proppaNOW: positioning ‘authentic’ urban Aboriginal art

Arriving at the University of Queensland Art Museum in St Lucia, Brisbane, you’re faced with three massive rainforest shields. Obscuring the windows, the vinyl shields camouflage the museum from outside as a gesture of protection and strength.  It’s part of Jennifer Herd’s work, In defence, 2021, a new commission for the museum’s exhibition, OCCURRENT AFFAIR: proppaNOW.

Guest curated by Blaklash Projects’ Amanda Hayman and Troy Casey, OCCURRENT AFFAIR has been conceived as a ‘collaborative activist gesture, … [addressing] current socio-political, economic and environmental issues, while celebrating the strength, resilience and continuity of Aboriginal culture’. It’s the first exhibition by the proppaNOW Aboriginal artists collective in the last five years.

Herd, a Mbarbarrum woman of Far North Queensland and one of proppaNOW’s founders, sought to turn the museum into a safe space for the run of the exhibition. The front-window commission is a departure in scale and medium for Herd, but not subject: Herd’s shield designs, when produced on paper, are often pierced to reference both the small holes that warriors used to see through their rainforest shields, as well as the bullet holes blown through them during frontier wars.  Here, in Herd’s first large-scale public artwork, the size matches the resilience and history of these designs. Underneath the shields, the patterns of green camouflage have been exploded. Still visible, the conflict facing Aboriginal communities is not yet resolved; as Herd says, ‘the war is not over’.

For proppaNOW, will it ever be?

Jennifer Herd in front of In defence. Photo: Simon Woods.

proppaNOW was launched in 2004 with the intent to serve as a voice for urban Aboriginal artists. Founding members Vernon Ah Kee, Richard Bell, and Jennifer Herd questioned conventional definitions of what constituted ‘Aboriginal art’. Bell had recently proclaimed, in both painting and essay form that Aboriginal Art was ‘a White Thing’. What was considered ‘authentic’ was defined by whites: the galleries, the institutions, the dealers, the managers, the collectors – all decreed a particular kind of art ‘Aboriginal’. This ‘authentic’ version of Aboriginal art infused the country’s notions of Aboriginal ‘primitivism’. Gallery visitors were presented with ‘traditional’ cultural art/artifacts, often shepherded off in what Bell calls ‘darkies’ corner’. It hugged conventional prejudices. And it made its stakeholders money.

Cultural definitions of Aboriginal art constantly and exclusively referred to work by artists in remote regions. Art made by Aboriginal artists living in urban areas was excluded from this conferred idea of ‘Aboriginal art’, despite the fact that, as Bell explains that ‘something larger than 80% of Aboriginal people live in urban areas ­– the vast majority of people ­– and to disregard us in that regard is the epitome of cruelty. After all, we have lost more than everybody else, [than regional Aboriginal people] who are still attached to their country. They have more to compensate us for than anybody else. They owe us more.’

Herd has written that her work ‘articulates an intense sense of disconnection that I have personally experienced being born ‘out of country’ and the effect that displacement has had on all Aboriginal people.’ proppaNOW wanted to take back the ability to describe what could be considered ‘proppa’ Aboriginal art, whether or not it referenced country and
‘traditional’ culture.

Former senior lecturer at QCA and former art critic, George Petelin – who exhibited proppaNOW’s 2008 exhibition ‘Ooga-Booga: Whitefella Kitsch and Mysticism’ at his Queensland art gallery – believes that urban Aboriginal artists are much more authentic than their ‘traditional’ counterparts.

Urban is more authentic than central desert art because central desert art was selected by white curators, and what was selected was duplicated … That started a long time ago. Before Papunya, things like bark art were made into [portable] artefacts, commodities. The bark would be stretched to fit a frame to fit on a wall … the whole appearance of bark art was, like Richard Bell said, a ‘white thing’. The same with decorated boomerags… what Aborigine would decorate a boomerang to hunt with? … ‘Urban artists were aware of what was happening, and went against the grain of making ‘attractive’ art, but were making their OWN art for themselves. (emphasis in the original)

As Herd explained recently: ‘We wanted to change the way people thought about Aboriginal art. We’re not the sort of group who does dot paintings and cross hatching. We don’t have the right to those stories. Our story has been an urban story.’

Urban Aboriginal artists were (and are) more likely to create art that differed from the traditional view. In proppaNOW, 2021, Vernon Ah Kee’s video documentary premiered at this exhibition, Gordon Hookey describes creating art to explain ‘the Aboriginal condition in relation to the art world’:

We don’t make art about ceremony, about ritual: we are engaging with the now… We do things proppa way, the right way, with the right ethics. [We are] expressing our aboriginality now, which is often contrary to white western discourse or cultural colonialism – we are living in the city, making art about Aboriginal experience within the city.

The urban experience frequently imbues proppaNOW’s members’ work, individually and as a collective, with a political urgency that continues to be current. This, according to Bell, is a more difficult message for mainstream Australia to swallow:

it’s easier [for institutions] to explain those [traditional] works, because ours are much more easily relatable to current circumstances regarding capitalism, colonialism and neoliberalism. That’s what much of these works from those urban areas is about: it’s about the current circumstances that face us and how we can maintain our Aboriginality in front of these very powerful forces.

Hookey feels that the division between remote area or tradition-oriented artists and urban based artists is market-contrived:

It’s partly driven by the art market, because there are certain works that express traditional culture which is based in ceremony, … [and] times that have gone past. The works that reflect that are very popular with the art market and with people who are making lots of money from blackfella art

The arts market is still looking for the next Emily Kame Knagwarre, says Bell:

They’re always desperately seeking Emily … people can find a sense of empowerment in that [traditional artwork] – that takes on the notion of primitism, and hence, racial superiority.

Not only were urban Aboriginal artists not considered ‘authentic’, but their art was being excluded.

‘At the time, we were getting dealt out of this whole cultural game,’ Bell continues.

Within the Australian art scene, what we discovered was that Aboriginal art was between five to ten times bigger than the rest of Australian art … A in the number of sales and B in the value of those sales … yet, in all the institutions in this country, not one of them had a department of Aboriginal art. They all had departments of Australian art, and Aboriginal art curiously came under Australian art. .. the tail was wagging the dog.

The artist collective had been first conceived as far back as 1997, when Queensland College of Art’s fledgling Contemporary Aboriginal and Indigenous Art centre (CAIA) graduated its first group of urban Aboriginal art students, and the Campfire Group had recently wound down. There was a need for representation and advocacy.

Petelin notes their serendipitous timing.

‘They arrived at a fortuitous time, the turn of postmodernism’, he explains. ‘The public was starting to embrace every kind of alternative art.’

‘We knew we had to express our anger,’ says proppaNOW founder Vernon Ah Kee in the documentary.

The group launched with a MLK-esque press release aimed at artistic gatekeepers – not quite a manifesto, but tetchy enough to gain notice. Bell hails the attention it garnered: it established the collective to become a presence within the realm.

Digitally included in the OCCURRENT AFFAIR exhibition, it begins: 

We have a dream…
ProppaNOW, the Brisbane based Aboriginal artists’ collective, has this message for all.
We have a dream that one day there will be an autonomous Aboriginal Art Department in every major art gallery and museum in this country. That the curators of Aboriginal Art there will share the same benefits and job security with their non-Aboriginal co-workers – instead of one year contracts …

One institution in the crosshairs was the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), whose collection of Aboriginal Art was described as ‘third rate (at best)’; proppaNOW called for the gallery to purchase more artworks from living artists from Queensland. Bruce Johnson-McLean, now Assistant Director of Indigenous Engagement at NGA, was a QAG curatorial assistant at the time, becoming Curator of Indigenous Art at QAG a few years later. He says proppaNOW put QAG (and the wider industry), ‘on notice’, and that the work that proppaNOW is, and was, doing is instrumental in that.

From around that time, says Johnson-McLean,

living (urban contemporary Aboriginal) artists were what (the gallery) prioritised, particularly Richard Bell, Vernon Ah Kee, and Tony Albert – they’re all very well represented in the QAG collection now… The gallery can’t make claims in that space apart from collecting the artists that deserved to be collected.

Tony Albert in front of Terra Nullius (with Scrooge) (in progress). Photo: Simon Woods.

In 2004, proppaNOW also called for an autonomous Aboriginal Art Department for every major art gallery and museum in this country. Today, this appeal lingers unfulfilled: Aboriginal art remains in sections subordinate to Australian art departments. Johnson-McLean affirms, ‘It’s not the case now, either, and that’s something that the sector has been grappling with for some time.’

Johnson-McLean agrees that the creation of autonomous, stand-alone departments of Aboriginal Art, with department heads on equal footing with those of Australian Art departments, would ensure the clarity of these voices, but, despite galleries’ discussions, the situation has not changed. He sees the lack of retention of senior Aboriginal figures in curatorial roles a factor, and also a lack of direct agency:

being constantly within that white Australian network, where your voice is always filtered, the structure … [of] the communication is always filtered through their white manager. What happens in a white institution is a reflection of the capability of the white manager who sits above the white staff in that space.

proppaNOW fosters emerging Aboriginal artists, and members credit the collective’s support for individual careers. proppaNOW’s membership is deliberately single-digit, yet attrition (through dissonance or other vicissitude) happens, and younger members are welcomed. These include ascendant artists Tony Albert and Megan Cope.

Cope acknowledges proppaNOW’s boost to her trajectory.

‘Senior members of proppaNOW have played a massive part,’ she says. ‘(They) established discourse and dialogue in contemporary Australian indigenous art.’

When I was young and wanted to be an artist, my go-to was boomerangs and tourist art … now, young people in the urban cities, I don’t think their go-to is boomerangs and canvases any more: they can do protest art, do statements on tshirts, do paintings that are politically and personally relevant and feel like they’re going to be heard … in a pretty small space of time … proppaNOW is largely attributed to that success and reality.

Cope’s work in this current exhibition encompasses themes of identity and the environment, often using cartography to challenge concepts of ownership, place, and time. In Bated Breath, 2021, she presents the Internet’s social media streams: 1,300 shiny little ‘clickbait’-fish spiral downwards to a mirror’s narcissistic centre. Social media spaces are a trap often baited with racism, sanctioning lateral violence used as a divisive tool within Aboriginal communities.

Immediately alongside, Ah Kee’s Scratch the surface, 2019, an installation of a dozen scratched-up and charcoal-smeared riot shields sway with spectral intent in the still gallery air. These shields, designed to protect police, symbols of danger and force, dominate the viewer.

Bated Breath and Scratch the surface are hung close in the space. As adjacent, commanding, installations, they appear crowded in what is otherwise a restrained, polished hang. Guest curators Amanda Hayman and Troy Casey of Blaklash Projects worked collaboratively with the collective to present a ‘less is more’ discourse. Casey described the curatorial process as ‘more about facilitating the kind of conversations the group wants to have versus necessarily ‘curating’.’

They sought easy conversations between new and existing works.

[It’s an] interesting dynamic working with a group that is [so] successful. [In a] show of existing and new work, from group conversations or thematics inside the exhibition to dialogues within particular areas, the overarching themes … [haven’t changed from] 2003 when they were making art about these issues, to … [now, when proppaNOW is] still making art about the same shit.

The UQ Art Museum is a large space with room for twice as many artworks as shown in OCCURRENT AFFAIR. Works, new and old, were carefully marshaled for impact, with distinct ‘conversations’ in corridors and segments, even with ten years between them. Thematic curatorial exchanges shout about issues including land rights, climate change, community politics, and the representation of Aboriginal people within the media.

In a new painting, Little fish are sweet, 2021, Bell presents a larger-than-life portrait of Joh Bjelke-Peterson, gazing to the heavens with a manic, slightly moronic grin, both barrels of the rifle in his hand pointing skywards. He’s guarding his stash: on the floor in front of the painting sits a brown paper bag. And in the bag? ‘Blood money’ currency, by urban Aboriginal artist Ryan Presley.

Nearby, Dollar Dilemma (Flag), 2020, Laurie Nilson’s last artwork prior to his passing – an overwhelming loss for the collective, who provide gentle eulogy for the artist in Ah Kee’s documentary – shows an unravelling Aboriginal flag with its yellow sun replaced by a dollar coin.

Around the gallery corner, Jennifer Herd punctuates a map of her mother’s country with bullet casings over massacre sites in Still War! Mother’s Country, 2021. The map is overlaid with a shield design to protect country, but the casings have penetrated its stripes. Herd’s subtle metaphor is no less powerful for its delicacy.

Overall, proppaNOW’s ongoing themes of the past 17 years have been sharpened to points that underscore members’ successful solo careers. ‘A lot of the things we wanted to achieve, we have,’ says Ah Kee. ‘Undeniably. From that point, proppaNOW has lost some of its relevance, I think that was a natural progression if we were to be successful.’

Bell feels the legacy has been written. ‘We did what we set out to do. We positioned Aboriginal urban art at the centre. It’s still there.’

By providing a supportive, robust critical framework, proppaNOW has allowed a new generation of Aboriginal artists to establish themselves, says Johnson-McLean, as well as develop a political ‘urban’ Aboriginal artistic voice.

But the issues that proppaNOW set out to address remain.

‘There’s no reason why proppaNOW can’t be more dynamic and as agreessive and assertive as we have been historically, because a lot of the issues that we faced back then are still relevant and current, unfortunately,’ says Ah Kee. ‘We have developed a lot more of an international reach now, and there are battles still to be fought. And there are allies still to be won.’

‘We may well have come to the end of our need to exist,’ says Bell. ‘This happens to all collectives. We are not exempt from that. But I think there are still a couple more fights in these old dogs yet.’

The war is not over?

 ‘We have been the most influential group of people on the Australian art scene this century,’ Bell effuses in Ah Kee’s documentary. ‘We trod on some toes but those toes needed to be trodden on. I think they’re sticking out again now. We need to jump on ‘em.’



Vernon Ah Kee, Tony Albert, Richard Bell, Megan Cope, Jennifer Herd, Gordon Hookey, and Laurie Nilsen

Guest curated by Blaklash Projects, Amanda Hayman and Troy Casey

University of Queensland Art Museum, until 19 June 2021


Header image: Laurie Nielsen, ‘Dollar Dilemma (Flag)’. Reproduced courtesy of the artist’s estate and FireWorks Gallery, Brisbane. Photo: Carl Warner

Caroline Gardam

Caroline Gardam is a writer and editor based in Meanjin.

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