This weekend marked the opening of the new Australian Collection at the Queensland Gallery of Art. Australian Art re-imagined is part of the title, and for good reason. With artwork collected over some 120 years, as well as exciting new commissions, it was time for the directors, curators and architects to decide new and innovative ways to present it. The two or more years spent in careful consideration of all these factors has paid off and the gallery is a stunning visual delight.
Lets talk about the space first. This gallery is the biggest space in the art gallery. They have brought back some of the important features of the building as it was designed all those years ago by Robin Gibson, who, in creating these spaces, was so ahead of his time.
The new gallery has two long perpendicular walls. Interspersed inner walls are fitted, all of them carefully planned, thematically and historically. There are various entrances to this gallery and as it was pointed out by Bruce Johnson McLean, Curator of Indigenous art in QAGOMA, in all points of entry and exit you are welcomed and farewelled by indigenous art, to showcase the art that was so much part of the continent for thousands of years, right from the beginning and then through the eras. As you enter the space through the entrance closest to the main gallery entrance you come across a work of art called Reckitt Blue, executed on one of the white walls of the gallery.
Dale Harding, descendent of the Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal peoples of central Queensland, has created this, respecting the art which was alive thousands of years ago but executing it in a thoroughly contemporary way and he has entitled it Reckitt Blue. Why? Because this was the name of the pigment used in colonial days to keep clothes clean. It became a commodity and was traded. It speaks to the history of the time, the push to domesticity and connects to the earth with repeated outlines of a shovel.
In this gallery we also see some early portraits of people who had come to live on the continent - Dutch and Chinese Australians trying to fit in. The iconic portrait of a Cypriot by William Dobbell, painted in the 1940's, sits alongside the amazing 2016 gallery acquisition of another Cypriot's work – Michael Zavros with his Narcissus entitled "Bad Dad".
The next gallery takes us into scenes from the Brisbane River and Moreton Bay and fittingly here we see beautiful fish nets from Arnhem land and also the newly commissioned work by Sonya Carmichael: baskets which are based in the basketry tradition of North Stradbroke Island. She has brought a contemporary interpretation to this art, producing colourful baskets with fishing nets and raffia with vibrant colours and vivid configurations. This is where we also see the story of Eliza Fraser who was shipwrecked and kept alive by some of the tribes who found her until she was rescued. She had Fraser Island named after her.
In the gallery entitled Origins Michael Stevenson's raft takes centre stage and is inspired by the journey that Ian Fairweather made all those years ago. He ended up on Roti Island in Indonesia. Michael Stevenson recreates his raft and puts together pieces of the journey while addressing notions of the origins and movement of humans, and the gift exchange economies that continue to exist in certain parts of the world.
This is the gallery where you will find Australian art going through some of its developments, to start with, very much interpreting it through the works of European traditions and artists. One of Daphne Mayo's sculptures called The Olympian appears here. She was one of the most important sculptors of her day and is responsible for many fine works across Brisbane, not least of which is the Frieze of the City Hall.
Close by is "Monday morning", the painting by Vida Lahey which brought washing into the art world.
A series of paintings on the back wall show the connection with, and changing interpretations of, the Australian landscape. Shirley Mc Namara and her son created the most beautiful work with copper wire representing the deep mining holes that were left all over the land, and copper stones that represent the snappy gums that are lost on the land.
On the opposite side, Modernism is celebrated, and the way it came into Australian art and was influenced first by European movements and then American contemporary art.
In the far gallery we see some outstanding works of the Central and Western Desert in Australia. Painted boards which were part of Indigenous art tradition are carefully exhibited here, with intricate patterns and stories depicted on each, as well as the more elaborate paintings by Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungarrrayi and women artists who started to paint under their own name. My absolute favourite is the painting on a plinth by Doreen Reid Nakamarra, which is just staggering, showing the undulating movement of the sand in the desert.
Finally, facing us is a work by Richard Bell, an artist who has painted many pieces that are challenging and complex. They often represent Aboriginal history and how it fits into the Australian continent. In this case he states boldly, "Australian art does not exist".
That statement merits consideration by us all. Don't miss this stunning new gallery and its artworks. The majority will be on permanent display but works will be rotated from time to time for other exhibitions or for conservation purposes.