Fireworks Gallery: Keeping the Fires Burning - Art Collector

Issue 39 January-March 2007

From artist collective to successful commercial gallery, Michael Eather’s platform may have changed over the years but his goals remain the same. Ingrid Periz spoke to the Fire-Works gallery director about his latest projects and the unusual role he’s created for himself in the Aboriginal art world.

Eather likes to talk about the Captain Cook moment when people discover Aboriginal art. For Eather, an artist, curator, and the director of Brisbane’s Fire-Works Gallery, his moment came in 1984 when, after finishing art school in Tasmania, he hitchhiked to Uluru and then to Maningrida in Arnhem Land. Here he stayed, learned the language and started a family. In 1990 back in Brisbane, he helped initiate the Campfire Group, an artists’ collective dedicated to black and white dialogue. Fueled by Fitzgerald Inquiry-era optimism, Campfire grew from kitchen-table chats to an artists’ consultancy, a series of national and international exhibitions, a program of collaborations and residencies, and in 1993 a commercial gallery called Fire-Works. Fire-Works was premised on the idea that it was possible to work in what Eather calls: “the gulf between cultures and the gap in the marketplace.” Today Fire-Works occupies a two-storey building in the de-industrialized inner suburb of Newstead. The upper floor is exhibition space; the lower is studio space devoted to an indigenous artist-in-residency program called NEWflames.

Eather, jet-lagged but upbeat from a week-long stint at Art Forum Berlin, expounds upon fostering the Captain Cook moment in Europe. “Taking a position on Aboriginal art and trying to contextualise it has been an ongoing process. It means making different pitches to different audiences over time. It might mean an urban artist; it might mean a more remote senior painter from Alice Springs for, say, a German audience.” Eather had been in Berlin at the invitation of David Pestorius, director of David Pestorius Projects in Brisbane and a keen supporter of placing indige-nous work in the context of international contemporary art practice. In Berlin, Pestorius had shown a major work by George (Hairbrush) Tjungurrayi, a Kintore artist, alongside paintings by Sydney-based abstrac-tionist ADS Donaldson, New York painter Joseph Marioni, and the Viennese artist Heimo Zobernig. Eather and Pestorius both approach Aboriginal work through the lens of contemporary art rather than ethnography. In Berlin, the Pestorius project relied on Eather’s experience in provenance and sourcing indigenous works. Eather acknowledges some of the difficulties. “Some peo-ple still think the only genuine art comes from communities and the agencies that represent them, but some artists like George work differently and they demand a different relationship. Campfire has always been inter-ested in the issues around Aboriginal art and its relation with the culture and the market. There are perceptions of furphies and fakes out there.” He laughs: “It was nice to go to Europe with one work and stand in front of it for one week and have 20,000 people walk past it.” Eather sees Fire-Works’ role in terms of service and advocacy, extending the Captain Cook moment and what he calls “that buzz people get in the stu-dio watching something happen.

There’s so many non-Aboriginal people thefires burning desperate to make contact with Aboriginal people and because of the history they wouldn’t know where to begin.” Fire-Works’ principles were established by the earlier Campfire Group. Sketching the group’s beginnings in an old Queensland house in Spring Hill shared with painter David Paulson, Eather recalls long discussions with compatriots Richard and Marshall Bell, Laurie Nielsen, Joanne Currie and Catherine Mactaggart: “From my own (white) perspective, I observed at the time that there were many others who didn’t know who, what, where, when or how to talk about notions of Aboriginality and its varied forms of art …The media was customarily patronising about ‘black issues’, and popular arts magazines and writers were often too remote or conceptual for any meaningful dialogue … Still, musicians, performers, writers and artists were carving new ground in this ‘pre-bicentennial’ climate and black artists understood the timing of this better than most.”

A decade and half later, Eather operates in a very different environment to the old Queenslander that served as a studio and drop-in center for local and visiting artists while Campfire staged exhibitions at the nearby Spring Hill Baths. His shows now take place in a commercial setting the size of a regional gallery in a media landscape where indigenous art gets extended coverage. The way of working remains the same: “Our programs are still the same as Campfire’s but we dress them up differently.” One of Campfire’s hallmarks was its capacity to draw artists and the curious, in Eather’s words, “hanging around. At any given moment nothing could be happening, or a lot. We had a collective atmosphere. It probably got quite curious to visitors. We had a lot of energy, but in the last two years there’s been a need for an editing process.” Keen to keep the possibilities of the studio open – a key feature of the Campfire Group – Eather initiated NEWflames, a program of mentored studio residencies for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. For a paid, five-week period, artists work in the downstairs studio with an exhibition on completion.
NEWflames is funded through a not-for-profit foundation headed by Ann Gamble Myer. Eather explains: “We wanted a program with no government funding. This was important as a statement about Aboriginal art.” The Campfire Group had received grants and worked as an advocacy body with different levels of government – it helped establish Griffith University’s Indigenous Visual Art Degree in 1995 – in addition to placing indigenous work in Anthony Bond’s 1992/3 Sydney Biennale and in exhibitions in Finland and Amsterdam, but this was activity away from the studio and at a certain point Eather decided “I had had my government dealings. I wanted to continue doing more exhibitions. We Essentially we explained to Imants that the best way to take on board his aspirations to engage indigenous values and ideas is to physically make the commitment – swap canvas and brushes – not limit yourself to mere appropriation. This all panned out fine.”

First published in Australian Art Collector, “Aboriginal art is……. quite often focused on certain essential human concerns such as who you are, where you come from, where you fit in …” got a few grants to get going – that was helpful – but it was more important to be commercially sustainable because it got you independence.” Eather has shown himself unafraid to mix things up. Balance, a 1990 exhibition co-curated with Marlene Hall under the Campfire Group umbrella combined traditional and urban indigenous work with contemporary white art along with pieces, like a black/white collaboration between the recently graduated Gordon Bennett and Eugene Carchesio, which confounded these distinctions. This inclusiveness owed much more to the logic of a contemporary Biennale than the ethnographic contextualising of indigenous art at the time. Fire-Works’ roster of artists and its exhibitions show a similar mix. Eather regularly hangs concurrent solo shows of stylistically divergent artists, pairing the Western Desert painting of George (Hairbrush) Tjungurrayi, for instance, with the finely wrought abstracted landscapes of white Brisbane painter Yvonne Mills-Stanley and the alternately angry and elegiac mediations on the post-traditional life of the Kutjar people by Ian Waldron. This exhibition, the second in The Dark and the Light series, allowed the works, and the viewer, some space; others are more explicitly didactic. In Discomfort, a group show of Michael Nelson Jagamara, Imants Tillers, Richard Bell, and the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Eather tried to address issues of appropriation and cultural exploitation directly.

These issues are also addressed practically in the gallery’s studio projects. When Tillers appropriated Jagamara’s Five Dreamings as part of his 1985 work The Nine Shots it prompted a critical outrage. Some years later Eather brokered a meeting between the two artists and organised a series of studio collaborations that produced the jointly painted Nature Speaks (Possum Dreaming): Y (2001), included in the National Gallery of Australia’s recent Tillers survey. Eather recalls: “Essentially we explained to Imants that the best way to take on board his aspirations to engage indigenous values and ideas is to physically make the commitment – swap canvas and brushes – not limit yourself to mere appropriation. This all panned out fine.” Their five-year collaboration continues to resonate in both Jagamara’s and Tillers’ individual practices. Collaboration has been fundamental to the gallery itself. Fire-Works collaborates with other galleries in sourcing and commissioning work. With Melbourne’s Kimberly Art Eather staged Ronnie Tjampitjinpa… commissioned works, a show explicitly addressing the competing claims made on behalf of Aboriginal artists working for the market. Eather noted that Tjampitjinpa, whose 30-year career began with Papunya Tula, continues to paint for a number of agencies and dealers on his own terms. During the 13 years of the gallery’s operation, the market has changed. Eather speaks of overheating, of inflated expectations, overproduction and a possible diminution of quality. At the same time, collectors are better informed: Fire-Works now presents work with much less contextual information than it did in the early nineties. In spite of this last change, Eather notes that collaborative work “still finds an uncomfortable ride in the marketplace. Many still see collaborative work in a cynical light, still dogged with ideas of impurity and manipulation.” (These terms also dog discussions of remote indigenous work made outside the purview of artists’ agencies.) In spite of this, and in spite of his own repeated statement that “taking a position on Aboriginal art is necessarily entering a political minefield,” Eather remains optimistic about the kind of results produced by the Jagamara/Tillers collaboration, and about the possibilities of the studio generally. When I ask him to account for the ongoing interest in aboriginal art, for the almost spiritual hunger that can attach itself to the Captain Cook moment, his answer is disarmingly simple: “Aboriginal art is, as well as many other things, quite often focused on.

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