A Lightness of Spirit is the Measure of Happiness

Hannah Presley and I discuss Indigenous Australian art. It’s a balance of infectious enthusiasm and deep knowledge. Not far into the conversation I feel a part of something new, yet also along for the ride. Presley’s passion for her field is contagious; it’s a rapid-fire, dry-witted, bridging discussion that crosses expansive geographical and conceptual territory. It touches on the art market, histories of Indigenous dispossession and ceramic budgies. She assures me that budgerigars will appear in the upcoming exhibition ‘A Lightness of Sprit is the Measure of Happiness’ for the Yalingwa project, her first initiative as inaugural curator at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA). It’s also the first major iteration of a new, state-government-funded, six-year program that partners ACCA, TarraWarra Museum of Art and Creative Victoria. The exhibition showcases South East Australia’s most prominent Indigenous artists and coincides with the Melbourne Art Fair.

Benita Clements, Painting near Glen Helen and seeing a UFO!, 2018, installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, watercolour and gouache on paper, 36 x 54.5cm. Photograph: Andrew Curtis. Courtesy the artist, Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre, Northern Territory and Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne

‘Artists are important to telling our historical stories,’ explains Presley. ‘Heavy histories of massacre and dispossession are important and we Aboriginal people live with them every day. I wanted a show that is a bit more celebratory. I feel today, there are enough people talking about important issues for me to be able to step back and focus on humour, community and everyday life; to step away from that responsibility to always be educational.’

This is encouraging. In the late 1980s, Utopia’s Aboriginal people in Central Australia started putting acrylic paint on canvas. For years afterward, Australian Indigenous was one of the strongest-ranking categories on the global art market. This has eased off recently, partially due to a change in Australian superannuation legislation, as Indigenous art collectors took works out of storage and back to auction or private dealers. It’s also the natural culmination we’d expect in relation to any economic bubble. Events leave us in a good place to discuss contemporary Aboriginal art in idea-based and arguably more local terms. Several artists Presley selected are best known for politico-historical stances, such as Vincent Namatjira, Vicki Couzens and Jonathan Jones, et al. Jones, in particular, is best known for his elegant, at-times minimalist works that probe Indigenous Australian politics and history’s overarching complexities. I ask how these artists have responded to the exhibition’s curatorial premise that skews to individual stories implicit in the show’s title, ‘A Lightness of Spirit is the Measure of Happiness’.

Jonathan Jones, untitled (gidyirriga) (detail), 2018, installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, ceramic figurines, sponge-stamped, synthetic polymer paint, wood, stereo, soundscape, dimensions variable. Sound design: Luke Mynott, Sonar Sound; Voices: Karma Dechen, Renna Dechen, Beth Delan, Jenson Howard, Lilia Howard, Taj Lovett, Mincarlie Lovett, Phoebe Smith, Ben Woolstencroft and Mae Woolstencroft from Parkes Public School; with thanks to Dr Uncle Stan Grant Snr AM, Uncle Geoff Anderson and Lionel Lovett. Photograph: Andrew Curtis. Courtesy the artist and Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne

‘Because this was an opportunity for all new commissions, I was interested in what they were doing, and why. Some artists felt it was important to talk about family histories, but first interactions with works might be funny or whimsical; not always bombarding the audience with you know…’ Presley trails off in thought. ‘We get enough of that in the media – that we’re going to die, early, of chronic illness; that we live in poverty. Art can be an important tool for this discussion but I wanted [this] to take a back-seat.’ She goes on. ‘I was conscious of creating a show where the community felt comfortable; where they were going to come in and feel that this was their space as well – not just a place for the art world.’

Benita Clements, Fireworks at Alice Springs Show, 2018, watercolour and gouache on paper, 26.5 x 74cm, installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Photograph: Andrew Curtis. Courtesy the artist and Iltja Ntjarra Many Hands Art Centre, Alice Springs, Northern Territory

The immediacy – and what we might call de-differentiation – as they relate to Presley’s take on Aboriginal art’s often divergent personal and political aspects are not lost on me. I appreciate the fluency, the ability to gather disparate material and make sense of it for broad audiences (specialists, Indigenous communities, exhibition attendees and artists, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous). Perhaps this philosophy stems from Presley’s very personal approach to curating, which, I read previously, was grounded in one-to-one dialogue with artists, often ongoing. As Allen Ginsberg said, ‘first thought, best thought.’1 Bring on the budgies.

‘In the show’s early stages I had quite-involved discussions with Jonathon [Jones] and I think he was intrigued by the show referencing everyday life. I think he saw it as a challenge, actually’ shared Presley, she continued ‘he’s a thoughtful artist and the work he developed is very close to his own family—there are references to his grandmother and his Wiradjuri language – and I think that’s how he brought it down to the everyday. There’s still a bit of political history but his first experience of it is quite joyous.’

Tiger Yaltangki, TIGERLAND (detail), 2018, installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, synthetic polymer paint on linen and plywood cut-outs, installation: 200 x 1200 x 240cm. Photograph: Andrew Curtis. Courtesy the artist, Iwantja Arts, South Australia, Indulkana, South Australia, Alcaston Gallery, Melbourne and Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne

Good comedy operates on different registers, and so might Yalingwa. The opportunity is there to not only engage different audiences at ACCA, but to prompt multiple and perhaps divergent responses at the same time, whether through politics, culture, humour or whimsy – community life’s intimate knowledge enmeshed in the shifting places and perceptions of the right-now Australian Indigenous art scene.


Rose Vickers is a writer, researcher and curator. Rose is currently a PhD candidate in art history and the recipient of an Australian Postgraduate Award.

Australian Centre for Contemporary Art
Until 16 September, 2018

1 A recurring phrase in Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Cosmopolitan Greetings’