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Friday, January 11, 2013

DON’T SAY ETHNIC OR TRIBAL: THE WORD IS ‘CUSTOMARY’



Don’t say ethnic or tribal: the word is ‘customary’
The Asia Pacific Triennial pulls in Papua New Guinea and West Asia

By Anna Somers Cocks. News, Issue 243, February 2012
Published online: 03 January 2013

In London last November, the director of the Tate, Nicholas Serota, said that it would be spending around £2m a year—40% of its acquisitions budget—on art from outside Europe and North America. The Guggenheim and Museum of Modern Art in New York have announced similar policies. The question is, how to find out about art and artists in areas of the world that often do not have an evolved gallery system or, indeed, a defined history of contemporary art (what does “contemporary” mean, for example, in Papua New Guinea or, indeed, in China?).

There is one museum that has been working on this long before everyone else: the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, which 20 years ago held the first Asia Pacific Triennial (APT). In 2006, the gallery opened the Gallery of Modern Art, forming Qagoma, whose acting director Suhanya Raffel says: “We now accept that contemporary art is syncretic and cross-cultural, that canonical assumptions about art history are routinely questioned.” 

Australia was perhaps uniquely prepared 20 years ago to look at art from other cultures on its own terms. It was in December 1992 that Prime Minister Paul Keating made what is now considered to be one of the greatest speeches of Australia’s history, in which he recognised the damage Western settlers had done to the Aboriginal people. “We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice.”

Right-thinking Australians have become acutely sensitive to the need not to view the West as the sole arbiter of civilisation and culture. Serota so much admired the way Qagoma has put this message into practice that four years ago he sent a group of curators there to learn their method, which can be summed up as “collective effort”, both inside the gallery and out in the field. Raffel says that they use their vast network of contacts—artists, writers, curators, thinkers, architects, anyone involved in the material culture of today—throughout the two-thirds of the world that they cover in the APTs. 


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