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How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art edited by Ian McClean

$50.00 inc. GST

Co-published by the Institute of Modern Art, this is the first anthology to chronicle the global critical reception of Aboriginal art since the early 1980s, when the art world began to understand it as contemporary art.

Featuring 94 authors—including art critics and historians, curators, art centre co-ordinators and managers, artists, anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers and novelists—it conveys a diversity of thinking and approach.

Together with editor Ian McLean’s substantial introductory essay and epilogue, this highly anticipated anthology argues for a reevaluation of Aboriginal art’s critical intervention into contemporary art since its seduction of the art world a quarter-century ago.

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Awarded Best Anthology at the AAANZ (Art Association of Australia and NZ) annual conference!


The Australian artworld first noticed the Papunya Tula painting movement in the early 1980s. To many it was an historical aberration lacking legitimacy because the paintings had seemingly arrived from outside rather than through any internal artworld prerogative. At this time the Australian artworld was adrift from its familiar moorings and anxiously learning to navigate the cross currents of postmodernism. Most considered the Papunya paintings a distraction, more an exotic curiosity than serious art business. Their poetry, now so striking and inventive, then seemed elusive and fragile, even a sham. In 1982 Graeme Sturgeon worried that they ‘may look superficially the same [as traditional Aboriginal art] but be, in fact, meaningless decoration’.’ Two years later Elwyn Lynn called them ‘the Claytons of abstract art; what you swallow, rather uncritically, when you have given up Mondrian gin, Pollock whisky and Poliakoff vodka’; ‘the kind of abstract art you like when you do not like abstract art’.2 Many could not see the new fad lasting. At most it was a wildcard for uncertain times. Those few who sensed a spirit worth gambling on were vindicated. The artworld’s hesitant curiosity about Papunya Tula painting quickly became an embrace. It grew into the most significant development of late-twentieth-century Australian art.

Published: Power Publications, University of Sydney 2011, 359 pages, softback