you've told us all of that history. Can you bring it back to the art syllabus, Visual Arts syllabus, and just explain how this is a typical of a case study for year 12?
Alex – So just for a little bit of context, this is a case study for the HSC visual art course. The way the course is structured is for the HSC is that for art making students work on their body of work and then in Critical and Historical Studies they do at least five case studies which are these sort of in depth investigations into the art world. There's a lot of flexibility in the Visual Arts syllabus. So, there's nothing to say you have to cover these artists or these movements or anything like that. It's up to teachers to use the language of our course content which is practice, conceptual framework and the frames to explore those ideas about visual arts. And there's actually a nice little diagram in the Stage Six Syllabus that indicates that by the HSC course these ideas practice, conceptual framework and the frames all cross over and become fully integrated. So, what this case study does is provide a line of investigation that uses that language of our course content to really unpack in significant detail these ideas about, you know, this particular thread of Australian art history and the way that the case study is set up is, as you said, we've got a student resource and this is pretty much set up like an interactive booklet that has a lot of activities. It's got a lot of source material, either linked or directly included in the document. And for each week there are three or four different activities for students to go through as if it were an investigation to find, you know, to go through and look at all the images of the works that are talked about in the case study. You know, there's readings and writing activities. So, it's sort of like the research has been done, but the way that students are asked to come to it is also like their own research investigation. They've just got all the sources provided to them already.
Jackie – Fantastic. And I really love as I moved through the resource, there was those links back to the frames scaffold and the conceptual framework scaffold and all of those writing scaffolds. And those questions that are related to the content in the syllabus is constantly bringing back that terminology and reminding students how to think about the content within your syllabus.
Alex – I would just say the guiding idea for this whole case study. It's very situated in the postmodern frame, right? We're looking at the way that established ideas in art history are being challenged by contemporary artists, by postmodern artists. And we're looking at appropriation as a major part of that practice. But because at this stage in the course these areas of content are closely integrated. We're not only looking at the post modern frame, we're not only looking at the frames either. There are these constant references to artist practice to relationships between artists, world, audience and artwork and those scaffolds you're referring to, I really like that we've used those. You know, they're up there on the stage six curriculum website for visual arts for anyone to use. And I think that there are some really good examples in this case study of how to use those resources, how to either set a summary activity for students that say, look at this scaffold and use some of the questions or for teachers to pull out specific questions and set them for the class. And so yeah, that use of those three scaffolds for practice, frames and conceptual framework, they come back constantly throughout this resource as the really obvious links back to the syllabus content. I think it's important to make some of those links really obvious for students to say we're using this part of the syllabus now, because when they go to sit the exam, they have to read through a list of questions that are categorized by practice, frames, conceptual framework and make a decision for what to use. So that kind of meta understanding of making students insiders in this process, I think is also really important.
Jackie – That's awesome. And you've started to move into my next question, which is what do you think the outcome for students is to do a case study like this?
Alex – I think there are two answers to this question. So firstly, it's the HSC, they have to sit an exam and the visual arts exam, as we know, has two sections. And section two, the essay section, is where they bring all of their knowledge and understanding of their case studies and respond to an essay question based on an area of the Syllabus. So, I think in a very literal way, this is a case study that provides a lot of detail about, I would say three really significant Australian artists. I think that Margaret Preston was one of the most significant artists of the 20th century in Australia. I think that Gordon Bennett was one of the most significant artists of the late 20th century in Australia. And I think that Tony Albert is one of the most significant artists currently working in this country. So, there are some really strong links there to art history specific to Australia. And whether or not a student will take the entire thread of this investigation into the exam, they at least have a lot of that context. Like they might take one of these artists works into their exam, into their response, or they might use the whole thing, it's up to them. There's a lot of content there for them to draw from. The other answer, is that I think this is a really important part of Australian art history that's been explored and re-examined by the two contemporary artists in the case study. I think that this idea about cultural appropriation and what's okay and what's not okay is a really complicated idea. It can be very difficult to unpack, it can be very difficult for teachers to approach sensitively. And so, I think that a resource like this gives teachers who may feel like it's beyond their scope or beyond their experience to talk about stuff like this, it gives them something that's already done and we did work closely with the Aboriginal Outcomes and Partnerships team. And so, I think that teachers should feel confident to take on this content and be able to use it in their classrooms without worrying, you know, if they're presenting this kind of sensitive content in the right way.
Jackie – And I think it's too, it's that difficult conversation, isn't it? And I just want to refer back to a podcast that was released at the start of this term and it was actually around music where we spoke with Dr Thomas Feinberg and Anthony Galluzzo from the Aboriginal Outcomes and Partnerships team. And they said how important it is for us to not be afraid of those conversations and I really love how that difficult conversation is sort of there and out there but done respectfully and done for the teachers as well.
Alex – And you know done for teachers in a pretty detailed way. We haven't really talked about the teacher resource for this one, but as you would expect, it contains a lot of syllabus links and things like this, but there are also worked examples of most of the writing tasks. So teachers, if they are not particularly familiar with these ideas with this art history with this content, they can look to these sample answers to all of the activities to be able to support their knowledge so that they can then go off and support their students, you know developing knowledge and understanding of this content.
Jackie – you're one step ahead of me the whole way through this podcast Alex. Now I want to ask how do you expect a teacher to be able to use this resource? It's a massive resource, as it is a six-week case study, do you expect that they would use the whole case study, could they use bits and pieces of it? There's lots of activities in each week. Yeah, let's break it down for teachers.
Alex – Yeah, so if you're a teacher and you're after a case study you can use this one, it's all there, it's complete, it's done. It is quite big and teachers will need to make some decisions about how much of the content to use or how detailed to go. And I don't think, I mean this is put out there for teachers to adapt and use in their classrooms. Right? And so there would be, what if teachers want to streamline the process a little bit? There are a lot of activities where we're asking students to go off and find the visual examples of these artworks. A teacher could just show those or give them to students instead of, you know, instead of getting the students to do it themselves. That said, a teacher might decide that it's advantageous for them to set things like these scavenger hunt, you know, looking for artwork examples, activities as pre-learning or as homework or something that students can collaborate on. So, although there are a lot of activities there, I think it's quite flexible, it's quite modular. If a teacher wanted to just give the information to students for some of the activities they could and those worked examples are there so that that content could be delivered quite quickly if you want to move through this a little bit faster. Instead of, you know, for a writing activity, you could guide students through that summary instead of going through this entire process of having them do all the reading come up with all their own ideas, the teacher can support students to get to that point themselves.
Jackie – Fantastic. And I think you've also touched on the fact that all of those sample writing tasks tend to have a sample or all the scaffolds have sample answers in there as well. So, you could also use this as a teacher to up skill yourself too, particularly if you're not familiar with this content.
Alex – Yeah, absolutely, and I think that for a teacher, if you're going to start looking at this, it would be a good idea to maybe skim through the teacher resource and you know, just check it out. Like there is a lot of information there, you know, we wanted to give teachers a pretty complete package here that they could use to upskill themselves, take into the classroom, use as is or adapt, take parts of it, change them.
Jackie – Fantastic. Well, we've talked for way longer than we were going to, but that's okay because this is a really important topic. I think it's a very in depth topic and I really hope that it can help teachers and, I'm thinking, as you were going through and explaining all of the history, this podcast in itself could be a really fantastic accompanying resource for the case study. So, to find that case study teachers, I'm going to put a link in our show notes that you can click on and get directly to the case study on the website or you can head to the New South Wales Department of Education website and it is on the Creative Arts Curriculum page.
Alex. Thanks for giving us an art lesson today an art history lesson.
Alex – Thanks for having me, Jackie. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to talk a lot about something that I'm really interested in.
Jackie – Yeah, and that really shows thank you for your time.
Alex – Thank you.
Jackie – This podcast was brought to you by the Creative Arts Curriculum Team of Secondary Learners, Educational Standards Directorate of the New South Wales Department of Education. Get involved in the conversation by joining our Statewide Staffroom through the link in the show notes or email our Creative Arts Curriculum Advisor, Cathryn Horvat at firstname.lastname@example.org. The music for this podcast was composed by Alex Manton and audio production by Jason King.
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