By Chris Martin
SYDNEY — "Yiribana", a word from the Eora language believed to translate as "this way", is the name of a new gallery of Aboriginal art which has opened at the Art Gallery of NSW.
Promotional material claims it to be the largest permanent exhibition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art in the world, a claim that is hard to dispute with over 200 traditional and contemporary works on display over 1000 square metres of indoor and outdoor area. It certainly is a broad and impressive collection.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the exhibition is the obvious care and imagination with which it has been assembled. The presentation is the work of Daphne Wallace, the NSW Art Gallery's curator for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art.
Wallace is from the Gamilaroi group of the Murri people of north west NSW. She has combined the extensive amount of work acquired by the gallery since the 1940s with new purchases and commissioned installations to build a breadth into the exhibition, not just in terms of geography or chronology but also of themes and concepts.
Particularly effective is the use of video footage showing a discussion via satellite link between women of the Yuendumu community and gallery staff. This is screened at the entrance to a small closed area devoted to a collection of women's ceremonial art provided by the women of Yuendumu.
The whole exhibition projects a sense of the living Aboriginal culture, vibrant, diverse and constantly changing. Traditional bark painting in natural pigments is displayed alongside work in a range of modern media. Major artists such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye, David Malangi, Albert Namatjira and Rover Thomas are featured with new urban artists such as Bronwyn Bancroft, Richard Bell, Gordon Bennett, Lin Onus, Rea, Judy Watson and many more.
Exactly how the older work was acquired remains a question but there is such a genuine sensitivity throughout the exhibition that it is hard to find fault. On the weekday I visited, the exhibition was crowded with people including large groups of school children, all obviously enjoying the display. This sort of exposure can only be a step forward, breaking down barriers and giving Aboriginal artists the audience they deserve.
The gallery promises to promote further community involvement in the exhibition by programming ceremonial activities such as storytelling, dance, performance and a series of films.