A White Utopia

Sophia Cai, 2 June, 2017

Before I moved to Melbourne at the end of 2014, I had a conversation with my mentor, a well-respected curator, about my impending move. I had previously visited Melbourne only as a tourist, and had no real experience or expectations of the cultural institutions and art circles there. I will never forget what he said to me.

“It’s super white.”

Two and a half years later, I am reflecting on these sentiments on the publication of Melissa Loughnan’s book Australiana to Zeitgeist: an A-Z of Contemporary Australian Art. I arrived too late in Melbourne to ever witness the heyday of Loughnan’s gallery Utopian Slumps, but the reputation of Loughnan and her gallery remained solidly entrenched. It seemed, from the outside at least, that Utopian Slumps achieved something extraordinary as a gallery in the time it was open.

Loughnan’s book was published last month amidst a flurry of media attention. Profiles and excerpts of the book were widely published, and a launch was held at Gertrude Contemporary. I was excited when I saw the book at my favourite bookshop and I admit I bought it right away. As an emerging curator, I was interested in the 78 artists Loughnan chose to profile in the book (plus – I am a sucker for beautiful art books).

An initial scan of the artists in the book, grouped by clusters of threes under each letter of the alphabet, revealed many familiar names and topics. On closer inspection, however, I did notice a worrying theme.

There were hardly any Indigenous artists. Or for that matter, artists of colour.

The structure and format of the book is such that you approach each topic, delineated by the alphabetical order, as a snapshot. Loughnan’s writing style is accessible and easy to read as she lays out the links between artists in her chosen topic. The design of the book, however, means that there is actually surprising little text. Large font sizes and generous artwork images meant that this was a quick read.

Loughnan chose specifically to focus on what she terms ‘underrepresented artists’ – which explains why many heavy weights in Australian art such as Richard Bell, Fiona Hall, Tracey Moffatt and Guan Wei were not included. It becomes clear soon, however, that ‘underrepresented’ did not mean that the artists lacked commercial representation altogether. Tellingly, there was a strong correlation between artists Loughnan chose to include, and artists that she once represented as a dealer. The commercial interests were right beneath the surface.

I can appreciate that as a curator, you build up and establish ongoing relationships with artists that you work with. This might be why you would continue to champion particular artists, because you see the value in their work. I can also appreciate what Loughnan is trying to achieve with this book – which is to tell a new narrative of Australian art to a wider audience that is refreshing and new.

My issue with a book such as this is it promotes itself as a survey, a provocative and necessary guide, an update to Australian art history that focuses on what is happening today. Where Loughnan fails, however, is in telling a broader narrative than just her own. A perspective beyond the white Melbourne art world.

Using an alphabetical format necessarily places limitations on what Loughnan could achieve. For instance under the letter ‘I’ – Loughnan has focused on ‘Internet’, but it could have easily also covered topics like ‘Identity’ or ‘Indigenous’. How do you pick?

You pick based on the story you want to tell. And this is a story of Loughnan and her well-versed connections in the Melbourne-centric, white Australian art world. Moving beyond the conflict of interest of including most of her former represented artists, Loughnan’s book excludes as much as it includes. As Abdul Abdullah, one of the included artists in, points out – you can count on a single hand how many indigenous, non-white, and artists of colour were included. A single hand.

Maybe the issue isn’t with Loughnan’s book – but with what we have done as an art community to end up here. We all know the NGV has a diversity problem, and ACCA finally had an exhibition of First Nation artists after nearly twenty years of silence.

Institutional critique is all well and good, but what I found more alarming and representative in this case is the work we see by young curators such as Loughnan, who have been given a platform to champion new artists and new ideas. This is a position of power, whereby real changes could eventuate.

I know that critics of what I say here will ask about the population correlation between the art community and the general public – asking questions such as “what percentage of Australians are Asian? Are Indigenous? Are Muslim? Etc etc.”

I’m not interested in these facts and figures. I am interested in the lived experience of attending an opening at Gertrude and being the single Asian woman there. I am interested in the conversations I have with my peers, almost as a well-known joke, about yet another Eurocentric exhibition at the NGV. I am interested in the conversations I have with artists who feel pigeon-holed by their identity but also driven by it to provocation. If art is really about opening up conversations, these are the difficult conversations we need to be having.

Australiana to Zeitgeist is a good and well-designed book if you consider it single perspective of Australian art today. I hope that other voices will join this conversation soon.