The Female Ceramists Turning Craft into Art

Ceramics, both as art form and craft, has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, as people yearn for an antidote to the digital age. T Australia meets four women who create the most sublime art out of the most fundamental of materials.

Article by Lee Tulloch

Australian ceramicsGlazed ceramic pieces, completed by Draper over the past year. Photography by Tony Amos.

Ceramics, both as art form and craft, has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, as people yearn for an antidote to the digital age. After all, there’s no medium more down-to-earth than mud. When the pandemic struck, ceramics soared in popularity as people enduring lockdowns turned to the craft, seeking out the grounding properties of clay. Slow, repetitive and mindful, ceramics is a perfect practice for troubled times.  

While both women and men made pottery vessels in ancient cultures, the British Depression-era ceramist Clarice Cliff was the first woman to produce and market a line of crockery under her own name. In the following decades, the domestic and utilitarian nature of cups, plates and vases meant handmade ceramics were generally filed under “hobby” and “women’s work” and, as with embroidery and knitting, relegated to the shelves of knick-knack shops rather than shown in galleries.

The genteel notion of female ceramists as “lady potters”, working at the wheel to fashion conventional crockery, has been shaken up as more women artists find self-expression in ceramics and push the boundaries between art and craft. Using clay as their chosen medium, they pull and pummel and stretch the limits of convention, producing objects that challenge traditional forms and concepts, and are sometimes intentionally imperfect.

Here, T Australia meets four women who create the most sublime art out of the most fundamental of materials.

Australian ceramics
Juz Kitson, pictured with experimental works in progress, including pieces made from recycled building glass. Photography by Tony Amos.
Australian ceramics
Experimental works in progress, made by Kitson, using Jingdezhen and Australian porcelain. Photography by Tony Amos.

Juz Kitson

“I have always had what I would see as a healthy curiosity for the darker side,” says Juz Kitson, whose meticulous porcelain sculptures, both magical and monstrous, sometimes resemble ominous “shadow characters”, as she calls them. 

Many of those creatures — bone white, viscera pink and saturated black — take form at her studio in Milton, New South Wales, which sits in a garden planted with spiky succulents. Kitson makes use of bones, pelts, antlers, glass, knitted fabrics and threads to build her pieces, which range from sombre black funerary urns to fleshy and grotesque cascades of pink, resembling udders, tumours and genitalia. “For me, all life exists in an opening up and oozing out,” she says.

Kitson’s works are intentionally repulsive and exquisite, often at the same time. “Personally, I want to look at a work of art and have a guttural response. I want it to be physical,” she says. “I’m playing with and teasing the darker side of the human consciousness and condition. Fear and anxiety are certainly motives behind some works and motivate my reasons for making. Fear of death and wanting to understand what happens after we pass through this world.”

A tall redhead with mermaid tresses and a penchant for bright clothing, Kitson is far from gloomy in person. Indeed, there’s a playfulness to much of her work. Even the funerary urns, a response to the 2019-20 bushfires that razed much of the South Coast where she lives, are “a sort of celebration of nature and the resilience of nature”. Kitson considers herself a deeply spiritual person and is fascinated by Buddhism, Taoism and black magic, as well as the Eros and Thanatos (life and death instincts) of ancient Greek philosophy (her mother is Greek). 

She was raised in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and Northern Beaches, and in Wagga Wagga, in regional New South Wales. As a child, she spent time on her uncle’s sheep station in Tibooburra in the state’s far northwest and often visited Hill End, north of Bathurst, to gather materials and inspiration. “Out in the country, I saw animals being skinned,” she says. “I remember wedge-tailed eagles, really beautiful eagles, stuck in fence lines and almost petrified on the electric fence.” That strong imagery has had a significant influence on her work.

Kitson was a creative child from a family in which art school was an unusual aspiration. She would often sit under the table to draw when guests came for dinner. “I have really early memories of foraging in the backyard and collecting all the dry leaves and wrapping vine around them and setting them out on my mailbox, displaying them like little scientific experiments and selling them,” she says.  

Kitson thinks she was about 14 when she realised she wanted to be an artist. “I knew that I had to create every day,” she says. “It was deep in my veins.” Early on, she came across Patricia Piccinini’s hyperrealist work. “It resonated with me,” Kitson says. “I saw it was possible: you can pursue what you want in the art world. The absurd things I could see in my mind, I could actually translate into material form. I just wanted to create nonstop. And I knew if I invested everything into my practice — financially, spiritually, emotionally, all of it — then something would prevail.”

She enrolled in a photography degree at the National Art School in Sydney, but soon got “sidetracked” by ceramics. The medium offered more freedom, she says, to bring in other materials and to “cross-contaminate”. From the start, she experimented: stitching latex, heating plastic and dipping porcelain into melted paraffin wax. “The teachers would often come into the studio and think, ‘What is she doing? This is completely mad,’ and then leave me to my own devices,” says Kitson. “On reflection, this was the greatest gift I could have received — the space and time to create, experiment, make mistakes and find the materials that represented my visual language.” 

After Kitson finished her honours degree, she sold her first major piece to David Walsh at MONA in Hobart. She followed this with travel — residencies in India and, in 2012, Beijing, where she took up an internship with the prominent artist Lin Tianmiao, a period that proved profoundly influential. “She had a team of 35 women working for her on her large-scale installations,” says Kitson. “They clocked in and clocked out every day. A bus would go in and pick them all up and bring them to the factory. She lived in this beautiful Bauhaus mansion on the outskirts of Beijing and I lived in the attic. She was my Bob Dylan.” The experience was rewarding but, she says, “I can’t look at the work now. As they say, kill your idols.”

Kitson spent the next nine years, up until the pandemic, working between Australia and a studio in Jingdezhen, the ancient Chinese city where fine porcelain has been made for more than a thousand years. “It’s a Disneyland of porcelain,” says Kitson. “The mounds on the side of the street are ceramic shards; the telegraph poles are made out of porcelain.” She learnt from masters, who pass down the knowledge through the generations, unwritten. 

At her “bush studio” at the family farm on the Central Coast, just north of Sydney, she’d bring home roadkill that she’d collected on drives into the desert and leave the remains atop an ants’ nest for the ants to strip. She would then clean and bleach the bones, replicating them in plaster and duplicating them in slip-cast porcelain. Porcelain is difficult to work with, she says. “It’s highly vitrified. You’re firing at 1,300 degrees, so it has a mind of its own. It’s incredibly unforgiving to work with. All sorts of technical problems can happen. For me, it’s the exquisite nature of it and how difficult it is to work with which is why I love it so much.” 

Kitson now teaches masterclasses in Milton, and finds she has to explain to people that she’s not a potter in the traditional sense. “I see the wheel as a tool,” she says. “If I need to make a large vessel form or a large cylindrical form purely for the structural foundation of a piece, then I will use that. I’m not interested in jumping in there and making a thousand plates, but I am respectful to those who do want to do that.” 

What does she love most about ceramics? “It’s the tactile nature of the handmade and the almost therapeutic, meditative nature of something, where it becomes almost a mantra as you’re making it,” she replies. “It’s the alchemy of it, so you’re playing with the elements,” continues Kitson. “There’s just so much the artist can push to a certain extent and all the rest is left up to the magic — to the kiln gods. Are they on your side or not? Often it is almost this karmic thing. If you’re not doing the right things, then watch out.”

Australian ceramics
One of Australia’s leading ceramists, Lynda Draper, photographed at her studio in Thirroul, New South Wales. Photography by Tony Amos.
Australian ceramics
The preparation of clay “slip”, used to bond ceramics. Photography by Tony Amos.

Lynda Draper

An allergy to oil paint and solvents set Lynda Draper on the path of working with clay, back when she was an art student. That turned out to be a fortunate moment for one of Australia’s finest ceramists and the legion of students she has mentored in her more than 30 years of teaching, currently as head of ceramics at the National Art School.

In her studio on a hilltop property overlooking Thirroul, the oceanside community near Wollongong, New South Wales, that has become a haven for artists and sea changers in recent years, she’s working on a series of wall pieces and large tubular woven forms that she refers to as “3D clay drawings”. Each piece is far removed from functional earthenware pottery. Whimsical and skeletal, they sometimes become anthropomorphic with the collaging of small coloured pieces that suggest eyes and mouths. 

Draper will sometimes sketch an idea for a piece, but mostly she lets it take its own shape through tactile play. “I always just think ceramics is full of so many possibilities, which is why I like to push it in different directions,” she says. “You might have something in your mind you want to do, but the nature of the material will turn it into something else. And sometimes it’s better if you’re not too in control of it. You just let it grow.” She says she’s a “huge advocate” of daydreaming. “I’m interested in the relationship between the mind and the material world and the related phenomenon of the metaphysical.” 

She and her husband, Mark, also an artist, and their son, Noah, who is embarking on a career as a painter, live in an 1880 weatherboard cottage on the property, which was planted with orchards long before coalmines dotted the area in the early 20th century. Pit ponies (horses used in underground mines) were once stabled across the road. Draper apologises for the “mess” in the house and its two outbuildings (one a studio, the other a kiln shed in what was once a bath house), but with all the clutter — paintings, sculptures, art tools, vintage utensils and collected objects — it is the picture of an artists’ home. 

Draper grew up in Cronulla in southern Sydney and attended Woolooware High School, which was one of the settings for the recent TV adaptation of “Puberty Blues”, Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey’s 1979 novel about the sexist surf culture of adolescent tribes on the southern beaches. The artist never hung with the surfing crowd, but she would sneak out of school some lunchtimes to go to the beach. She still catches a wave whenever she can. 

She met her husband at art school. Like Draper, Mark is the product of a strict religious upbringing. “We were like Brad and Janet from ‘The Rocky Horror Show’,” he says. “We were so naive and sheltered.” But, says Draper: “I’m actually really grateful for the upbringing I had. It gives you some sort of moral grounding, doesn’t it?” 

She channelled her mixed feelings about Australian suburban domesticity into her early work. From 2007 to 2010 Draper explored themes of Australiana and nostalgia in a series of white press-moulded objects that paid homage to the contents of china cabinets, which were common in homes of the 1950s and ’60s, and the profound effect they have on the experience of memory and personal narrative. 

A visit to her childhood home in 2007 shortly before her parents sold it unearthed the tchotchkes she’d collected as a child. The resulting work, “Home Altar”, was the basis of her master of fine arts thesis and included installations of hand-built domestic artefacts and souvenirs collected from her family home — birds, bunnies, ponies, Madonnas and kangaroos in little garden settings. Looking back, she says, “I actually think that reflected that whole period of my life. I found it all a bit uptight.”

The looser, more fanciful, organic shapes that she is known for today are partly inspired by a three-month residency in Versailles, sponsored by Paris’s Galerie Lefebvre & Fils, where she lived and worked in the former music pavilion of Madame Élisabeth, a sister of Louis XVI. It was “a surreal, strangely familiar, haunting landscape”, a romantic fairyland of topiaries, bare trees, decorative ironwork and garden statues covered by ghostly drop cloths over winter.  

Draper says she entered a productive, meditative “zone” there. “I’d work in complete silence. I didn’t speak to anyone,” she explains. “I couldn’t speak French. I’d just go to the markets and point at what food I wanted. Honestly, it was so unreal; there was a time I didn’t speak to anyone for two weeks. It was such an amazing thing to do.” She plans to return to Versailles next year. On her previous visit, she was interested in the structures and objects outside the palace; this time the work might be inspired by what’s inside, she says.  

The pearly white and pastel pieces from her time in France were exhibited in a 2019 Paris show called “Sleepwalking”. This influenced her “Somnambulism” series, shown at Shepparton Art Museum in regional Victoria, which won Draper the prestigious Sidney Myer Fund Australian Ceramic Award in 2019. While those exhibitions referenced wandering the gardens at Versailles, Draper’s 2021 show “Flowers of the Night” at her Sydney gallery, Sullivan+Strumpf, was about her own garden and its surrounds. 

Draper routinely takes pre-dawn walks before a surf or ocean swim at first light. “Everything’s so different in the dark, it’s just, wow,” she says of the “dreamlike” atmosphere at that hour. “That quiet is just special. It’s a time of contemplation and resolution that sets me up for the day ahead.”

She tries to ignore commentary about where ceramics fits within the hierarchy of art. “I came from this background where ceramics was not really an art form, it was a craft form,” she says. “And I still have a bit of an inferiority complex that you’re working in clay and it’s not really fine art.” Fortunately the scene is changing. “A lot of people who make ceramic vessels, quite traditional-looking things, are in good galleries now,” Draper says. 

She admires “minimal” Japanese ceramics and would like to make some. “I really love the tradition of ceramics and a well-thrown brown pot,” she says. Draper is adept at what she describes as “the full throwing-on-the-wheel kind of thing”, describing this element of her craft as “a mind-body connection you have to develop”.

“I’m drawn to clay’s tactile qualities,” she continues, “its ability to be adapted in so many different ways, the alchemy of the process and the surprises it can bring.” The lyrical fragility of her work belies its toughness. “It will probably outlive everyone,” she says, “unless you drop it on the floor.”

Australian ceramics
Donna Green in her New York studio with unfinished stoneware pieces. The mounted oil stick and India ink drawing (“Untitled”, 2022) started as a sketch for a clay work. Photography by Tony Amos.

Donna Green

With large, torso-like vessels and small towers that evoke squished breasts and genitalia, Donna Green explores the beauty and strangeness of the human body with all its flaws and deformities. She began working with clay 35 years ago, learning to make perfect plates and cups on the wheel, but these days she’s more interested in imperfection.

It’s partly a response to getting older and being intrigued by the folds of bodies as they age. “What some might say is ugly I find beautiful,” says Green. And it’s partly due to spending much of the pandemic in semirural Water Mill, New York, where she has a home and studio, watching the decay of nature. “It just seems very profound to me and it comes out in the work. It’s not intentional, it’s just this meandering of ideas,” she says. There’s also the sheer joy of experimentation that clay offers. “I’m just reacting to the material, really,” she says. “I’m seeing where the material can take me in space and where I can take the material in space, too, pushing it and pulling to its extremes before it collapses.” 

Green’s recent work “Bacchanalia”, which formed the basis of her first Australian solo exhibition, at Utopia Art Sydney earlier this year, comes from a happy accident. “I was initially making these perfect spheres and carefully joining them to another sphere, and they just looked so contrived,” she says. “So, one day, feeling frustrated, I just threw one of the spheres on top of another. They just kind of squished into a weird shape, a very breastlike shape, and then I threw another one on top and another one on top. I thought it was fantastic. It was very spontaneous. Some of them would explode just with the impact and so this wild, crazy thing started to emerge. It was incredibly sexual and I didn’t know where that was coming from.” 

Born in Sydney, Green grew up surrounded by art and conversations about art. Her grandmother, who escaped Poland on the eve of World War II and immigrated with her mother, was an art collector, as is her mother. Despite her family background, it wasn’t inevitable that Green would become an artist. “When I left high school, I didn’t think about pursuing art as a career,” she says. “I studied industrial design, where I learned about working in three dimensions. I was fabricating models out of wood and plaster, which was a new experience.” 

In 1984, Green moved to New York, where she now has two sons and a granddaughter. She took a job at Industrial Design magazine, but also started taking night classes in ceramics at Greenwich House, a pioneering cultural centre in Greenwich Village that has been holding pottery classes since the beginning of the 20th century. “I totally fell in love with the material and it became kind of an addiction,” she says. “One of the teachers talked about scale and I started to make bigger and bigger things. It became an obsession to make these things that were human scale and about the body.”

Green’s favourite part of the process is getting her hands into the clay. “The touch of the clay — it’s really a visceral, distinctive activity,” she says. The artist builds her large pieces by coiling strands of clay and pushing, pulling and pinching them into shape. “It’s gravity as well and it kind of grows into these forms,” she says. There’s a lot of trial and error. “You think it’s just mud, it’s primeval and it has existed forever, but actually there are a lot of technical aspects to working the clay,” she says. “It’s also the type of firing you do. Whether it’s reduction firing or oxidation, or you put ash or salt or other elements into the firing, it all reacts in different ways. It’s been years and years of trying and experimenting.”

Recently, Green has exhibited large-scale brush-and-oil-stick drawings and collages alongside her sculptural pieces. They began as the sketches she often makes to work out the form of the ceramics. “The collages became something else — an exploration of the two-dimensional surface,” she says. “I’d start with just a line and I sort of love just to meander, just expand onto that rectangular surface of the page, kind of what I do with the ceramics and the rectangular space of the kiln. I’m trying to reach out to all the corners of the space that I can. Drawing helps me realise that. It just helps me to remember to go further than I think I can.” 

Because the clay needs to dry gradually, Green works on two or three pieces at a time, “so the first one is getting to a state where the bottom part is strong enough, dry enough, but not too dry — it still has to be a little bit malleable so it can hold the weight of the next section”. 

And calamity is never far away. “Clay cracks if you dry it at a certain pace, so it can get too heavy and it completely collapses. It has a mind of its own,” she says. These days, Green is sanguine about accidents. “If it collapses, that’s good. I just kind of work on from there. I’ve got to an age now where it doesn’t matter anymore. In fact, it becomes more interesting when the work is failing.” 

Despite her acclaim, people still complement Green on her “nice craft” and “nice pottery”. “But it’s a very serious thing,” she says, “and it gives meaning to my life.” And there are still those who ask her if they can put flowers in her creations. To them, Green says: “If you want to, I guess.”

Australian ceramics
Russell works on “Frilly Frown Vase”, using an icing bag to “pipe” the porcelain structure. Photography by Tony Amos.
Australian ceramics
Work by Ebony Russell, “Pretty Little Thing” (foreground). Photography by Tony Amos.

Ebony Russell

Watching her deftly pipe curlicues onto a plate-size turntable, it seems as though Ebony Russell has had years of training as a cake decorator. As she builds up layer upon layer of swirls and scrolls, the structure seems to miraculously hold its shape under the weight of flounces.

In fact, Russell is not a baker. She’s working in the medium of porcelain, not icing. And her art, inspired by the 17th-century trionfi (sugar sculptures) that were popular in European courts, often coloured pastel pink or baby blue, is not as saccharine as it may seem. Rather, it’s a feminist response to the affectionate names given to girls in childhood, from “sweetie pie” to “princess” and “sweetheart”, and the process by which girls are taught to be sweet, submissive and “pretty in pink”. It is also a reaction to Russell’s childhood in Colac, Victoria, where her bedroom “glowed pink”.

Russell’s small Sydney studio is full of mementos that inspire her: a ballerina figurine from a birthday cake, the bride and groom from a wedding cake and a plastic nun in a grotto. “To me, they were the icons or role models of my childhood — are you going to be a bride, a ballerina or a nun?” she says. 

On one shelf sits a faded Lustreware cup that belonged to a grandmother. Both of Russell’s grandmothers were immigrants, one from Malta, the other from Holland, and they brought suitcases full of trinkets, many of them pottery. Russell says a lot of her work is connected with these objects. Her pink sculptures show an influence from the Maltese side and the blue ones, the Delft pottery of the Netherlands. Both grandmothers had cake decorating books in their pantries, which the young Russell loved to flip through. 

The studio is like a fairy grotto, full of small, intricate pieces. A canyon of layered pink and white porcelain resembling towers of Mr Whippy ice-cream sits on a plinth. A mirror underneath reflects hidden cursive script applied to the bottom: “Pretty Little Thing”. Nearby stands a large blue and white filigreed urn, which took three months to make and was created for Sydney’s Powerhouse museum as a response to a Wedgwood urn in the collection. It looks like it’s melting. “For me, it has connections to Miss Havisham’s wedding banquet,” says Russell. “It starts off so beautiful, but over the years the icing started to fall apart.” 

The urn isn’t, in fact, an urn at all. Completely constructed from flourishes, it’s riddled with holes. “If you look inside some of these pieces there is nothing but decoration,” says Russell. “There’s no architecture, there’s no framework holding it up.” The decoration is the architecture. “The pots I make aren’t actually pots because there’s no pot there,” she adds. “You’d spring quite a few leaks.”

Russell says she has never had any desire to make functional work. She notes that while her pieces look frivolous, they are quite complicated. The process of piping porcelain and constructing these aerated forms is difficult, she stresses. The work is often as fragile as meringue before it’s dry and she’s applying wet porcelain on top of dry, which is unforgiving. “I’m led by the way the work evolves,” she says. “So, when I’m making them, sometimes it droops or drips and I just go with it.” The disasters are usually happy ones.

A high school art teacher for many years, Russell has lived in Melbourne and Townsville, in northeast Queensland, with her husband, Sean, and two daughters, Josie and Darcy. She studied ceramics at Monash University, but it wasn’t until the family’s move to Sydney in 2017 that she enrolled in a two-year master’s program at the National Art School. She was 37 and calls it “a midlife awakening, not a midlife crisis”. Russell now teaches at the school. “Teaching complements my practice,” she says. “I know it’s made me a better artist.” 

Russell has always seen ceramics as a sculptural medium, “but it seems the art world hasn’t really accepted that so much,” she says. She is influenced by artists such as Margaret Dodd, who created funky little Holden cars out of clay in the 1970s. “She was making work about how she felt as a woman, so that always connected with me,” says Russell. Her own pieces celebrate old-fashioned notions of “women’s work”, which she believes has been devalued in recent times. She grew up among women who poured their creativity into crafts such as knitting and crochet. Her mother, who was a piano teacher (hence the artist’s first name), would knit Jenny Kee jumpers from patterns and they looked so good people would offer to buy them off her back. “My grandmother crocheted blankets all her life,” says Russell, “and she’s gone, but we still have these items she made which are full of love. Hours of work and skill and love.”  

Russell says the painstaking nature of fine needlework is similar to her approach to sculpture, which includes using icing bags and nibs to create intricate decoration. “You’re working mindlessly in a very meaningful way,” she says. “[It’s] mindless work where its repetition allows for that very meditative way of thinking.”

In October, Russell will hold a solo exhibition at Sydney’s Artereal, which will feature a series of urns inspired by Cinderella’s “ugly” stepsisters (after that, her work will appear at Wollongong Art Gallery’s “Thinking Through Pink” show, slated for later this year). “The woman as a vessel is an idea I’m interested in,” says Russell. “The way a form is spoken about as a feminine shape and it holds something, it has a use. I want to add something to that language or expose some of the negatives that can also apply to women: the way women are written about or the way we are seen.” The urns are like frilly dresses, she suggests. “I liken a lot of the vases to ball gowns. It’s something that is placed upon you; it’s a decorative facade, in a way.” 

For Russell, working with porcelain is a cathartic process, requiring her to look “at who I am psychologically, who I feel I need to be and who I want to be.” She adds: “I think that’s connected to being an artist as equally as it is connected to trying to find a way to be the woman you want to be in this world when you are a wife and a mother and a daughter. We all have to figure out who we are.” 

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eighth edition, Page 84 of T Australia with the headline: “A Woman’s Work”

Cartier Curates First Major International Exhibition of Aboriginal Artist Sally Gabori

The first major solo survey exhibition of Gabori outside of Australia will showcase thirty monumental paintings in close collaboration with the artist’s family and the Kaiadilt community.

Article by Phoebe Tully

Sally GaboriDibirdibi Country, 2008 Synthetic polymer paint on linen, 198 × 304 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Purchased, NGV Supporters of Indigenous Art, 2010. Photo © National Gallery of Victoria. Photography courtesy The Estate of Sally Gabori / Adagp, Paris, 2022.

T Australia wishes to advise the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that this article contains images and names of deceased Aboriginal people.

Considered one of the greatest contemporary Australian artists of the past two decades, Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori began painting in 2005, around the age of eighty, and developed, in just a few short years and prior to her death in 2015, a unique, vibrantly colourful body of work. Her paintings are as much topographical references of her native island as they are stories with a deep significance for her, her family and her Kaiadilt people.

From 3 July to 6 November 2022, the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain is presenting the first major solo survey exhibition of Gabori outside of Australia. Bringing together some thirty monumental paintings, the exhibition is organised in close collaboration with the artist’s family and the Kaiadilt community, alongside specialists in Kaiadilt art and culture, who were invited to Paris for the opening to pay tribute to this artist, whose work continues to fascinate for its spontaneous, luminous, and profoundly original character.

Sally Gabori Cartier exhibition
Photography courtesy the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain.

The exhibition at the Fondation Cartier presents some thirty canvases by Gabori, including spectacular monumental canvases that punctuated her career, as well as three collaborative paintings done with other Kaiadilt artists, including her daughters. Thanks to some exceptional loans from major Australian galleries such as Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of New South Wales and HOTA, Home of the Arts, as well as Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, the Fondation Opale, and generous loans by private lenders, the exhibition allows the public to discover an immense colourist whose corpus, profoundly anchored in the history of her people, bears witness to a remarkable pictorial modernity.

Sally Gabori
Sally Gabori, Art & Craft Centre, Mornington Island, 2008–12. Photography by Inge Cooper.

To coincide with the ambitious exhibition of paintings, the Fondation Cartier, in close collaboration with Gabori’s family and the Kaiadilt community, has created a website dedicated to the life and work of the artist. The unique research project focuses on the extraordinary career of this iconic Kaiadilt artist and bears witness to the wealth of her work and the significant cultural legacy she has left to her community. Through a large number of documents and exclusive accounts, the website comprises the most exhaustive collection of archives ever compiled on Gabori and her history.

Following in the continuity of online projects developed by the Fondation Cartier around major figures – such as bioacoustician Bernie Krause, photographer Claudia Andujar, and filmmaker Artavazd Pelechian – the site dedicated to Gabori will be regularly added to with new contributions.

The Ceramists Ushering in a New Era of Surrealism

A new kind of ceramic art reminds us that beauty — and strangeness — is often found in the mundane.

Article by Amanda Fortini

Clockwise from left, Alma Berrow’s ashtray and Rose Eken’s pot of anti-itch cream and jar of Vegemite. Photography by Hugo Yu.Clockwise from left, Alma Berrow’s ashtray and Rose Eken’s pot of anti-itch cream and jar of Vegemite. Photography by Hugo Yu.

In his 1869 poetic novel, “Les Chants de Maldoror,” the French writer Isidore Lucien Ducasse, known pseudonymously as the Comte de Lautréamont, describes a young boy who is as “beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” Lautréamont’s book was rediscovered and championed by the Surrealists after World War I, and this particular simile became a kind of foundational mantra for the movement. Its juxtaposition of mundane objects in an unexpected setting conveyed the Surrealists’ cheekiness, their love of the incongruous and irrational and their overriding fascination with found curiosities.

The Surrealists were, as we would put it today, obsessed with the totemic power of the object and its ability to re-enchant humdrum reality: Marcel Duchamp’s punning readymades and Hans Bellmer’s fetishistic dolls, Salvador Dalí’s winkingly evocative lobster phone and Méret Oppenheim’s more overtly suggestive furry teacup. Members of the movement roamed flea markets in search of treasures and documented the bizarre wonders that floated into their subconscious while they slept. On the occasion of the landmark “Surrealist Exhibition of Objects,” held in Paris in May 1936, André Breton, the godfather of the movement, wrote an essay in which he called for the “total revolution of the object” — a goal the Surrealists arguably achieved, as numerous artists, from Louise Bourgeois to Sarah Lucas, have been influenced by their sensibility, images and ideas.

Nowadays, a group of contemporary artists are making what one might call oddity ceramics: playful, imaginative, funny but often slightly menacing objets d’art. Genesis Belanger, Rose Eken, Alma Berrow and Katy Stubbs are all working in a similar vein (as are a handful of notable others, such as Lindsey Mendick, Jessica Stoller and Woody De Othello). These four artists — all of them, not incidentally, women — take the notion of the readymade and subvert it, refashioning quotidian artefacts (cigarettes, sandwiches, shoes, lipstick, beer cans, sweaty plates of meat or eggs) in ceramics, a medium that was once considered a lowly craft but, in recent years, has been welcomed to the loftier echelon of fine art. Although their humorous, sometimes dark sculptures all share a spiritual DNA, each artist treats the object in her own highly specific, idiosyncratic way, which is perhaps not surprising, given the strange, often diminutive but eerily compelling works they’re creating.

The Brooklyn-based artist Belanger, 43, who sculpts pastel-coloured ceramics out of porcelain and stoneware, calls her work “Pop Bauhaus with a Surrealist bent.” Belanger worked for several years as a prop stylist’s assistant on campaigns for major brands like Tiffany & Co., Chanel and Victoria’s Secret, and finds inspiration in vintage advertisements — particularly in their use of beauty to induce desire: “It’s borderline offensive to actually offensive when you look at it now with our contemporary eye,” she says. Her unglazed matte clay objects, which she tints with powdered pigments in nostalgic confectionary hues the colours of Jordan almonds, tend to anthropomorphise everyday household articles. A thick, pink tongue extends from a tape dispenser. A foot-long hot dog is tucked into a platform sandal (get it?). Lamps have lips or breasts or arms and wear jewellery. These pieces are beautiful on the surface but rather disquieting beneath, recalling the creepily seductive work of Alina Szapocznikow, Robert Gober and David Lynch, as well as Man Ray’s iconic fashion images of feet, hands and Lee Miller’s tearful eyes.

Despite their seemingly decorative nature, Belanger’s ceramics aren’t stand-alone curiosities; they tell a larger story — as do the creations of all these artists. Belanger makes installations that conjure an entire mise-en-scène, building the furniture and wiring the lighting herself. “I normally start with what the room is going to be, and then build all the objects to tell a more fleshed out story,” she says.

These clay works — including, from left, Genesis Belanger’s disembodied hand balancing a sardine on a cracker on one finger and Katy Stubbs’s prawn cocktail — depict items so prosaic as to seem beneath one’s attention, yet they make us see the quotidian anew. Photography by Hugo Yu.
These clay works — including, from left, Genesis Belanger’s disembodied hand balancing a sardine on a cracker on one finger and Katy Stubbs’s prawn cocktail — depict items so prosaic as to seem beneath one’s attention, yet they make us see the quotidian anew. Photography by Hugo Yu.

The Danish artist Eken, 45, explores in-between spaces. While a teenager in Copenhagen, Eken worked as a stage technician for various punk venues, and this period of her life continues to inform her work. “When the audience is not there, when there’s nobody on the stage … these spaces are kind of suspended in time,” says Eken. “I’m intrigued by this moment just before something, or just after.” She’s created several “aftermath” installations, as she calls them, in which she reproduces the detritus left in theatres and concert venues in ceramics that are just slightly off in scale: cigarette butts, soda cans, beer bottles, plastic cups, lighters, band T-shirts, electric cables — commonplace items where private and collective memories meet. The viewer is left to impose their subjective narrative on the work: That was the night you got drunk; that was the show where you sneaked backstage. “We have a lot of ideas, subconsciously, about what these objects mean to us,” Eken says. We derive memories, identity, meaning from the sea of stuff in which we swim.

The London-based Berrow, a 29-year-old British ceramic artist who sells her pieces on Instagram, works in a similar vein, though on a smaller scale. She’s best known for her signature ashtrays that contain stubbed-out cigarettes, along with whatever else one might toss in during the course of an evening — lemon wedges, pistachio shells, spent matches, a steeped tea bag, clementine peels, a gold tooth. “It’s almost like doing a portrait,” she says of her ashtray worlds, which can tell the story of a life — for one couple’s commission she made a smoked joint, an apartment key and a scribbled note of affection — or simply a big night out.

Berrow took up ceramics in early 2020 while on lockdown at her mother’s house in Dorset; her mother, Miranda, is also a ceramist, so Berrow availed herself of her earthenware, kiln and high-sheen glazes. Berrow makes cigarettes, she explains, because she’s drawn to things that are “caricatures of themselves.” She’s also done oysters, lobsters, prawns, Ritz crackers, pomegranates, a backgammon board — all vaguely retro, often glamorous relics that carry cultural symbolism or baggage. But the common denominator is whatever Berrow finds comical. “A prawn cocktail, for me, is funny,” she says. “I don’t know why, but I find them hysterical.”

The British South African artist Stubbs, 29, also finds humour in unexpected places. “I like to explore the really dark side of human nature,” she says, “but to make it light.” Stubbs, who studied illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York and now lives in London, makes bright, whimsical, cartoonish work — her palette includes a lot of superhero red, yellow and green — of unexpected oddities: large bowls of spaghetti and clams, a mountainous tower of crayfish and enormous round plates of meat (“disgusting and glossy,” she calls them), a nod to the Swiss artist duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss. Raised on the gothic stories of Edward Gorey and Roald Dahl, Stubbs is interested in gluttony and excess — “this human quality of ours,” she tells me, “where we want more and we want a big pile.” She’s fascinated by humans indulging their baser, more callous instincts, and much of her work tells that tale in some form. “I did one pot about a man kicking another man,” she deadpans. “Sometimes you just feel like kicking somebody.”

It made me think: Is the sudden proliferation of oddity ceramics, which I had previously chalked up to any number of art-world factors — a return to figuration, a renewed interest in traditional crafts, a long overdue focus on female artists — in fact a response to the ongoing darkness of this moment? After all, the original Surrealist movement, with its urge to systematically derange the senses, occurred in the wake of the First World War and its horrors. These are humorous, superficially light pieces — distractions — that also convey a wry awareness of an omnipresent and unsettling strangeness. What’s known and functional has been rendered impractical and pointless, which is fascinating but also kind of scary. As the author Anne Boyer writes in 2019’s “The Undying,” “Enchantment exists when things are themselves and not their uses.” These objects reflect back at us a world that both is and is no longer familiar.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 56 of T Australia with the headline:
“The Uncanny Object”
Order a copy | Subscribe

The Point of Art When The World Is At War

In her latest column for T Australia, the author and activist Bri Lee ponders the point of creating art when the world is gripped by war.

Article by Bri Lee

I’m writing a manuscript about art and love while watching footage of Russia invading Ukraine. One browser window shows Russian missiles striking Kyiv, triggering Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. In another, I’m finishing my first novel. An overwhelming wave of the uselessness of my work crashes over me. How have I spent so many years on something so removed from the real and terrible fabric of the world?

It isn’t the first time I’ve questioned the validity of my project or, honestly, my entire creative industry. At some point in my young adult life, I absorbed the idea that art for art’s sake was inherently indulgent. I am a child of the cultural cringe that this nation has perfected — the political rhetoric that lumps artists with hippies and dreamers who drain the economy.

My previous books have been hard-hitting nonfiction about inequality and the systemic failures impacting vulnerable survivors. I run advocacy initiatives, write news articles about serious things, try to make space in the media for silenced people to speak. But after six years of argumentative and activist-style authoring, I finally gave myself permission to create art. From early on, I’d wanted to write fiction, but something told me I had to earn that right. A novel was the dessert after a healthy main course of essays and reportage. A made-up story was a siesta after a day of real work.

I don’t really believe this. And, more importantly, I don’t want artists to believe this. I don’t actually believe in the binary of fiction and nonfiction. I don’t even endorse the idea of a separation between art and life. But how can artists keep faith in the importance of their work while wars begin and old ones rage on?

For as long as there have been artists and warmongers, the two have hated each other. Militarists strategise and “make history” — they loathe the passivity and supposed pointlessness of art — while artists decry the destruction and devastation of state-sanctioned violence. Dark jokes have been made about the Holocaust being avoidable if only the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts hadn’t rejected young Adolf’s application (twice). A tapestry reproduction of Picasso’s 1937 anti-war work, “Guernica”, on display at the United Nations’ headquarters, was covered up before the United States’ secretary of state Colin Powell delivered a speech making a case for waging war on Iraq in 2003. “Guernica” is an act of witnessing. It is a work that holds the power to damn both past and future wars.

I went to the Matisse exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales to lose myself in the colour and noise. But his 1914 painting “Intérieur, bocal de poissons rouges” (Interior, goldfish bowl) held me, transfixed. The interior of a small, dark Parisian apartment is depicted in cool blues and greys, offering a view of the street through a window. But within the dark interior are two shiny goldfish, vibrant orange, floating together. The Centre Pompidou writes, “Through the theme of the studio, Matisse interrogates the painter’s role in the world, particularly put into question by the outbreak of war.” At 44, Matisse was too old and unwell to fight. After his failed attempt to enlist, he ruminated on his uselessness from his studio at home, making some of the darkest paintings of his career. They speak to me now: two golden fish, lights in the dark.

W H Auden speaks to us, too. Earlier this year, the poet and essayist Elisa Gabbert published a piece in The New York Times about Auden’s 1938 poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”. Auden had visited the museum in Belgium and seen several paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder — in particular, “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”. It’s an extraordinary painting, which has been captured and made more profound by Auden’s extraordinary poem. Neither work is actually about the fall of Icarus: they’re about every other little and big thing that continues to happen while Icarus is plummeting and drowning. When Auden wrote the poem, war was looming in Europe, but the farmers dutifully continued to plough their fields and (rather delightfully) “the dogs go on with their doggy life”.

Gabbert says the painting and poem are “a comment on the fraught relation between attention and disaster”. In other words: what are we to do? Do we just keep doing? She references one of Auden’s later and often-quoted poems, “September 1, 1939”, named for the date Nazi Germany invaded Poland, with the much-adored line “We must love one another or die.” Auden hated that line. He omitted the poem from his collections and refused permissions for reproductions in anthologies. He said the work was “infected with an incurable dishonesty” because we love and die, anyway. Love doesn’t stop war. If we are very lucky, love might — just might — endure it.

This is, perhaps ironically, how I have come to feel about art: the only justification it requires is a brief imagining of a life without it. Alexander Chee cites one of Auden’s other poems in his essay “On Becoming an American Writer” in “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”. Chee taught a writing class the morning after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2016. One of his students asked him, “What is the point even of writing, if this can happen?” He was also preparing to teach on the day America invaded Iraq in 2003. “The task of being a writer suddenly felt inadequate,” he reflected. Earlier again, he was reading the first review of his debut novel on the Thursday following September 11, 2001, after which, according to some reports, the entire city experienced writer’s block because “they couldn’t think of writing anything that approached the scale of the attacks”. Writers since Auden have lived under the shadow of a single line he wrote — “poetry makes nothing happen” — from the elegy about his hero, W B Yeats. I heard echoes of this sentiment when arts and humanities departments were defunded for supposedly not creating “job ready” graduates. I felt reverberations of this false divide when many creative professionals were denied the financial support that businesses and tradespeople received during the pandemic.

Chee writes that Auden’s line has been misunderstood when taken from the original context. Auden was expressing some disillusionment and making an ironic complaint. “I don’t think Auden meant it as a call to stop trying,” Chee writes. He understands despair as a sin — the sin of hopelessness. “We don’t know when the world will end. If it ever does, we will be better served when it does by having done this work we can do.” I take this to heart. What is the work I can do?

When I walked home from the art gallery, I listened to Debussy. He died while World War I was still raging. I laid on my bed and looked up at the ornate crowns on the ceiling, dating back to the 1930s, a decade defined by economic crisis and the lead-up to another world war. The invasion of Australia in 1788 was followed by attempted genocide. The children of the Stolen Generations managed to defy colonisation and assert their identity and sovereignty. Family violence and abuse is a kind of domestic terrorism — one that a third of all women will experience.

Only the details of war change; its existence is almost constant. We go from bayonets and pistols to bombs on drones. Leaders go from fascist to autocrat to oligarch to despot. Refugees flee and Australia takes some, often depending on their skin colour and the language they speak.

I rely on journalism and nonfiction to stay informed about these wars, but I turn to art to understand it, and not just art about war. Art about humans helps me make sense of the selfishness and devastating greed. Poets and composers help me grapple with love that doesn’t simply disappear after death. Art is not an optional extra that some of us choose to spend money on — we carry the reverberations of art within us through generations, just as we carry the movements and histories of peace and violence. As sure as there has always been war, there has always been art. As sure as we die, we love. All art is made in the time of war. More art preceding and following more war. Art despite and during war.

The machinations of the world may continue, and the dogs trot along in their doggy lives, but I have a new postcard sitting on my desk: two tiny goldfish. I see them and I think of my husband and me. I think of the lives we have been lucky enough to make together. I think of how hard it is to capture the enormity of my love for him in words, and how I turned to fiction in my feeble attempts to render it. Artists who continue to work are not farmers ignoring the drowning Icarus. We are Bruegel, Auden and Chee. I am so grateful they kept working and did not despair. The least I can do is the same.

This is an edited extract from Issue 6. To read the full story, pick up a copy of our new issue in newsagents nationally, order online or subscribe to receive T Australia straight to your letterbox. You will find it on Page 28, named “Worlds Collide”.

The Outback Water Tank, Creatively Reborn

Beneath the skies of a remote mining town, a composer and an architect created a musical chamber for marveling at the universe.

Article by Casey Quackenbush

The sun rises over the Cobar Sound Chapel, a sound-art installation that was a collaboration between the composer Georges Lentz and the architect Glenn Murcutt, in Cobar, New South Wales. Photography by Josh Robenstone.

Life in Cobar was a delicate thing until the arrival of the Silver Tank. In the vast, red-dirt countryside, over 645 kilometres northwest of the shores of Sydney, rainwater is scarce. ​​For thousands of years, the nomadic Ngiyampaa people excelled at the art of survival by creating natural rock reservoirs. But after European settlers discovered copper and gold in the area in the 1870s, enough water was needed to sustain a booming mining town. Reservoirs were dug. Water was trained in from afar. Then, in 1901, a 33-foot-high steel water tank painted silver, hence its nickname, was erected about a mile outside of town. While the threat of drought remained (and remains to this day), it turned dusty Cobar, a freckle at the edge of the Outback, into something of a desert oasis.

The entrance to the sound chapel, which features a bench from which visitors can listen to Lentz’s “String Quartet(s)” (2000-21), a 24-hour-long composition inspired by the Outback’s dramatic skies. Photography by Josh Robenstone.

Nowadays, Cobar pipes in its water from the Burrendong Dam, about 375 kilometres east, and the tank, whose silver finish long ago succumbed to rust and graffiti, is empty of water. It has, however, been filled with something new — music. On April 2, after two decades of work, it will be officially reborn as the Cobar Sound Chapel, an audacious sound-art collaboration between Georges Lentz, one of Australia’s leading contemporary composers, and Glenn Murcutt, an Australian Pritzker Prize- and Praemium Imperiale award-winning architect.

For his reimagining of the roofless tank, Murcutt installed a cube within its cylindrical space, in which Lentz’s “String Quartet(s)”(2000-21), a 24-hour-long classical-meets-electronica work, will play on loop via a quadraphonic sound system. Inside the chamber is a concrete bench that seats up to four, from which one can look out through the ceiling’s gold-rimmed oculus. Morning, noon and night, then, the otherworldly sonic stream will reverberate throughout the concrete booth and spill out into the sky that inspired it.

The artists’ hope is that their work will prompt visitors to meditate on our place in the universe. “There is a mysterious element to our existence that we ignore at our own peril,” says Lentz, 56. “By turning to something higher than ourselves, we realize we are just this tiny thing in this vast scheme.”

Murcutt set a concrete cube within the tank. Inside it is a concrete bench from which one can look up at the sky through the gold-rimmed oculus. Photography by Josh Robenstone.
Lentz’s “String Quartet(s),” on which he collaborated with the Noise, an experimental string quartet, will play on loop via a quadraphonic sound system. Photography by Josh Robenstone.

Lentz has been consumed by questions of cosmology and spirituality ever since he was a child. Born in Echternach, a small town in Luxembourg that formed around a seventh-century abbey, he grew up attending classical music festivals and stargazing with his dad. Later, he studied music in Hanover, Germany. While riding the train to university in the fall of 1988, he happened upon a story in the German science magazine Geo about the creation of the universe. It threw the tininess of humanity into sharp relief for him, and he fell into a depression that left him sleepless for weeks. “Itfelt like an abyss you look into and go, ‘Wah!’” he says.

The morning sun creates a sliver of light on the interior of the entrance to the Cobar Sound Chapel, which will open in April. Photography by Josh Robenstone.

Ever since, Lentz has devoted his entire body of work to exploring the questions of the cosmos, transforming his initial fear into a quest for contemplation, one that only intensified following his 1990 move to Australia and exposure to the Outback’s ocean of sky. Both a continuation and culmination of his work, “String Quartet(s)” began as an attempt to translate that sky into a score.

To do so, he collaborated with The Noise, an experimental string quartet that’s based in Sydney. They used a range of techniques; to mirror a starry night, for example, the musicians invoked the pointillism of the contemporary Indigenous painter Kathleen Petyarre, plucking their bows at the top of their instruments to create contained bits of sound.

“If you repeat that,” says Oliver Miller, The Noise’s cellist and a technical and creative adviser to the chapel, “it converges into a galactic formation where you get a cluster of the Milky Way.”

The interior walls of the concrete chamber were cast in corrugated iron formwork and act as sound diffusers. The men chose to keep the graffiti that had accumulated on the disused tank over the years. Photography by Josh Robenstone.

They ended up with about six hours’ worth of music, which, through digital editing, Lentz expanded into a 24-hour, techno-infused soundscape of terror, wonder and reverence. Taking inspiration from Gerhard Richter, he layered recorded sounds as if they were in a palimpsest. In one track I sampled, a curtain of piercing strings gave the impression of a dust storm haunting the horizon. In another, I fell into a reverie as the strings receded into shiny, ethereal dots, ringing as if in an empty basement. I listened from atop a hill in Connecticut, but to hear the music inside the chapel would be an experience of an entirely different magnitude.

A view from just outside the concrete chamber, which was built inside of a roofless (and now empty) water tank. Photography by Josh Robenstone.

Around 2000, Lentz began dreaming of a music box amid a copper landscape, a place where his music could live alongside its muse. But it wasn’t until he played a concert in Cobar in 2008 that he considered the town as a potential site. He pitched the idea to the Cobar Shire Council, which later proposed the hilltop bearing the tank, suggesting it be demolished to make room.

“Absolutely not!” Lentz said. Soon after, he called Murcutt, 85, who is celebrated for hand-drawn, landscape-specific designs inspired by Australian vernacular architecture, such as farmhouses and shearing sheds. “You’d have to be mad to be doing something like this,” Murcutt remembers thinking. “But it’s also extraordinary.”

Two concrete slabs mark the entrance to the sound chapel, though, thanks to its oculus, music can also be heard from outside the space. Photography by Josh Robenstone.

Murcutt has always been drawn to the desert, whose sparseness resonates with the Aboriginal mantra — touch the earth lightly — by which he tries to abide. In keeping with that idea, he set out to design, largely thanks to governmental funding, a simple, solar-powered chapel that would unify sound, site and atmosphere.

Two large slabs of concrete mark the entrance outside. Inside, the cubic space (which is slightly slanted to optimise acoustics) is stark, just like the desert itself. In the four corners of the ceiling, sunlight streams through windows of Russian blue glass painted by the local Indigenous artist Sharron Ohlsen, who also employs pointillism in her work.

And, over the course of each day, an ellipse of light traverses the floor and concrete walls, which were cast in corrugated iron formwork and act as sound diffusers. Music booms from a speaker in each wall, enveloping listeners, Miller says, as if they were “moving within a cosmic nebula or swimming within a school of deep-sea jellyfish.”

And so, over a century after arriving in town, the Silver Tank — which promises to put Cobar on the cultural map, especially as the chapel will play host to an annual string quartet festival sponsored by Manuka Resources, a local mine — once again provides something essential.

For anyone who spends time inside, it offers a sanctuary for contemplating existential questions that, particularly in the age of the pandemic, haunt us so acutely. And while the piece may not provide answers, it is also a comforting reminder that, even in a vast, seemingly empty expanse, there can still be music.

Indigenous Art Launches into the NFT Metaverse

The new world of NFTs — non-fungible tokens — are presenting significant opportunities for Indigenous artists to express their traditional narratives and practice.

Article by Alexia Petsinis

Lyn-Al Young and Richard Young, pictured at Richard's solo exhibition ‘Scarred Species’ at Yering Station, 2021, in front of his artwork, "Transformed Mind". Photography courtesy of Richard Young.

Based in Naarm/Melbourne, Gunnai, Yorta Yorta and Gunditjmara artist Richard Young and his daughter Lyn-Al are just two of the Indigenous artists successfully pursuing opportunities in the NFT space.

Having closely studied the evolution and intricacies of crypto-art and blockchain technology for the past few years, Richard and Lyn-Al are now engaged in major collaborations with brands and partners in the NFT realm. These projects offer Young and his family a platform to share their cultural truths and stories with the world, transposing highly gestural painted and mixed media works into universal virtual expressions of identity and belonging that transcend gallery walls.

“I’m collaborating with a global company on some exciting NFT projects throughout this year. These projects combine my work in fashion, art and culture to share insights into our culture and our stories. We have already collaborated on one NFT, which I can share more information about soon,” says artist and fashion designer Lyn-Al Young.

Global exposure via NFTs is one thing, education is another. In 2021 Australian digital technology provider ARQ Group hosted a “hackathon” training initiative, inviting Richard to stimulate conversations around the potential of NFT’s for Indigenous Australian artists and the wider community.

The hackathon explored issues around access to market and demonstrated the diversity of Aboriginal art beyond Central Australian “dot-art” stereotypes through educational initiatives. It also considered how language barriers could be overcome to communicate the intricacies and potential of the NFT sphere for Indigenous Australian artists working in remote communities.

“One of my goals is to help Aboriginal artists and family groups to understand the processes involved in NFTs and the whole area of crypto-currency in the context of resale royalties and contracts. It’s really about considering how we bridge that knowledge gap between what is happening out there in the global virtual art metaverse, and what artists understand of it all here in Australia,” says Richard.

Richard Young, "Empty Words", Acrylic and paper on canvas, 183 x 198cm. Courtesy of the artist.

With NFT education comes awareness. An increasing number of Australian companies are developing business models based on the sale of Indigenous Australian art as NFTs, identifying a widespread market appetite for buyers and brands to engage with Aboriginal narratives and themes expressed in both traditional and contemporary visual outcomes.

The recently launched Culture Vault is a new Australian-owned platform and creative agency founded by Michelle Grey, Sean Tolkin, Sam Linus and Susan Armstrong, selling NFTs by some of the country’s most celebrated names including Indigenous Australian artists and creatives Reko Rennie, Adam Briggs and Thea Anamara Perkins.

Created to bridge the gap between traditional art and the crypto community, Culture Vault invites virtual art buyers and collectors to engage with NFTs as part of a broader cultural experience, offering complementary experiential assets in conjunction with the purchasing journey.

Unlike other NFT art platforms which often prioritise the quick buck, Culture Vault reminds buyers and brands that NFTs are not just about sales transactions. They are a prompt for storytelling, cultural enrichment, and community engagement, which has always been central to the experience of Indigenous Australian art.

While the legalities of any artist entering the NFT space constitute an entire article unto itself, the metaverse does pose particular challenges to Indigenous Australian artists with heightened sensitivities around attribution, exclusivity expectations and power dynamics between artist and brand or commissioner.

Alana Kushnir — art lawyer, advisor and director of Guest Work Agency — reflects on a long history of Indigenous Australian artists having their work usurped by brands, media and private stakeholders to serve particular agendas. According to Kushnir, these issues can also repeat themselves in the NFT space if artists don’t seek legal advice or sound representation.

Conversely, however, blockchain technology in particular is proving extremely valuable in addressing issues around ownership and authenticity of Aboriginal art in the metaverse.

“There are long-standing issues with authenticity, provenance, misleading and deceptive conduct by many sellers of Indigenous art both locally and abroad. There are now initiatives being developed by the government to explore how blockchain technology can address some of these complexities. Every transaction is public on the blockchain and it is therefore valuable in not only tracking the journey of a work, but also monitoring whether the artist’s intent behind creating the piece is preserved,” Kushnir says.

Legal and logistic intricacies aside, the NFT space can be viewed through a conceptually spiritual lens, holding the promise of infinite creative possibility and universal storytelling beyond the physical form.

“For me, the NFT space is quite similar to the spiritual world we call Dreamtime,” says Lyn-Al Young. “It’s intangible, but it’s all-powerful, it’s all around us. Our Dreaming stories – which people can see in our physical art – translate powerfully through the metaverse on an immersive level that people haven’t experienced before. I’m excited for what the future holds.”