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  • Writer's pictureRachel Cockburn

Dots, stripes, and devastation: A Year in Art: Australia 1992

This exhibition contains names and images of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Tate Modern has drawn together works from before and after 1992 in this beautiful and questioning show. Until seeing this exhibition (in October 2022), I had precious little knowledge of Australian history. If any of my words, based on this new understanding, are incorrect, please do get in touch to let me know. I was four years old in 1992. This exhibition at the Tate has made me curious to find out more and to better understand the complex difficulties that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people faced at the time - and continue to experience today through the legacy of colonialism.

1992 is very significant due to a decision made by the High Court of Australia at the time. Following this decision, land that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples occupied was taken over by the British.

The people who occupy this land see it as a ‘living entity that is the basis for and sustains cultural existence’ (Tate Modern). They care for the land and nurture the language, stories, and identity that go with it.

Close up photograph of overlapping painted circle shaped in dark brown, black, peachy orange, cream, and other browns.
Emily Kame Kngwarreye ‘Endunga’ (1990) © Estate of Emily Kame Kngwarreye / DACS 2020

I love these overlapping dots. The tones and the colour choices make the whole canvas sing and feel alive and moving. I can’t tell if it’s day or night and the dots feel dense and pull me in towards the canvas. Read more about Emily Kame Kngwarreye here.

Photograph of large painted tree bark piece with dark purple background colour, large rounded areas of white and light pink, and long lines of painted dots in dark red and in white.
Nngirrna Marawli ‘Barafjala’ (2020) - Madarpa people

Nngirrna Marawli paints with what she finds, including discarded printer cartridges, on pieces of tree bark. These lines of dots throughout the piece are exquisite and seem to echo through many of the paintings here in the show. They also bring to mind the artist Chris Ofili and his use of dots. The shapes here are pretty abstract and I feel like every viewer will see something different. What do you see? For me I see a figure, with the target-like circles on the body and head showing concentrations of energy in the mind and heart. The long fronds of lines and dots coming down from the top of the canvas make me think of underwater, and seaweed. The way the dots are used around the edge of areas of colour is really effective and interesting.

Painted tall thin piece of tree bark with uneven lines, different striped infills, hands, feet, limbs and faces. Background is very dark and foreground colours are white, terracotta, dark brown, mid brown.
John Mawurndjul Buluwana, Female Ancestor 1989 © John Mawurndjul / Copyright Agency

I couldn’t stop looking at the lines and patterns on this piece. I made a little note in my sketchbook to try out these repeats myself, at home. The colours are earthy and muted but the piece still feels vibrant and full of energy and movement. Maybe this is to do with the varying stripe directions and width, and the unpredictability of the edges. The faces (there are 10 of them) are absolutely brilliant too, each one has so much character. John Mawurndjul is focusing here on a female ancestral figure and through this we learn about environmental destruction and drought. Read more about this piece here.

small sketchbook page with notes on exhibition and drawings of character face and lines of repeating dots.
Yellow Tiger notebook page. All rights reserved.

Tracey Moffatt’s 1997 photographic series ‘Up in the Sky’ introduced me to the harsh history of people who were removed from their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families as children, between 1910 and 1970. I don’t think it’s possible to read that and not feel pain, whether you’re a parent or not.

I was drawn to Vernon Ah Kee’s piece ‘tall man’ (2010). It’s a video piece, full of tension, showing events from 26 November 2004 on Palm Island, leading to protests and a local man Mulrunji Doomadgee (also known as Cameron Doomadgee) dying in police custody. The Sergeant who arrested this man was tried and acquitted of causing his death in November 2004. One of the main leaders of the subsequent riots, Lex Wotton, later won a lawsuit - and the State of Queensland paid him and other residents $30 million compensation. Read more about the piece here.

St Paul’s cathedral and the river Thames and london skyline visible across the river through a tall narrow window in the gallery.
View from Tate Modern. Photo: Yellow Tiger

There’s a clever curation idea towards the end of the exhibition - a room with works by Gordon Bennett and Algernon Talmage, showing contrasting depictions of what happened when the British arrived in Australia. In this room, St Paul’s is also visible out of the gallery window - framing it as a symbol of British power and oppression. Talmage’s painting ‘The Founding of Australia 1788’ was commissioned in 1937 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the British landing at Sydney Cove. Read more on the Tate website here.

Bennett’s piece 'Possession Island No 2' 1991 is a reaction to the 200 year anniversary celebrations in Australia in 1988. For many people in Australia this was ‘a period of mourning and a time to remember the devastating consequences of colonisation on Aboriginal people’ (Tate Modern). See more about this piece here.

The overall curation and the respectful way in which these works were presented and written about has really floored me. It’s the first time I’ve seen this level of respect and acknowledgement of British involvement in the oppression of indigenous peoples. It’s also the first time I’ve seen trigger warnings for colonial trauma. It really got me thinking and reflecting on how other institutions, businesses and artists can do the same.

Tate’s statement on the gallery wall:

Tate acknowledges and pays respect to the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to the Elders of these lands and acknowledge the continuation of cultural, spiritual and educational practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Ideas and inspiration:

  1. How can you, as a business or artist, acknowledge and be respectful to other cultures and traditions that may have inspired and influenced your art or products?

  2. Tonal overlapping dots repeat print. Could try this in a range of colour palettes, and also different techniques - vector, paint, collage. Acknowledge Emily Kame Kngwarreye as a source of inspiration.

  3. I’m interested in the idea of painting using old printer cartridges. I have many, and I usually send them to be recycled - but recycling uses energy, and resources like water, and what happens to the ink that's left in them..? So I’m keen to try opening up the cartridges and using them to paint.

  4. The lines of dots in Nngirrna Marawli's work are so effective and beautiful. It could be interesting to play around more with lines of dots, hand-created or digital. It’s interesting the way the line of dots is just inside the area of colour that it defines - this placement of a dotted line could be interesting to play around with.

  5. Try different repeating patterns with unpredictable feel, using and acknowledging John Mawurndjul’s piece as inspiration.

  6. How can the faces in John Mawurndjul’s piece be developed and inspire different characters? What is it about them that gives them so much character?

I'd love to hear what you thought of the exhibition and if you have tried any of these ideas out! Let me know by email at You can also sign up to my mailing list at the bottom of this page, and get updates on what I've been up to every month or so.


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