a review by Nalini Haynes
In Art + Soul, Hetti Perkins is a professional curator, effectively taking us on a guided art tour of Australian Aboriginal art, meeting some of the artists and learning a little of the cultural and historical setting of their art. There are 3 episodes in the set, titled home + away, dreams + nightmares and bitter + sweet. Part of a larger project that includes an art exhibition at Yiribana gallery at the Art Gallery of NSW and a book release by Miegunyah Press.
Hetti visits sacred sites, interviews living Australian Aboriginal artists and shows us contemporary art interspersed with recordings of deceased artists and historical events. The unfolding of events surrounding Aboriginal rights juxtaposed with the artwork was insightful, bringing new meaning to historical events.
I loved Destiny Deacon, an internationally reknown Australian Aboriginal artist, gently dissing Hetti on Hetti’s privileged upbringing – this brought a strong sense of character and relationship to the program.
Another favourite segment focused on Richard Bell, Aboriginal artist and general character. Bell has been the focus of controversy as a result of his activism and sometimes outrageous clothing.
Art + Soul was able to show a recording of Albert Namatjira painting and speaking and had the support of his family to show his paintings. A company owns not only the paintings themselves but copyright to the paintings, thus this company prevented Art + Soul from showing any images of Namatjira’s finished work in this important historical document. The politics of this situation were not explained, merely stated as fact. This was a disappointment as the work should be seen in its own merit and its historical context. Any legal and political impediment to showing his work also needs to be explained, thereby exposing some of the politics currently surrounding Aboriginal art.
In the first episode it seems a large part of the focus is on Hetti rather than the artists, with Hetti seeming to feed the artists their lines. I would have liked to have seen more in-depth interviews in a more relaxed atmosphere, although this may not be possible due to artists being taken out of their comfort zones and language barriers. In this episode more care should have been taken to ensure the camera lens was clean; the dirty lens was quite distracting in a number of outdoor shots.
Some recording is shown with a voice-over talking about the 19th century, although the recording was probably taken in the 1960s or 1970s and I think was not intended as a re-enactment. I think the viewer is meant to realise this, but it’s important to be careful when making what will, undoubtedly, be a significant historical document (the Art + Soul DVDs and books).
Overall I found this to be an interesting and informative documentary that will take its place as an historical documentary of Aboriginal art in Australia. I was left wanting more, more context, more history, more art, more artists. Overseas viewers unfamiliar with the history and political context will find Art + Soul to be a good launching pad for learning about Australian Aboriginal art, its history and contemporary context.
Previously published in Dark Matter issue 4, July 2011, blog post predated to reflect the original publication date.