Summoning the "Debil Debil": Indigenous Art at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Sydney

Summoning the "Debil Debil": Indigenous Art at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Sydney
Artist Michael Cook

Aboriginal for spirit or ghost, “Debil Debil” (devil-devil) is the title of a wondrous group exhibition of contemporary Indigenous Australian art currently on show at Anna Schwartz gallery in Sydney. Curated by the highly respected Aboriginal scholar Marcia Langton AM, “Debil Debil” is an interesting digression for Anna Schwartz who is best known as one of Australia’s most active and respected gallerists.

The artists chosen by Langton eschew the familiar Indigenous motifs in favour of a more complex and contemporary visual language that is both refreshing and engaging. It is a relief to find that the works in “Debil Debil” can be appreciated and enjoyed as much for their aesthetic qualities as for their status as monuments and mementos. Each of the artists exhibits a confident disposition, a refreshing lack of inhibition that evokes a sense of freedom and fluidity.

The title of the exhibition hints at the primary curatorial focus of the show, the ghosts of the past that continue to haunt many Indigenous Australians. But to be clear from the outset, these are not guilt-ridden images or morbid indictments, they are commemorations, mementos, memories – they are acts of acknowledgement and respect. They do not judge, they do not blame. That is not to say that these artists do not have every right to engage in activism and protest, but the artists featured in this exhibition seem to have realised the value of subtle engagement. Each artist featured in the show exhibits an admirable level of restraint that imbues their works with a balance that sees elements of aesthetic beauty and intellectual dialogue exist together harmoniously.

Standing guard at the entrance to the exhibition is a series of spectacular totemic bronze sculptures by Nawurapu Wunungmurra that inhabit their space with great aplomb as well as with an incredible sense of spirituality thanks partly to their gravity-defying stance. The tiny footprint of each of the tall, sinuous sculptures gives the impression that they are moving forward, hovering over the ground. Their curvilinear forms appear to be leaning forward, so much so that they look as though they are about to topple over. This is partly because of their shape but also because they appear to be made of wood and as such appear much lighter and less stable than they actually are.

Wunungmurra’s sculptures resonate with the images of the Australian wilderness as shown in Tracey Moffatt’s film “beDevil” which screens on a wall next to the watchful guardians. “beDevil”  is a series of three ghost stories inspired by the stories told to Moffatt when she was a child. It was Moffatt’s first film and the first film to be directed by an Australian Aboriginal woman. At the beginning of “beDevil” a group of Indigenous children play in a mangrove-like environment that is dominated by tall and thin trees which conjure an instant connection with the almost identical forms of Wunungmurra’s sculptures. Thus the dialogue begins.

Michael Cook’s “Civilised” series of photographs is shown in its entirety and what a statement it makes. The haunting yet wonderfully beautiful images depict Indigenous Australians dressed in the costume of four European countries that visited Australia before and in the early stages of colonialisation. According to “Debil Debil” curator Marcia Langton, “Cook asks ‘what makes a person civilised?’” Each of the photos has two very distinct planes of reference, the image of a figure in the foreground and the Victorian-style sepia tone textures of the beach scene backdrop. As the tide ebbs and flows the ghostly forms inhabit a sort of non-place, a state of limbo that could result in them being washed away by the receding waters or alternatively entrenched in the sand in which they stand.

Michael Cook visited the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby, England, a house where the young James lodged while he served his seaman’s apprenticeship. The artist noticed that there was very little reference to Australia on display in the attic room that James once called home, and no reference at all to Indigenous Australians. He asked one of the museum employees why Australia was not more prominently featured in the attic display and was told that James didn’t spend that much time in Australia and that his connections with Australia were not that significant in the context of all that he accomplished during his entire career.

The restrained delicacy of Daniel Boyd's “Untitled” painting is one of the highlights of the exhibition. Represented by a single but powerful work, the temperate invocation of Boyd’s “Untitled (Lift up thy prayer for the remnant that is left)” summons the spirits of the past while at the same time initiates a poignant dialogue of great significance to contemporary society. Boyd continues to develop his signature style of over-painting images with dots to a point of intuitive brilliance. Through a speckled veil Boyd instigates a process of addition and deletion, a cyclical fragmentation of information that is extremely engrossing and engaging. 

There are too many great works in the show to explore in this one review but Oxford University PhD candidate Christian Thompson’s photographs and Warwick Thornton’s evocative sci-fi images are worth noting as are Brook Andrew’s large-scale canvases. The physical fragility of Danie Mellor’s epic multi-panel work belies its size and is another noteworthy inclusion.

Almost every work in the show has one characteristic in common, an ethereality that manifests itself in the many and varied incarnations of surface that the artists in the show explore. Each work in the show could also be said to transcend time and space in the sense that they explore events past and present but do so in a way that situates them in the here and now.

Marcia Langton deserves to be congratulated for curating such a marvellously coherent and harmonious exhibition. For the duration of the show the Anna Shwartz gallery has inherited a spiritual presence that echoes around the space from one haunting image to the next leaving in its wake a palpable web of intellect, knowledge, and experience. Each work has its place, even those few deviations that serve to reawaken the senses.

“Debil Debil” is Anna Schwartz Gallery in Sydney until June 8 2013. For more information visit the Anna Schwartz Gallery website here