Cicada Press and the Annual Indigenous Print Workshop: Creating a New Movement

This article originally appeared in Vol. 51/No. 1 of Imprint Magazine, the Print Council of Australia Journal.  For more info on the Print Council of Australia, click here.

By Tahjee Moar

Sydney based curator and arts writer.

Each February, Cicada Press brings together Indigenous artists from diverse parts of the country to participate in the annual Indigenous print workshop. For two weeks, a small group of early and mid-career Indigenous artists share a studio at the University of New South Wales Art & Design to experiment and create through a new medium. Run by Tess Allas, Director of Indigenous Programs and Michael Kempson, Convenor of Printmaking Studies and Director of Cicada Press, the workshop is a space where stories are told by some of Australia’s most exciting Indigenous artists. The resulting works are bold and thought-provoking insights into contemporary voices in Australian art.

Historically, the study of Indigenous art practice has been through the lens of anthropology. As Indigenous Australian art historical discourses have slowly but increasingly become part of contemporary art discourses, so too has the diversity and plurality of their scope. This diversity was sought through Storylines, a large-scale research project undertaken by Allas, Professor Vivian Johnson and Laura Fisher in conjunction with Design & Art Australia Online, and a precursor to the annual Indigenous print workshop. Supported by a three year (2007-9) Australian Research Council Discovery grant supplemented by UNSW Art & Design, Storylines examined and documented Indigenous art making outside of ‘remote’ Aboriginal Australia. This covered regions in New South Wales, ACT, Victoria, Tasmania, the southern parts of Western Australia and South Australia as well as the eastern regions of Queensland, which lie south and east of the so-called Rowley Line; this referred to the invisible line existing across the map of Australia that was theorised by sociologist C. D. Rowley as dividing Aboriginal people into two distinct binary groups, ‘settled’ and ‘colonial’.

Wall of proofs

Wall of proofs

Of the Storylines research findings, Tess recounts, “we found that many artists from below the ‘Rowley Line’ were not seriously considered, written about, curated into shows or collected, nor did they seem to have the same access to art workshops, studios, equipment or the actual ‘artworld’ as those who are based in art centres above the Line.” With the aim of enabling Indigenous artists access to studio spaces within the University, Allas and Kempson, who Tess says “has been one of the very few people who have helped to address this imbalance by opening his studio to as many artists as possible,” formally established an annual residency program through Cicada Press in 2012. The result was a program that removed Indigenous printmaking from the confines of north Australia and allowed a diversity of Indigenous artists to test new ideas, participate in new conversations and produce new work in printmaking. To date, Cicada Press, through the programs organised by Allas and Kempson, has hosted residencies for such artists as Tony Albert, Fiona Foley, Vernon Ah Kee, Brenda Croft, Gordon Hookey, Reko Rennie, Dale Harding, Laurel Nannup, Brett Nannup, Ryan Presley, Jason Wing and Frances Belle Parker.

Brenda Croft discussing her work with master printer Michael Kempson. Ryan Presley looking on in the background

Brenda Croft discussing her work with master printer Michael Kempson. Ryan Presley looking on in the background

Brenda Croft happy with the finished work

Brenda Croft happy with a finished work

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An educationally based custom printmaking workshop founded in 2004, Cicada Press functions as a space where professional artists are invited to produce a body of work with the support of Kempson and UNSW students. Often, the artists will be new to the medium as well as the experience of participating in a university residency. “As a rule we like to invite artists who generally have no experience with printmaking,” Kempson says. “We think it is important that residencies are offered to artists who might never get the opportunity to encounter art making in a university context.” Tess adds that what the workshop also seeks to nurture is “a space where [artists] can be artistically challenged and learn new skills.” The result is a space that combines traditional pedagogy and an academic studio setting with the teachings of those with personal and lived experiences

A recent participant in the workshop is Sydney-based artist Tony Albert, who is of Girramay, Yidinji and Kuku-Yalanji descent. Following the year in which he was a recipient of the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award and the Basil Sellers Art Prize, Albert was invited to participate in the 2015 workshop. For Albert, it was an opportunity to explore a new medium and develop his artistic practice. “The idea of not being stagnant and continuing to challenge your own technical practice is important,” he says, “how I think and feel is to push my practice.” Albert, whose body of work has included working in mixed media installations and photography, often uses his work to interrogate the legacies of colonial histories, focusing on representations of Aboriginality. A distinct characteristic of his practice involves recycling what he calls “Aboriginalia”, kitsch objects that naively depict Aboriginal people. Translating his aesthetic and conceptual concerns to a two-dimensional medium, Albert produced the Ashtray series, a series of etchings based on the vintage ashtrays depicting Aboriginal people, which today can be seen as powerfully symbolic objects. The resulting works are challenging reminders of the ways in which Aboriginal people have been historically portrayed in Australian society, evoking inquiry around prevailing racist attitudes in contemporary Australia.

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Tony Albert signing his series

One of Tony Albert's ashtrays

One of Tony Albert’s ashtrays

The 2015 Indigenous print workshop saw the Adelaide-based early-career artist Raymond Zada, who is of Barkindji descent, create a series of prints using digitally derived motifs. One of these was the work, Rowley’s Line, which borrowed from the text in C. D. Rowley’s, ‘The Destruction of Aboriginal Society’ (1970) – the story that influenced the workshop. A work consisting of text and dotted lines over a strategically made black and white background, Zada’s work explores Rowley’s seemingly outdated logic and its applicability to existing paradigms surrounding Indigenous cultural identity. Zada’s practice has involved using mediums such as new media, photography, video and digital design to express the stories of displaced Aboriginal people. In 2012, he won the work-on-paper prize at the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. For the artist, participating in a collaborative studio environment was a new experience, “I had never produced art in the presence of anyone else,” recalls Zada, “[m]y practice always involved me working alone and nobody would see works in progress; so it was daunting having people see me work through ideas, which often just involves me staring at a computer screen.” He concluded, however, that the workshop was important, as it provided a “safe and supportive space for artists to step out of their comfort zone and try new things.”

Proofs of Raymond Zada's etchings

Proofs of Raymond Zada’s etchings

Another artist who has participated in the workshop is Dale Harding, a Brisbane-based artist of Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal descent. Harding’s practice often involves investigating the social and political realities experienced by members of his family who lived under government control in Queensland. Re-telling the stories of his family, Harding’s prints Bright Eyed Little Dormatory Girls, Sack 1, 2 & 3 are a reminder of Australia’s untold histories from a perspective of lived experience. For the artist, participating in the workshop to realise the works was experience built on exchange and understanding. He says, “collaborating with Michael and Tess to translate some of my works into etchings was entirely like a great conversation between friends in a mutual second language.” Since participating in the workshop, Harding’s prints, like those of Albert’s and Zada’s, have featured in Cicada Press’ international and national touring exhibitions.

Dale Harding working on some etchings

Dale Harding working on some etchings

Dale Harding's proofs on the wall

Dale Harding’s proofs on the wall

In an artistic climate where printmaking continues to be an underrepresented medium in contexts for contemporary art, Cicada Press’ Aboriginal print workshop offers a positive story; one in which contemporary artists are engaging and experimenting with the formal and conceptual potential of printmaking practices. In the context of tertiary institutions, in which a significant portion of research and activity takes place for professional and practicing artists, Cicada Press’ residency program gives way to a thriving university-based printmaking community. This could be seen as offering something of a contrast to the decreasing interest and demand for printmaking programs elsewhere that have seen entire printmaking programs removed from the curriculums of several significant universities throughout Australia. Cicada Press succeeds in rupturing the insularity of an academic environment, bringing in new voices and perspectives and presenting them to international and national audiences through its touring exhibition. For its Indigenous artists, this is an important aspect of what it does, as Albert says, “the workshops are important . . . we now have these previously untold stories traveling around the world.”

Damien Shen, Ryan Presley, Tahjee Moar and Michael Kempson examining a proof of Damien's etching

Damien Shen, Ryan Presley and Tahjee Moar examining a proof of Damien’s etching

Since their establishment, the workshop has produced something of a development in Indigenous art. It has seen a variety of Indigenous artists inject new voices and perspectives into an often-unexplored medium, becoming part of the ongoing history of printmaking in Australia. Most importantly, it offers an active space for the development of diverse and new voices in Indigenous art practice, as Allas says, “it is providing an opportunity for people to see there are stories to tell below the Rowley Line.”

 

 

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Michael Kempson

By Anthony Springford

Surrounded by neat ranks of cast iron printing presses and the smell of resin, bitumen, grease and ink, Michael Kempson’s office reminds me of a Merzbau. I can’t see the walls for books and towers of steel drawers, and it takes Kempson a minute to clear me a seat wedged under an overhang of cardboard. I think there’s a desk in here somewhere, but the University of New South Wales Australia’s convenor of printmaking studies doesn’t strike me as man who sits still for very long. His father was an Anglican minister, and he is quick to suggest that he is something of an evangelist for the social and educational value of printmaking.

Michael Kempson working with Reg Mombassa

Michael Kempson working with Reg Mombassa

UNSW Art & Design teaches etching, relief and lithography; centuries-old techniques in which each print is handcrafted and unique. Editioned prints have been part of the vocabulary of Western art since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Goya, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse and Picasso used etching and lithography to produce works that could be seen and owned by a middleclass public. But since the second half of the 20th century, digital and photographic technologies offer increasingly easy ways to distribute images. Printmaking departments all over the world now have to fight for their place between one-off art objects and a global culture of digital media, photography and video.

Consultation with Pakistani artist Saeed Akhtar

Consultation with Pakistani artist Saeed Akhtar

Kempson draws a parallel between printmaking and jazz music; both are highly technical, experimental, open and collaborative, with a rich tradition of innovation. To the uninitiated at least, printmaking and jazz can also seem arcane, sustained by a core of devotees and a bit out of date. For Kempson though, it is because printmaking is difficult that it tends to be collaborative and workshop based, fostering connections between artists. Unlike the lonely studio, the print room is a space for political, social and artistic exchange.

Examining a proof

Examining a proof

In 2004 Kempson established Cicada Press with a mission to teach and promote printmaking through collaboration. Well-known artists from around the world are invited to UNSW to collaborate with students on an edition of prints. Cicada offers the artists an opportunity to expand their own practices by trying out new techniques, while students learn by being directly involved in a professional artist’s work.

In the ego-driven world of contemporary art it is rare to see artists of different generations sharing the creative process, but so far Cicada has worked with over 170 artists to produce over 1300 editions of prints. For Kempson; “openness with empathy towards the other is crucial in the collaborative projects at Cicada Press.” Some artists, such as Vernon Ah Kee or Fiona Hall, bring very conceptually rooted approaches to printmaking, while others, such as Elisabeth Cummings or Guy Warren, explore more direct and gestural uses of the medium.

(L to  R) Michael Kempson, Elisabeth Cummings and Sally Marks

(L to R) Michael Kempson, Elisabeth Cummings and Sally Marks

 

Representing in China

Representing in China

This philosophy of generosity and collaboration extends beyond the workshop. In 2006 Cicada Press worked with artists from the central desert community of Papunya, including Michael Nelson Jagamara, on an edition of prints. Artists came to Sydney and UNSW students visited Papunya to realise a unique exhibition of linocuts and etchings that helped to raise money and awareness for the new Papunya Tjupi art centre. More recently Cicada has participated in exchanges and residencies with institutions in Pakistan, Thailand, Taiwan, Canada, New Zealand, Korea, China and the USA, enabling students and staff to build enduring professional relationships across Asia. In 2010 Cicada took an exhibition of indigenous prints to Karachi, and in 2012 it sponsored a travelling exhibition of Chinese and Australian prints that included artists from Papunya.

Michael Kempson is taking his social and artistic ministry, and his students, around the globe. He is changing the way the visual arts are taught and practiced, and perhaps even fostering a more collaborative and generous world in the process.

 

Anthony Springford is a Sydney based artist and writer.

 

 

 

Vic Chapman : Scholar and a gentleman

By Rebecca O’Shea

Artist, Arts Writer
Masters of Arts Administration COFA
Bachelor of Creative Arts UOW

In February 2013 Vic Chapman participated in a one-week Cicada Press Aboriginal Print Workshop along with Laurel Nannup from Perth and her son, Brett Nannup. He then continued to visit the printmaking studio each Friday once the 2013 academic semester began. At the same time, I was enrolled in Friday’s Custom Printing course so was fortunate enough to have him as a classmate and witness his work develop. Affectionately known by many as ‘Uncle Vic’, he is generous with his time and knowledge both in class and outside of school hours. I have enjoyed many insightful discussions with him about his art and life, his connections to my own stomping ground of the Illawarra, as well as his Aboriginal heritage.

Vic Chapman’s presence at Cicada Press was thanks to a joint invitation by Tess Allas and Michael Kempson. Tess Allas first met Vic in Wollongong in the 1990s, when she included some of his ceramic works in the exhibition she curated, Unjustified in 1995. Unjustified was the second exhibition to be staged at the newly opened Project: Centre for Contemporary Art (‘Project’ was the brainchild of Lisa Havilah, Glenn Barkley and Nathan Clark). This exhibition marked a shift in thinking about local Aboriginal art as the exhibition attracted private and institutional collectors. Wollongong Art Gallery bought many pieces for their permanent collection, including some of Chapman’s ceramic plates that depict Yuwaalaraay stories. From this early exhibition Allas and Chapman’s friendship was born.

In 2012, during the first National Aboriginal Print Workshop held at Cicada Press, Allas introduced Perth artists Laurel Nannup and Brett Nannup to Chapman on a day trip to Wollongong. During this visit they discussed the work they’d been developing at Cicada Press. It dawned upon Allas at that time that it would be great to get Chapman in the printmaking studio to see how his drawing technique and ceramic practice would transfer to the printmaking medium. Already familiar with Chapman’s ceramics, Michael Kempson was keen on the prospect and accompanied Allas to Chapman’s home on the South Coast of NSW in December 2012 to offer him a place in the February 2013 workshop.

Michael Kempson and Vic pulling a colour proof

Michael Kempson and Vic pulling a colour proof

One of the underlying interests of Cicada Press is to invite artists to explore how their usual practice can be transferred to the printmaking medium. Chapman has had an intermittent artistic practice, working primarily in pottery and ceramics, explaining to me that his only previous experience with printmaking was a brief stint of fabric printing while at teachers college. Keen to learn a new technique, Chapman welcomed the opportunity of a Cicada Press residency, noting that he learns through doing, so really enjoys taking part in the many processes printmaking involves.

Vic with Tess Allas

Vic with Tess Allas

To develop the imagery on his plates Chapman has been working with hard-ground and compared this stage of printmaking to the sgraffito process in pottery, as both involve scratching away a surface that reveals a different colour underneath. Many of the etchings Chapman has developed to date offer a direct relationship to his ceramic work, through revisiting the same subjects painted on his ceramic plates, platters and bowls. Each piece reflects on aspects of his personal history.

The students at Cicada Press (myself included) have been keenly interested to hear the stories of Chapman’s work, which he tells with enthusiasm, informing me that storytelling is an important aspect of his work, reiterating that he believes “every work needs a story behind it”.

Currawillinghi

Currawillinghi

Currawillinghi is the name of several stations in outback Queensland, close to the NSW-QLD border. It takes its name from the language of the Yuwaalaraay people, the original and continued custodians of the area, from which Chapman descends. Currawillinghi translates as ‘no women allowed’ as it was a place of initiation for young men. Chapman explained that later in life he became aware of reports that this is indicated by the bora ring located inside the entrance to the property, which is where the initiation took place.

The building in his print, Currawillinghi depicts Chapman’s family home, where he and most of his fourteen siblings were born. Chapman’s grandmother (‘baagi’ in Yuwaalaraay) was the local midwife and an avid fisherwoman (Chapman’s memory of her is depicted on ‘The Baagi Vase’, part of the National Maritime Museum’s collection). The Currawillinghi print was begun by drawing on a hard-ground surface and etching the line work. Following this, aquatint and burnishing processes were used to create tonal variation and highlights. The final colours for Chapman’s prints were resolved through consultation with Kempson, Chapman highlighting the value of having a clever teacher, who as Chapman describes it, “imparts knowledge easily”. For both the Currawillinghi and the similar Hebel State School prints it was decided to incorporate a gradation of four colours. As demonstrated in the following image, this involves the successive application of each colour on the plate from top to bottom.

inking the plate

inking the plate

Hebel State School depicts the one-teacher (20-25 student) school that Chapman attended from 5 to 10 years of age (1937-1942). In grade five Chapman moved to Goodooga Public School. While attending the school he was fortunate that his teacher, Mr McKinnon was an “individual thinker for the time”. Chapman explained that in the context of the time and place, Aboriginal people were excluded from participating with town affairs, were only allowed to sit in a sectioned area of the picture theatre and were not allowed to try on clothes in the shops. The expected norm for Aboriginal people, after finishing schooling at 12 or 13 years of age, saw females destined for domestic work and males for pastoral duties or labour. Attaining any form of community status or further education was seemingly out of the question. Mr McKinnon, not taking up the attitudes of the place, or fitting the societal mould, saw Chapman’s academic promise and applied for a State Bursary on his behalf for high school. Chapman chuckled when telling this story, remembering that upon receiving a telegram in the post which explained he would receive funding to attend high school, he and his family were bemused, having not heard about high school before; they wondered if it received its name from being built on stilts.

Hebel State School - not the final colour scheme. This image ended up with a red sky.

Hebel State School – not the final colour scheme. This image ended up with a red sky.

Upon travelling back to Hebel in 2013, Chapman framed a signed proof of Hebel State School as a gift to the school, saying that a group of nine-year-olds  he met there were very enthusiastic about the print and keenly encouraged him to tell them more about the ‘olden days’ that they, coincidentally, were currently studying. Upon hearing their sentiment I felt a strong affiliation with their curiosity.

The opportunity for further education was the launching pad for Chapman, who later went onto teachers college, following a career as a teacher and later, as a principal. As such, Chapman has taken a natural role in the familiarity of the printmaking classroom, as both a student and as a teacher. Having expressed my interest in Aboriginal culture to Chapman, he was more than happy to impart his knowledge of Yuwaalaraay language and dreaming stories as well as offer insights to the D’harawal dreaming stories of the south coast of NSW.

How the Black Swans got their Feathers

How the Black Swans got their Feathers

As part of a print portfolio produced by custom printing students in 2013, An Australian Bestiary, Chapman contributed the piece, How the Black Swans got their Feathers, which depicts a Yuwaalaraay story about neighbourly compassion. The story begins with the swans being attacked by eagles that stripped the swans bare of their feathers. Then, as illustrated in Chapman’s print, black crows took pity on the swan’s hardship and bestowed their feathers to the swans. Offering a personal reading of the story, Chapman embodies the two swans as himself and his wife Ruth, who endured great loss with the passing of their sons, John and Murray. Chapman likens the crows to the compassionate people in their life, who poured gentle solace and sympathy to them through their difficult time.

Signing the swans

Signing the swans

Currawillinghi – the place – is a place of great significance to the Chapman family. It is Chapman’s ‘ngurrambaa’, which is a Yuwaalaraay term meaning the place where one’s spirit comes into the world and the place where the spirit exits the world – with proper ceremony. A person’s ngurrambaa is inherited through the father’s side, so Currawillinghi is Chapman’s ngurrambaa as it is where he (1932), his father (1875) and grandfather (c1850) were born. In tradition with this paternal linkage, it is now, sadly, where Chapman’s two sons were returned for their final place of rest.

A lighter memory of Currawillingi, is Chapman’s personal account of the devious Manumadhaay, a story previously depicted on a ceramic plate and now transferred into the printed from. While living in Currawillinghi, Chapman’s family had a large number of chooks, who supplied their eggs, and, “on special occasions, a poultry dish”. As there were many goannas in the area, frantic noises were often heard coming from the chook-pen as the goannas raided the nests for eggs. In his print Manumadhaay, Chapman depicts this memory. The title of the work, appropriately, is the Yuwaalaraay word for ‘thief’ or ‘robber’. The crafty ways of the goanna sometimes led to their karmic fate of becoming food for Chapman’s family, as Chapman confirms, “they’re good eating”.

Manumadhaay ceramic plate

Manumadhaay ceramic plate

Manumadhaay Print

Manumadhaay Print

Vic Chapman has enjoyed the atmosphere of working in the printmaking studio, and commented that it is quite different from all the lectures he has been a part of through the years, as the environment is so friendly and inclusive, adding that it reminds him of the early days of the Ceramic’s Society (which he was involved in in Wollongong) where it was a fun community atmosphere and the sharing of knowledge was encouraged. Chapman also noted that having artists such as Chris O’Doherty (aka Reg Mombassa), Euan MacLeod and Elisabeth Cummings, who are regulars at Cicada Press, has been really helpful stating “they are great people and have been willing to help with suggestions and tips for his prints”.

Chapman also found inspiration in the work of Saeed Akhtar, a well-known Pakistani artist, who at the time of writing was undergoing a residency at Cicada Press. Chapman stated that Akhtar’s “sketch book is very inspiring and impressive”. He was particularly impressed with Akhar’s line work and commented “you can see the speed of the lines he makes and the curvature in those lines is fantastic”. After seeing Akhtar’s work Chapman said he became very interested in utilising the circle in his next print.

Exercising his interest, later in 2013 Chapman employed the use of a circular etching plate, and inscribed references to his life at Currawillinghi and Wollongong. The outer edge of the plate features the big tractor tyre that is located at the entrance of Currawillingi. The inner circle of the tyre revisits a design Chapman assembled in a circular mosaic at Figtree in 1998, which was commissioned as a public art project by the Wollongong City Council. The image depicts the Yaroma Story of the D’harawal people of the south coast. The figtree has special significance to the D’harawal people being used traditionally as a birthing tree by the Timbery family. The Yaroma (‘hairy man’), the spirit of the figtree, is said to protect the area and ward off intruders to ensure women’s privacy[1]. In this print, Chapman draws parallels to the Yaroma story of birth to his own birth place of Currawillinghi, connecting the personal significance of Currawillinghi and Wollongong and the cyclical nature of life. (He also noted the correlation between Currawillinghi translating as no women allowed being opposite to the figtree being a place where no men were allowed).

Chapman explained that the future prints he is considering producing at Cicada Press will continue to reflect on his lived experiences. In discussing these possibilities with him at the time of writing, Chapman revealed a drawing that represents a mapping of his personal journey, including references to his family tree and locations he has lived. He also explained his intention to represent the barriers he and his wife Ruth had to break through to gain acceptance for their marriage.

While revealing various societal barriers he has experienced, Chapman has also often noted the positive changes he has observed take place. He is enlivened by times that see a revival of culture and language that he was discouraged from connecting with when he was young -acquiring this knowledge self directed later in life. The once presumed improbable community status of Aboriginal people is accurately discredited; the esteem held for Chapman in the various leadership roles he has undertaken in the community, see him aptly described as a ‘legend’, ‘a scholar and a gentleman’. Adopted by many as Uncle Vic, he has been embraced like the resident indigenous elder of the printmaking studio at COFA.

http://www.daao.org.au/bio/vic-chapman/biography/?

Crino, Penny, 2010, ‘The Baagi vase Vic Chapman’. Signals 90 March to May