History of Art and Architecture

HAA Guest Lecture with Dr. Ian McLean

Thursday, September 28, 2017 - 4:00pm

Room 202, Frick Fine Arts Building

“Indigenous art: Can it be contemporary art without already being modern?”

Dr. Ian McLean, Hugh Ramsay Chair of Australian Art History, University of Melbourne

Professor of Contemporary Art, University of Wollongong 


In Australia, Indigenous art burst on the Australian contemporary art scene in the 1980s without ever having appeared modern. It seemingly jumped from the category of primitive art to contemporary art, overnight catapulting some individuals from the pre-modern to the contemporary. One man, Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, walked out of the desert from a hunter gatherer existence in 1984 and straight into the life of a professional artist. His work was included in the 2012 Documenta and he now has sell-out exhibitions in the upmarket New York contemporary art gallery Salon 94. Also in its stable is his younger sister, Yukultji Napangati, who walked out of the desert with him. Both had work in the 2017 Basel art fair.

Generally, the artworld has been sceptical of this impossible story, though Australians have been eager for the world to embrace it. It is the only Indigenous art to which Terry Smith gives significant attention in his book Contemporary Art: World Currents. Smith’s argument for the ascendency of a new type of art following modernism, called Contemporary art, is made historically by, in his words, ‘tracking how … modern art became contemporary’ (p. 82) across the various regions of the world. Smith applies the same logic to Indigenous art, as indeed he must if he is to be consistent, but his summary account cannot hope to make a convincing case for Indigenous modern art given how anomalous it is to normative accounts of modernism. This is why Australia’s art institutions have not taken this approach. They simply accept that Indigenous art became contemporary art without ever being modern.  How then can its contemporaneity be explained?

Image Caption: Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, Untitled, 2015, acrylic on canvas. Salon 94, New York

Reception in the Frick Fine Arts Seminar Room to follow


Ian McLean is Hugh Ramsay Chair of Australian Art History at the University of Melbourne, and Senior Research Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Wollongong. He has published extensively on Australian art and particularly Indigenous art. His books include Indigenous Archives: The Making and Unmaking of Aboriginal Art (with Darren Jorgensen); Rattling Spears: A History of Indigenous Australian Art; Double Desire: Transculturation and Indigenous Art; How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art; White Aborigines: Identity Politics in Australian Art; and The Art of Gordon Bennett (with a chapter by Gordon Bennett).