This focus exhibition highlights the 24 works that form the foundation of the Art Gallery of NSW Indigenous art collection. These art works where gifted by the Commonwealth Government in 1956 after being collected by Charles Pearcy Mountford 12 years earlier.
Charles Pearcy Mountford (1890-1976) had a diverse career but is remembered for his work within the field of anthropology. In 1948 Mountford led the historic American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land (AASEAL) to the Arnhem Land communities of Yirrkala, Milingimbi, Gunbalanya (Oenpelli), along with Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institute in partnership with the Commonwealth of Australia the expedition took 9 months and undertook wide ranging research, which Mountford later documented in four published volumes. The expedition collected an astounding 275 paintings: 171 on bark and 104 on paper, along with a number of carved and painted objects.
In 1956 this amazing collection was distributed to the six Australian state galleries, Canberra’s Institute of Anatomy (now the National Museum of Australia) and in Washington, the National Museum of Natural History and the Department of Anthropology of the Smithsonian Institute. The Art Gallery of NSW gratefully received 16 works on paper from Yirrkala, Milingimbi and Gunbalanya and 8 bark paintings from Gunbalanya and Groote Eylandt, greatly enhancing the Gallery’s collection.
The AASEAL works on paper are delicately rendered and show the expertise of the artists in adapting to the use of paper, rather than the use of bark, to which they would have been accustomed. These works depict diverse subjects such as Mimih spirits, wild honey and the collection of trepang or sea cucumber by Macassan fisherman. The classic Anindilyakwa bark paintings from Groote Eylandt are characteristic to the mid-20th century. In these works decorative in-filled animals seem to float on a deep black ground: the blackness coming from the use of magnesium, quite dense in contrast to the fine ochre painting of the animals.