In Who’s Afraid of Colour?, likely the largest exhibition ever of its kind, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) Australia is acknowledging and actively working to correct the institutional erasure of Australian Indigenous art, “the world’s longest continuing art tradition,” which has endured for some 40,000 years. The exhibition includes 200 artworks by 118 artists, all of whom are Australian Indigenous women. Since the beginning of the continent’s colonization, Indigenous peoples’ artworks have been denied their rightful place within the Australian art scene. Sentiments finally began to change in the 1960s, after centuries, but Indigenous women were still steadily excluded. The NGV itself is guilty of mounting a survey of over 300 Indigenous artworks in 1981 and not crediting a single female artist.
Nevertheless, Australian Indigenous women artists have worked hard to earn their growing recognition, marked by a number of significant milestones including Emily Kam Kngwarray, Yvonne Koolmatrie, and Judy Watson representing Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1997; the first sale for over $1,000,000 at auction of Kngwarray’s Earth’s Creation in 2007; and this year, the selection of Tracey Moffatt to represent Australia in the first Indigenous woman’s solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale.
The large-scale exhibition at the NGV presents the full spectrum of contemporary Australian Indigenous art. Numerous woven baskets, necklaces, ceramics, and string bags—objects that might be considered craft in other contexts—are all included, and rightfully so, since craft and utilitarian works are defined as art objects in the Indigenous art discourse. Across most Indigenous cultures, the act of making art objects and paintings using traditional methods is a way to enter into Dreamtime, a nonlinear, expansive dimension of space and time wherein the landscape, objects, animals, and human beings were once created, and where all ancestors and events continue to exist throughout time. Howard Morphy describes how across Indigenous cultures, “Art established a line of connection with the foundational events and enabled people to maintain contact with the spiritual dimension of existence… [Art] keeps the past alive and maintains its relevance to the present.”
The permission to depict one’s Dreamtime is inherited from one’s elders, therefore the content and form of an artwork is not solely the unique vision of one artist, but rather a deeply personal ancestral inheritance of knowledge, history, culture, identity, and spirituality. While the artworks embody this multivalence, the specific inheritance disallows an artist from painting another’s Dreamtime. Jenny Crompton’s Sea Country Spirits (2015–16) are sculptures made of bone, driftwood, and seaweed hung from the ceiling under theatrical lighting. They magically animate the spirits of the ocean, sky, and land from her country of Wathaurong, and thus belong to her.
Many paintings on view continue the practice of painting as a form of conceptual mapping of geographical and social structures. Wintjiya Napaltjarri’s Watanuma (2008) depicts a scene where a group of ancestral women have gathered to perform songs and dances. Encoded by the use of her ancestor’s traditional symbols—a “U” stands for a seated woman, and small circles for the burrowed holes of flying ants—the abstracted visual language describes the scene in rich detail.
Anwerlarr Anganenty (Big Yam Dreaming) (1995) by Emily Kam Kngwarray is perhaps the most iconic, and certainly the largest, of the numerous contemporary paintings in the show. The black-and-white epic stretches over 26 feet long in one continuous brush stroke and recalls those used in body painting. Though the gesture can be read to represent the jumbled vines of the yam plant, or as an agricultural map, the work’s expansive neural cloud feels more like an intimate portrait of the universe. The “masterpiece” was created just one year before the artist passed away at eighty-five years old. In the eight years that Kngwarray painted, she made over 3,000 pieces to support her extended family, and eventually became one of the most prominent Australian Indigenous artists. Though she knew nothing of the international art world, Kngwarray’s story is exemplary of a later stage of Indigenous survival: Over the last few decades, growing market demand has created art-based economies in many Indigenous communities, securing both cultural and financial futures.
While the presence of a female Indigenous artist’s work in a major national gallery is already a political gesture, overtly political pieces are included in the show too. Judy Watson’s Black Ground (1989) and Yhonnie Scarce’s Blood on the Wattle (Elliston, South Australia 1849) (2013) expose the enduring pain of many Indigenous massacres. Intentionally hung next to E. Phillips-Fox’s colonialist painting, Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770 (1902), is Julie Gough’s sculptural piece Imperial Leather (1994). What first appear to be dozens of soap on a rope hanging in a Union Jack formation reveal themselves as wax casts of the same Indigenous face hung from small nooses.
The accumulation of stories and the sheer cacophony of loss barrels into a heart-wrenching, multi-channel video piece, We All Need Forgiveness (2014), by Bindi Cole Chocka. Made in response to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to Indigenous people in 2008, the moving piece puts viewers face-to-face with dozens of Indigenous Australians repeating, “I forgive you,” over and over again. Some have tears in their eyes, while some have smiles.
The artists in Who’s Afraid of Colour? share countless stories of human survival—born from harsh natural conditions, and often in the face of extreme injustice. Australian Indigenous survival is defined by adaptation to the unknown, but also by an unwavering connection to land and culture. With regards to the recognition of their artwork, as Morphy puts it, the struggle “has been partly about definition, about the right to be defined in terms of its own history rather than according to Western preconceptions.” To all of the Australian Indigenous women artists: We see you, as you are. It is a privilege to bear witness to your long-overdue celebration. Thank you.
Who’s Afraid of Colour? is on view through April 18, 2017.
 Howard Morphy. Aboriginal Art (London: Phaidon Press, 1998), 5.