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Who's Afraid of Colour?

Melinda Keyte

Who’s Afraid of Colour? is a bold and striking exhibition of Aboriginal women artists.
Who's Afraid of Colour?

Julie Dowling Badimaya born 1969 Goodbye white fella religion 1992 synthetic polymer paint, earth pigments and blood on canvas 174.5 x 164.5 cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne  Purchased, NGV Foundation, 2007 (2007.456) © Julie Dowling/Licensed by VISCOPY, Australia. All images used with permission, courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria.


Who’s Afraid of Colour? is a bold and striking exhibition of Aboriginal women artists currently showing at National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). This exhibition seeks to redress the omission of 118 diverse artists and some 300 works from a collected exhibition to date. Who’s Afraid of Colour? pays tribute to their place and importance in the lexicon of indigenous art.


Visionary in scope and design, a number of iconic works reflecting the startling historical perspectives and perceptions of artists such as Emily Kam Kngwarray, Queenie Mackenzie, Judy Watson and Bindi Cole Chocka make this exhibition essential viewing. It combines the old with new; raw and untrained artists like Lorraine Connelly-Northey – whose exquisite bags made with wire, wire mesh and turtle shells – share space with luminous works by Trehanna Hamm, her intricately designed breastplates with Yorta Yorta designs reclaim identity theft via the colonial erasure of Aboriginal names. Grace Lillian Lee’s Torres Strait island inspired ceremonial body sculptures, Red:Acceptance; White:Enlightenment; and Black:Infinity look firmly to the future creating ‘new visions for new cultural dialogues’.

Astonishing collections of black, tan and striated woven bathi (baskets) from south east Arnhem land with a whole topography of traditions and ancestral beings re-visioned – in practises women have made their own in the oldest living art forms in existence – are like a healing balm. An intricate hand-woven collection of dili bags feature alongside various designs on bark; including the universe and its stars (gan’yu) by Galumbu Yunupingu. Several new acquisitions include Claudia Moodoonuthi’s playful, quirkily hand-crafted tables that pay tribute to the five senior members of her Kaiadilt family on Bentinck Island. Her 360 flip on country skateboards ‘hang’ cooly in the space compared with the contrasting mood nearby of My Country no home by Miriam Charlie on how she and her community live. Jenny Crompton’s kaleidoscopic white sculptural sea creatures, Sea Country Spirits, will inspire wonder for children and adults alike.

The larger variegated stripes, bold lines and cracks in the earth across the larger paintings immerse the viewer deeper into country with bursts of yellow fish nets and sentinel ghost gums appearing opposite swirls of red and purple. Salt Lake from the east pilbara; painted by three generations over seven to eight days in 46 degree heat, achieved spectacular markings that signify walking from waterhole to waterhole. 

The giant Yam Dreaming series by Walpiri woman, Yulyurlu Lorna Napurrula Fencer show the brilliant swirling, looping strokes of ceremonies that represent the ‘yarla or large yam that always comes back’ in Yam Dreaming stories. These paintings vividly explode like fireworks, ‘for Napurrua, ‘painting was a performative process akin to singing and dancing.’ She joins acclaimed Walpiri artist, Emily Kam Kngwarray, with her Anwerlarr anganenty, (Big Yam dreaming) showing the ‘organic lines [that] derive from women’s striped body paintings for awely (women’s ceremonies).’ Both are Yam painters of the pencil yam and long yam. Emily’s evolution from Indonesian batik to painting at Utopia is cleverly shown through the hanging garden of batik works.

The contemporary works of Julie Gough, Destiny Deacon, Yhonnie Scarce and Bindi Cole Chocka bring both a searing and reflective gaze to the condition of our collective passivity in viewing, and indeed accepting invasion by white colonialists, and the subsequent massacres, dispossession, assimilation policies and stolen generations that resulted from it. Deacon’s images are as arresting as ever. Black doll babies and benign objects combine to create a narrative force in her photography that lingers long, hard and heavy on the heart. Bindi Cole Chocka’s work, Not Really Aboriginal, smashes through the blak identity ceiling and forces the viewer to reassess their prejudices and commonly held beliefs about what it means to be Aboriginal.

From Tasmania, Gough’s work is an exquisite meditation on invasion of those who colonised this country and their terrible legacy. Her work Chase goes a long way towards providing an experience of abject terror – at a mediated distance – that Aboriginal people experienced first-hand. She says ‘this work is an attempt to convey the pervasive knowledge of a wrongly commenced national story that cannot be rewritten.’ It succeeds in positioning the viewer at the centre of this story. You simply cannot dismiss it by trying to look away.

This exhibition has a lightness of touch that plays with our sense of what indigenous art is. By placing more traditional style works in tandem with contemporary works that counter the usual narratives depicted in mainstream media the exhibition disrupts this sense entirely. By creating a space to show the re-visioning of artistic designs and inherited – Dreamings that women have traditionally been denied – the exhibition also marks a reimagined landscape in which women have reframed the artistic context in which they exist, and we are lucky enough to acknowledge that change.

Rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5

Who’s Afraid of Colour?

NGV Australia, Federation Square
16 DEC - 17 APR 17


Installation view of Who’s Afraid of Colour? at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia. Photo: Wayne Taylor.

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

A writer, theatre maker and performing arts education specialist.