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Contemporary Australian artists

Ah Xian

Ah Xian, winner of 2009 Clemenger Contemporary Art Award Triennial. Image courtesy of the artist and National Gallery of Victoria.

The currency of contemporary art challenges what was before and hints that there is more to come. It confronts prevailing notions and might also be seen to be exciting, significant and fresh.

The practice of current contemporary artists is supported by a solid foundation of established artist-run contemporary art initiatives in the 1990s. This was informed by a rich variety of practice in the 1980s and the mutual relationships developed through international public art projects in the 1970s.

Two decades of support by the Australia Council for the Arts and the relatively recent engagement of artists at the Venice Biennale (since 1978) has seen 'an awareness of Australian art as part of a global discourse'.

Del Kathryn Barton, You are what is most beautiful about me, a self portrait with Kell and Arella, 2008. Image courtesy of the Archibald Prize.

Since 2000, the individual practice has witnessed a diversity of media. Artists have tended to adopt the medium which is best suited to exploring their concepts about identity and thus their practice has developed across a range of media.

Some of the themes that have been addressed include how the body is represented in art as part of our cultural identity—often in a challenging, confronting and paradoxical manner. Similarly Australian life in relationship to the land and in suburbia and is seen with a new sense of spirituality and a degree of irreverence, respectively.

The experience of globalisation and colonialism has been strongly explored from all points of view, whether Indigenous, expatriate or Chinese exploration.

Portraiture has been literally turned on its head with heads presented as if they were bouncing balls. Portraiture has also grown literal roots reflecting the deep-seated complexities of popular culture as well as being intertwined in our relationship to the environment.

A selection of award-winning Australian contemporary artists from the final 2009 Clemenger Contemporary Art Award exhibition explores their influences and the main themes in their work.

Confronting personal identity and re-imagining the body

Julie Rrap

Julie Rrap, Castaway 3, 2009, digital print. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria, Roslyn Oxley9 and Arc One.

Since knitting an appendage for her brother Mike Parr, who lost his lower left arm shortly after birth, Julie Rrap (b. 1950 Lismore, New South Wales) has been concerned with 're-imagining the body with all its physical and political potency'. For over 30 years, Rrap, who lives and works in Sydney, New South Wales and Brussels, Belgium, has focused the body with an athletic and intellectual rigour in her work represented in the 2009 Clemenger Art Award. ( Current )

Rrap has used her own body as performer, subject and object to interrogate the representation of the female body and the complexity of the image. Photography has remained of central importance to the artist's work—its uneasy position between reality and artifice, the real and the constructed, enabling her to both direct and importantly, experiment within, the images she creates.
2009 Clemenger Contemporary Art Award, NGV, Julie Rrap

Rosemary Laing

Rosemary Laing (born 1959, Australia) is internationally recognised as a leader in the field of concept-based photo media. In 2007 she was selected to show at the Venice Biennale.

Rosemary Laing's photographs are theatrical, staged, performative—suspended midway between fantasy and reality.... Her canny take on Bruce Nauman's 'Failing to levitate in the studio' as revealing the essential paradox of the artist's intention, is given a witty, poignant twist in her levitating images of a bride flying, falling and floating in space, in the 'flight research series' 1998–2000.
National Gallery of Australia, Rosemary Laing .

Distance, proximity and spirituality in the land

It has been argued that 'rather than suffer tyranny of distance, Australians now enjoy the power of proximity' and that new technologies have brought us closely related to global currents and economies, characterised by a spirit of celebration tempered with a degree of irreverence. (Victoria Lynn - Current )

Chris O'Doherty, also known as (aka) Reg Mombassa

Chris O'Doherty aka Reg Mombassa, Telegraph poles and a gum tree, Moranbar, 1997, charcoal pencil on paper. Image courtesy of the artist.

Having immigrated to Australia with his family in 1969, the degree of irreverence in seeing Australian life was displayed radically by Reg Mombassa (born 1951, New Zealand) from the late 1970s. In text accompanying one of his works he explains his view of the European relationship to the Australian landscape:

The image ... depicts the loneliness and alienation that results from placing Northern Europeans in a vast, empty, incongruent landscape. (It has taken time, cultural conditioning, air-conditioning, refrigeration and insecticides to help us learn to appreciate and love the Australian landscape as we now do.)
Reg Mombassa .

Mombassa also displayed Australian suburbia, as had earlier artists such as John Brack, Jenny Watson and Howard Arkley. Mombassa's early paintings

'revolved around solitary houses of the style that his father had built, simple fibro homes bleached white in the sun ... These new white houses pictured glowing in the afternoon sun also reflect the optimistic, prosperous time following the rigours of the Depression and war.' (Ashley Crawford, The Art of Chris O'Doherty aka Reg Mombassa, The Age, 9 March 2007)


Since the 1970s, a new way of seeing the land emerged with Indigenous artists who were recognised as presenting a new dimension to Australian contemporary art.

The truly spiritual images of Australian life in all its manifestations was seen to emerge as part of the Australian art fabric with Papunya Tula or Western Desert Art movement of the 1970s. The Papunya Tula art movement brought together artistic aspects and subject matters based on the Tjukurrpa or law, sometimes referred to as 'Dreaming' stories.

Significant Indigenous artists on the international contemporary arts stage in the 1980s included Paddy Bedford, Rover Thomas, George Tjungarrayi and a second wave of women artists, notably Emily Kame Kngwarreye. In 1990 Rover Thomas and Trevor Nickolls, and in 1997 Judy Watson, Yvonne Koolmatrie, Emily Kame Kngwarreye (with Fluent, curated by Hetti Perkins and Brenda L. Croft), represented Australia at the Venice Biennale.

Dennis Nona

Dennis Nona, Ubirikubiri of the Awailau Kasa, 2007, bronze and pearlshell. Winner of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Image courtesy of the Australian Art Print Network and National Gallery of Australia.

In dramatic sculptural form, combining the traditional European medium of bronze with the traditional Torres Strait Islander medium of pearlshell, Dennis Nona (b.1973, Badu Island, Torres Strait), who lives and works in Brisbane, won the Torres Strait Islander art award in 2007 with his representation of Ubirikubiri of the Awailau Kasa. Nona's prints and sculptures reflect his Torres Strait Islander heritage and in particular his intimate association with the sea and its creatures. The showing of Nona's work Mutuk, 2009, in the 2009 Clemenger Art Award tells the story of a Badu man who was punished for disobeying community obligations:

Mutuk, a greedy fisherman, did not share his catch with the Kwod, the body of village elders and sorcerers (represented by the semi-circle of shells below the shark's fin), and for this he was cursed.... On his return, Mutuk—for whom a funeral ritual had been performed—was condemned by the Kwod, and was beheaded.
Mutuk .

Trevor Nickolls

Nickolls (born 1949, Adelaide, South Australia) balances his strong sense of Indigenous identity, spirituality, affinity with country and love of nature with the 'Machinetime' of the dominant culture. Dreamtime machinetime is:

a career-defining metaphor coined by the artist during the 1970s to express the life binaries, psychic tension, cheeky humour and innocence of an Aboriginal man existing within an alienating, white-dominated, western nation. The artist's vision is undeniably complex, surreal and intense
National Gallery of Victoria

Confronting colonialism in the local

The experience of globalisation and colonialism confronted through the resistance of art is evident in the strength of work by women artists: Tracey Moffatt, Julie Dowling, Destiny Deacon and Julie Gough. The exploration of Indigenous family histories, the exposure of racism, the experience of the local and the haunting dynamic from past to present is made global in their work.

Tracey Moffatt

Tracey Moffatt, Invocations #5, 2000, photo on silkscreen. Image courtesy of the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art.

Queensland-born Tracey Moffatt (born 1960, Brisbane, Australia) is one of Australia's leading contemporary artists and, arguably, our most successful artist internationally. Since her ground-breaking series Something More in 1989, there have been over 50 solo exhibitions of her work in Europe, the USA and Australia. Her films have been screened at Cannes and the Dia Centre for the Arts in New York and the Nation Centre for Photography in Paris. Moffatt divides her time between New York and Sydney. QIAMEA

Highly regarded for her formal and stylistic experimentation in film, photography and video, and described as a director of photo-narratives, Moffatt's highly stylised photographs often reference the history of art and photography, as well as her own childhood memories and fantasies and explore issues of race, gender, sexuality and identity. (MCA).

At the Sydney Festival 2004, Tracey Moffatt was the most comprehensive exhibition yet to be held in Australia of Moffatt's work and brought together all of her major photographic series and films from the mid-1980s to the present day. GOMA

Julie Dowling

Julie Dowling, Walyer, 2006, synthetic polymer and red ochre on canvas. Courtesy of National Gallery of Australia and VISCOPY.

Julie Dowling (Language: Badimaya; born 1969, Perth, Western Australia) comes from what she describes as a culturally dispossessed family. As a painter she has told the stories of forgotten Aboriginal leaders, in an effort to redress the imbalance of historical record.

In 2007 she returned to the place of her maternal forebears. This journey became the artist's first video installation exhibited at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art in 2008. The multiple screens show significant sites and people, reuniting them again in the artwork.

Julie Gough

Forcefield 2, 2009 was presented by Julie Gough (born 1965, Melbourne, Victoria) at the 2009 Clemenger Art Award. It is an installation built around a brick fireplace and dead apple tree. The installation is based on her research into historic properties in Tasmania and their relationship to the widespread forced removal of Aboriginal people that occurred during the 1800s. The names of the properties are listed on a white picket fence surrounding the 'room' with the fireplace to signify the plight of many Aboriginal children who were brought up as servants.

On the mantelpiece, a copy of a magistrate's report from 1825 reveals an incident involving one of her ancestors, a child servant on a small estate, being shot at by her master. On the floor of the installation Gough has placed pages from the controversial book 'The Fabrication of Aboriginal History'. By encouraging us to walk over these pages, Gough hopes that we will 'blacken and erase this text' that 'so desperately misinterprets [her] history and culture'.
National Gallery of Victoria.

Destiny Deacon

Destiny Deacon, Come on in my kitchen, 2009 inkjet print from digital image. Image courtesy of the artist, National Gallery of Victoria and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

Destiny Deacon's (born 1957, Maryborough, Queensland) political, social and racial consciousness was formed at home growing up in suburban Melbourne. Her practice is primarily photographic but is complemented by her filmmaking, installation and performance projects.

Destiny Deacon works with and against stereotypical images of Aboriginal people in her skittishly crafted low-fi tableaux, inhabited by her immediate family, extended network of friends and coterie of mischievous black dollies and gollies. She is a renegade artist who sees 'a laugh and a tear in every photo'.
National Gallery of Victoria

The works of Tracey Moffatt, Julie Dowling, Destiny Deacon and Julie Gough have posed questions about identity in an Australian and global context and is one of the challenges for Australian contemporary society and artists.

Non-indigenous artists have also produced significant works which confront the 'colonialism in the local'. Fiona Hall, for example, 'juxtaposes imagery of native flora and fauna with symbols of colonial and capital expansion' (Victoria Lynn, 'Current Fragments' in Current, Contemporary Art from Australia and New Zealand , Art & Australia).

Simryn Gill

Simryn Gill work A small town

Simryn Gill, A small town at the turn of the century, Number 28, Type C photograph, Image courtesy of the artist and Roslyn-Oxley9.

Simryn Gill's (born 1959, Singapore) intriguing art operates experimentally across a range of ideas, methods and media, including photography, objects, collections and text works. A major exhibition—produced by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney—focuses on Gill's new and recent works from a five year period, and includes a selection of works from her time living in Adelaide, early in her career. Samstag Museum.

Inspired by trawling through op shops in Adelaide, many of Gill's installations represent an ephemeral and whimsical appeal. However on closer examination, her pairing of natural elements with synthetic objects reveals 'slippages in culturally defined identities'. For example, bones and nests are cast into the parts of a truck.

Her photographic portraiture of citizens from her home town of Port Dickson, Malaysia in their living rooms is unconventional as well as quixotic and playful, obscuring their heads with regionally specific fruits and vegetables.


Ben Quilty

Ben Quilty work Captain Cook

Ben Quilty, Untitled, (Captain Cook), 2007, in Pride and Patriotism series, oil and aerosol on canvas, Courtesy of Grant Pirrie Gallery.

After exploring iconic Australian symbols such as the Torana car, fast food and colonial explorers from 2003, Ben Quilty (born 1973, Sydney, New South Wales) started using portraiture from 2005 to explore notions of Australian manhood. The paintings in his Pride and Patriotism series in 2007 are seen as an examination of manhood from Cook to the 2005 Cronulla riots.

A portrait of Captain Cook represents an angry as well as confused and arrogant man. Quilty's portrait of former prime minister John Howard showed just his head, as he did with others. 'The heads look like it could be bounced when dropped'. The dense thick lustrous layers of paint with jarring colours and juxtaposition evoke uncomfortable feelings. ( Current, Contemporary Art from Australia and New Zealand , Art & Australia)

Ben Quilty won the 2011 Archilbald Prize for his portrait of painter Margaret Olley.

Most of Quilty's work to date has been about masculinity but he says, Margaret has had such a powerful bearing on my career. She has asked me constantly for years to stop painting ugly skulls and paint something beautiful.'

Vernon Ah Kee

Vernon Ah Kee (born 1967, Innisfail, Queensland) creates work dealing with issues facing Australian Indigenous culture in a post-colonial society. He is best known for his monumentally scaled pencil portraits of Aboriginal family members, who gaze defiantly at the viewer. Vernon Ah Kee is a younger generation Indigenous artist who lives and works in Brisbane, Queensland. He received his doctorate in Visual Arts from Queensland College of the Arts in 2007. His work explores Australian Indigenous and non-Indigenous culture in contemporary society. Using text, video and drawing, Ah Kee references past racial atrocities and the way they resonant in the present context.

Del Kathryn Barton

In the world of Del Kathryn Barton (born 1972, Sydney, New South Wales), portraits are interwoven with 'nature and the feminine in sensual, sometimes disturbing dreamscapes'. ( Current. Contemporary Art from Australia and New Zealand , Art & Australia). Del Kathryn Barton won the 2008 Archibald Prize for her painting You are what is most beautiful about me, a self portrait with Kell and Arella.

'Midway' - identity, tradition and globalisation in relation to China

Challenges to prevailing notions of Australian culture, identity and history are proffered in the works by Chinese-Australian artists, notably Laurens Tan, Ah Xian and Guan Wei. Ah Xian's use of classical artistic materials and techniques practiced for millennia in China reapplied in contemporary Australian context confront viewers with notions about culture, the body and our environment

Laurens Tan

Laurens Tan work Happy Toy

Laurens Tan, Happy Toy Kuai Le Wan Ju, 2007, Fiberglass, rotating mechanism, LEDs, sanlunche parts, baked-enamel. Image courtesy of NAVA.

Laurens Tan (born 1950, Holland), a digital-multimedia-sculptor based in Sydney and Beijing, had work featured in the Inaugural Survey of International Contemporary Art.

Laurens Tan represents the new breed of digital artists who happen to be based in Australia but who think and work globally ... Tan's recent work, Octogene , is an imposing digital video sculpture installation mounted in the foyer of Sydney's Capitol Theatre. Its body of shiny galvanised steel houses eight porthole video windows and a large central projection screen. Combining flybys, walk throughs and moonscans of real and fantastic landscapes, Octogene is populated by even more incredible life forms.
Kurt Brereton in MESH film/video/multimedia/art #10. MESH is the journal of Experimenta Media Arts .

Ah Xian

AH Xian work China China Bust

Ah Xian, China China bust 71. Image courtesy of the artist and National Gallery of Australia.

Living in Australia and using classical artistic materials and techniques practiced in China for millennia, Ah Xian (born 1960, Beijing, China) creates portraits in porcelain, jade, lacquerware, bronze and cloisonne, skilfully reapplying the expressive possibilities of each medium within a contemporary context.

With their eyes wide shut, sculptor Ah Xian's figures and busts seem to peer into the remote recesses of their own souls, mute and mysterious. On second glance, the artist permits us to see what they see. Across their uniquely cast bodies and faces ... are twenty-first-century dreams of diaspora, displacement and cultural remembrance. A lotus blooms on a woman's cheek, across a man's brow a landscape looms.' This work suggests that one's culture is inscribed upon the body and is inescapable - a statement on the residual influence of Chinese culture on the artist'
Melissa Chiu, 'China from afar: the art of Ah Xian in Ah Xian Sculpture , exhibition catalogue, Heidelburg 2007 in Current.

Concrete forest, 2009, won Ah Xian the 2009 Clemenger Contemporary Art Award.

Guan Wei

Guan Wei, The god of longevity, 2009 (detail), synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist, National Gallery of Victoria, ARC One Gallery, Melbourne and Kaliman Gallery, Sydney.

In Other Histories: Guan Wei's Fables for a Contemporary World, Guan Wei (born 1957, Beijing) combines objects chosen from the Powerhouse Museum collection with murals created by Guan Wei, who lives and works in Sydney and Beijing; the work conjuring imagined histories of Australia - had early Chinese explorers settled the Great South Land. It is a fantastic and beautiful installation and functions (in the artist's words) as a 'floating, poetic corridor in which history and memory, fact and fiction are blurred'. (Powerhouse Museum)

Curated by Jin Sha, a national touring exhibition in 2009 for Wollongong City Gallery is 'Midway', which showcases 15 contemporary artists with varying connections to China: Ah Xian, Julie Bartholomew, Lionel Bawden, Kate Beynon, Guan Wei, Guo Jian, Jin Sha, Liu Qinghe, Liu Xiao Xian, L Peng, Shen Shaomin, Sally Smart, Laurens Tan, Yang Xifa, and Zhang Qing.

Triennials and retrospectives

In late 2009, Australian contemporary art is being celebrated across the country: The Clemenger Contemporary Art Award Triennial (National Gallery of Victoria), 40 years: Kaldor Public Art Projects exhibition (Art Gallery of New South Wales) and the 6th Asia-Pacific Trienniale of Contemporary Art (Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane). Shows continue at CASCA (Adelaide), PICA (Perth) and 24HR Art (Darwin).

Useful links

Listen, look and play

Select collections

Select recent solo exhibitions

Online resources

Print References

  • Ewington, Julie (2005). Fiona Hall, (monograph). Piper Press, Sydney, Australia
  • Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney & City Gallery Wellington (2007). Fiona Hall: Force Field. Published to coincide with the exhibition Force Field .

Last updated: 13th September 2011

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