Aspex Portsmouth

Week 5, Art & Aboriginality (Part 1), 40 Stories

Les Buckingham, Director 1984-1999

The exhibition marked the two hundredth anniversary of the The First Fleet. This rather grand designation masks the very different purpose of this convoy. In May 1787 eleven ships left Portsmouth bound for Australia to start a colony, six of which carried convicted criminals.

For Australian Aboriginal people what unfolded was a disaster of epic proportions. To take only one example. While the team at Aspex began to install the exhibition I was informed that a chauffeur driven limousine had pulled up outside the gallery bearing the Royal Navy insignia. The occupant wanted to talk to me and was soon in the office relating how he had just got back from a command position in Tasmania where he had read of the fate of Tasmanian Aboriginal people at the hands of British colonialists, the details of which are too gruesome to relate here. He congratulated me and encouraged me to keep telling their story, which most historians now denote as a genocide, a genocide that almost no Tasmanian Aboriginal survived.

So, as the catalogue for the exhibition made clear, there was a certain irony to an exhibition of Aboriginal Art being shown in the place that began the reduction of the population of Australian indigenous people from 750,000 to 70,000. 

For many years the Aboriginal communities had been sidelined by mainstream Australian society. It is no surprise then that their art was looked down upon. The art world too was negligent until it could see financial potential. But, having survived, Aboriginal art came of age for the art market, for better or for worse, from the 1960s to the 80s. 

And the day after the show opened a queue formed outside the Aspex Gallery, the only queue the gallery ever experienced. 

Click here to read part 2 of this edition of 40 Stories.

Artists: Banduk Marika, Raymond Meeks, James P. Simon, Trevor Nicholls, Jimmy Pike, George Milpurrurru, Djarch Ashley, Tracey Moffatt, Narpula Scobie, Willy Tjungurrayi, Paddy Jupurrula Nelson, Thancoupie, Lin Onus, Fiona Foley, Sally Morgan, Byron Pickett, Terry Shewring, Djawida, Gurdal. 

The exhibition was made possible by Aboriginal Arts Australia, the Aboriginal Arts Board, the Australia Council, Malaysian Airlines and the Portsmouth Festival. The exhibition was curated by Anthony Burke. The catalogue was written and compiled by Vivien Johnson.