ANNA SOMERS COCKS | The Art Newspaper
IN LONDON LAST NOVEMBER, the director of the Tate Gallery, 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.
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.”
For this year’s star billing, Papua New Guinea, the Gallery of Modern Art has collaborated with the artists and the architect Martin Fowler, who grew up in PNG and has designed Papua New Guinea’s museum.
The first thing you see when you go into the Gallery of Modern Art is a huge painted gable of the kind found on ritual buildings in East Sepik.
Anyone can enjoy its splendid decorative qualities, but all kinds of ritual meanings are also bound up in it, and these have been respected by the gallery.
We are told that the senior artist of the team that came to Brisbane to paint it said the big spirit man, Puti, represented at the top of the gable, gave him permission to make this spirit house in Australia and to use synthetic polymer paints.
One may smile, but it is in earnest. There are also wonderfully decorative Papua New Guinean full-body masks.
The gallery has a good word for this art: “customary”, that is, the product of customs, which is much better than “ethnic” or, worse still, “tribal”, epithets that consign such work to the anthropological compound.
A stimulating essay in the catalogue is about how customary art is not static, as we tend to think, but evolves according to criteria of its own and in response to outside events. The message is: we have a lot to learn.