An important strand of Tony Albert’s practice is appropriated and abstracted Aboriginal designs, symbols and caricature images of Aboriginal people, under a loose banner termed Aboriginalia. In this latest series of works ‘Conversations with Margaret Preston’, Albert turns to the well-known oeuvre of Australian modernist printmaker and painter Margaret Preston (1875-1963). Now acknowledged as Australia's preeminent modernist between the wars, Preston enjoyed immense popularity in art and design communities in Australia from the 1920s for several decades, with many of her articles published in The Home magazine and Art in Australia encouraging readers to take designs and symbols from Aboriginal art to devise a uniquely Australian cultural expression. One of the most popular of these was her 1930 article ‘The Application of Aboriginal Designs’ in which she called for all Australians to ‘be Aboriginal’.(1) However benevolent in intent, an expression of a larger interest in Aboriginal art and culture informed by her travels throughout Australia, these exhortations have since been criticised by subsequent generations for their casual lack of understanding of the appropriation of sacred designs. As curator Hetti Perkins has said of Preston’s use of Aboriginal motifs: ‘It's like speaking in a French accent without speaking French. The accent is there, the intonation is there, but the meaning is not.’(2)
Many contemporary Indigenous artists have since engaged with Preston’s appropriations, calling out her lack of acknowledgment of individual makers and sources, including Trevor Nickolls, Marshall Bell, Richard Bell, and perhaps most determinedly, Gordon Bennett. Bennett took motifs including the male Aboriginal figure from Preston’s ‘Expulsion’ and the black swan from a 1923 woodcut and tangled them in Piet Mondrian’s high modernist grid in his ‘Home Décor’ series (1995-2013), and directly quoted from a suite of designs Preston published in Art in Australia in 1925 and in his later series of abstract paintings‘Home Décor: After M. Preston’ (2008-13). Albert has primarily been drawn to Preston’s hand coloured woodcut still lives of native flowers. These works were incredibly popular but often dismissed as ‘decorative’ by critics and the art establishment. Preston herself was dismissed as a mere flower painter by many powerful art world figures such as Norman Lindsay and John Reed, for her privileging the decorative and avoiding realism or literary references in her work.
Albert’s interest lies in the consequences of Preston’s encouragements - these kitsch caricatures of Aboriginal designs and motifs still found on tea towels, tablecloths, table runners, handkerchiefs, placemats, and lengths of fabric, rather than the sophisticated abstraction she envisioned. Albert’s own relationship to these objects is affectionate - he has collected these items since childhood, tempered with a keen awareness of the cultural inappropriateness and disregard for the spiritual significance they embody. His collection of fabric accumulated over decades, sourced from op shops, eBay and friends, has in part been seen in an earlier body of work ‘Mid Century Modern’ 2016 as backgrounds to vintage ashtrays where ‘Aboriginal faces and bodies were once receptacles for hot ash and cigarette butts.’(3)Their motifs include a melange of caricatured Aboriginal faces, stylised boomerangs and other weapons; motifs and animal shapes borrowed from Yolgnu and Tiwi bark paintings, to north Queensland rainforest shields and jawun baskets, to desert body painting designs, all mixed in together. These are cut into shapes and glued onto Arches paper or canvas, ringed with painted black borders. Albert chooses source prints by Preston for the graphic strength of their hand-coloured flat planes of Cubist-influenced modernism.
Albert’s major diptych ‘Conversations with Preston: Christmas Bells’ 2020 is based on Preston’s hand-coloured print ‘Christmas Bells’ 1925, held in the National Gallery of Australia’s collection. The reds and yellows of the native Blandfordia nobilis are made up of strong black outlines on bright red fabric. The vase, which was black and inscribed with a white V pattern in Preston’s original, is here made up of squares of mostly linen tea towels, many of them with the text ‘Australian Aboriginal Art’ with glimpses of both a calendar and a map of the continent.
Interestingly, fake Preston works abound in op shops and on the internet, and Albert has used several questionable Prestons as source images further extending a complex web of appropriation and cultural theft, such as his three depictions of single protea flowers.
Albert has also used one of Preston’s mysterious late religious works in this series. Her 1952 colour stencil, gouache on thin black card ‘Expulsion’ was part of a series of biblical themed works, popular perhaps due to post-war religious revivalism that also saw the inauguration of the Blake Prize for Religious art in 1951. Never sold by the artist, the work was gifted by her widower in 1967 to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. On a flat background, at the very top of the composition, a white God presides symmetrically like an icon figure, with a whip in one hand and a sword in another. Instead of an archway to the garden, a corrugated iron fence and a wire gate, secured with a padlock as the central focal point. Adam and Eve are depicted as Aboriginal people – they have dark skin and wear loincloths, being driven from the garden into an Australian landscape overrun with scotch thistles. Adam holds an object aloft, appealing to the God who has forsaken him; Eve holds a baby. This work is confounding in its casting of the sinners as black, and god as white. It could perhaps be seen as depicting the Christian biblical allegory to describe how Aboriginal people were cast out from their own country, by the misuse of Christianity itself, but this is reading too much into the work of an artist who avoided political statements herself on the realities of life for Aboriginal people.
Preston saw the use of Aboriginal imagery as a vehicle, a way for Australian artists to make truly original contributions to the pursuit of Modernism. Art historian Ian MacLean asks if Bennett’s works both parody Preston as well as participate in and reproduce her framing of Aboriginality within modernism.(4) Albert is also doing this and more -- not making a damning call to denounce Preston, but, as the title of this series title suggests, answering her call to dialogue with Aboriginal art and motifs with his own conversation, while also demonstrating that the ambition to‘be Aboriginal’ has resulted in the sometimes grotesque caricatures we see in these fabrics, which counteract the positive spirit of her making. Albert says:
At the core of my work is a kind of reconciliation with these racist objects’ very existence. Yes, they are painful reiterations of a violent and oppressive history, but we cannot hide or destroy them because they are an important societal record that should not be forgotten. I’m trying to reconcile those two positions.(5)
This project of constructive reconciliation has multiple implications. Albert highlights Preston’s formidable skill at rendering the humble still life into the most graphically powerful expressions of Modernism in Australia, while also reminding us of the consequences of using sacred images without acknowledgment or respect. His intention is dialogue; a conversation, which is not to say these conversations will not be confronting and uncomfortable, but will hopefully and ultimately also be productive.
1. Margaret Preston, ‘The Application of Aboriginal Designs’ Art in Australia, 3rd series, no 31, March 1930.
2. Hetti Perkins quoted in Alexa Moses,’ Shadow cast over a painter's legacy’, Sydney Morning Herald, July 25, 2005, p.11.
3. Bruce Johnson McLean, ‘Invisible truths’, Tony Albert: Visible [exhibition catalogue], Queensland Art Gallery I Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2018, p.18.
4. Ian McLean, ‘Gordon Bennett's Home Decor: the joker in the pack’, Law Text Culture, 4, 1998, p.290.
5. Tony Albert interviewed by Maura Reilly, ‘I am important: An interview with Tony Albert’, Tony Albert, Art & Australia/ Dott Publishing, Paddington, NSW, 2015, p.49.