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A History of the Campfire Group

George Petelin
The history of Campfire from 1990 to 2002 can be described as having three phases
roughly aligned with the shifting locations of their studio and gallery premises. irst
there was the spontaneous! "amateur#! Torrington $t phase when artists simply
wor%ed together and discovered the need to organise! then the "commercial#
ortitude &alley phase! when they started to realise the need for mar%eting their
artwor%! and now! recently! the "professional#! $tratton $t! phase! when they begin
to become an integral part of the institutional and commercial framewor%.
'owever! in all of these phases Campfire has retained a uni(ue style. There have
been art dealers! agents! consultants! and advisors who have acted as mediators
between )ustralian *ndigenous culture and the non+indigenous artworld and there
have been community cooperatives and individual *ndigenous artists who have
attempted to underta%e this role also. Campfire has been different from all of these.
*ts difference has given it a privileged role in the development of a mar%et for
contemporary indigenous art and indeed for effecting a %ind of cultural reconciliation
, not -ust between .uropean settler culture and *ndigenous culture but also within
*ndigenous culture itself. rom the beginning! it was conceived as a collaborative
/ichael .ather! fresh from his odyssey into the central desert and )rnhemland and
with his eldest )boriginal daughter 0oni! then still a toddler! in tow! dreamed of a
vast , many would say foolhardy , pro-ect. )s a young! figurative artist! wor%ing
from a studio in the vacated 1oolstores at 0ewfarm! he envisaged an e2hibition of
art such as there had never been before3 showing together remote+region
"traditional# indigenous art! non indigenous contemporary art that attempted a
dialogue with this culture! and! most outrageously! "urban# *ndigenous art. This last
category was the most ris%y because it was predominantly not "polished# in the sense
both of the other categories were. /useum trustees and many curators considered it
to be "amateur#! untrained! "%itsch#! or tourist art. )nd indeed that is what much of it
was. 4ut where they were wrong was in underestimating its real "authenticity# , its
ability to serve genuine spiritual and social needs of the indigenous community! and!
by e2tension! of all communities.
To emphasise this! .ather called this pro-ected show "4alance#. *t would restore a
balance! he hoped! to everyone#s sense of values. *t would give credit to whom
credit is due5 and not elevate one form of culture over another. *n adopting this
stance he drew inspiration from *ndigenous artists themselves. 'e %new that what
generally passed for authenticity in museums was! as .ric /ichaels has argued! a
conformity to .urocentric e2pectations of the e2otic. 6rban )boriginal people
.ather had met including 7in 8nus! /arshall 4ell! and 9ichard 4ell! asserted fiercely
that they too had a culture , that it was not cultural loss but cultural creation that
characterised them.
*t too% longer than .ather had hoped , the show too% place not in 19::! which
would have been more nationally symbolic! but in 1990. 4ut the fact that it too%
place at all was a miracle. $everal conditions made it possible. 1ith ;oug 'all! then
recently appointed director of the <ueensland )rt Gallery! .ather found a
sympathetic ear. 'all agreed to show 4alance in 1990 despite the fact that his
trustees in the previous year re-ected the purchase of %ey urban *ndigenous wor%
Dreamtime/Machinetime by Trevor 0icholls on the grounds that! in their view! it
was "badly painted#. =The wor% was subse(uently donated by an anonymous
benefactor and forms a pivotal position in the gallery#s collection>. Trevor 0icholls#s
wife /arlene 'all agreed to collaborate in the curation of 4alance. 1hite artist
Chris 'odges and *ndigenous artists with whom he had wor%ed in 6topia agreed to
participate. Gordon 4ennett! recently graduated from the <ueensland College of )rt
but already ta%ing the )ustralian artworld by storm! offered his ama?ing graduation
piece The Coming of the Light as well as submitting collaborative wor%s with
.ugene Carchesio. 4rothers /arshall and 9ichard 4ell who had established an
)boriginal gallery called 1iamulli in 4oundary $t $outh 4risbane for .2po #::
became enthusiastically involved. 'owever! 4oomali gallery in $ydney! an
*ndigenous artists@ cooperative which included iona oley! Tracey /offatt! 4renda
Croft! Audy 1atson and 'etti Per%ins! declined to ta%e part. ;espite this! the
networ% necessary to ac(uire wor%s for the show slowly fell into place.
/ore than any ma-or survey show! perhaps anywhere in the 1orld previously!
4alance selected wor%s through negotiation with communities and artists. =This
culturally negotiated process was an essential learning e2perience that arguably made
possible the <ueensland )rt Gallery#s subse(uent triumphs in curating3 the )sia+
Pacific Triennials>. To cope with the huge tas%! a "rotating# curatorium always
involving blac% voices as well as white voices was formed. Prominent )boriginal
people such as 7ance 8#Chin! 'ope 0eill! and &anessa isher generously gave their
time to this tas%.
The e2hibition was an un(ualified success in terms of bringing people together and
e2posing the real concerns of a culture. 1or%s by artists collected by museums hung
ne2t to wor%s previously only hung in the living rooms of their creators. /arshall
4ell proved to be a particularly articulate museum guide who relished revealing both
the in-ustice and creativity of *ndigenous life. The richness and sheer magnitude of a
hidden culture was revealed. or the first time! *ndigenous people could feel at
home in a museum. The opening! unli%e the champagne and blac% tie functions
normal to museums! involved children and whole e2tended families in an
unpretentious celebration.
Torrington Street
Campfire Consultancy was the natural outcome of this event. The economic "*ndian
summer# of .2po faded for 9ichard 4ell#s gallery as it did for numerous other
establishments in the location , even the Terminus 'otel. 9ichard! in any case! was
more driven to be an artist than a gallerist. /arshall! on the other hand! although
continuing to paint! when Balance ended! teamed up with /ichael .ather to form a
"consultancy# for promoting collaborative art. This way they could all paint and still
spare some time by appointment to further the acceptance of every type of practice
authentically addressing indigenous issues , whether through provocation or
The process was! to be sure! a mi2 of both these seemingly contradictory
ingredients. /arshall and /ichael! for e2ample! painted Balance of Trade Figures ,
a satirical e2pose of )ustralia#s obscene e2ploitation by world powers. 9ichard
began his plans for Prospectus .22, a satire on colonisation involving a huge letter to
"The Chairman of China# offering him an e(uity partnership in the development of
the island+continent )ustralia. or a time they shared a studio space with ;avid
Paulson in an old <ueensland colonial house in Torrington $t $pring 'ill. Paulson
had a wealth of %nowledge about painting and sculptural techni(ue that he passed on
unstintingly. 9ichard 4ell reminisces that "6ncle# Paulson was li%e a "footie coach#
who trained the "team# in valuable s%ills and barrac%ed for them when they used
these s%ills to "ta%e the piss out of the white art system#. The atmosphere at the
ramshac%le house was casual3 they fre(uently too% time off to throw a real football
around right in the living room ignoring bottles of turps sent flying by an errant pass
or dropc%ic%. )nd parts of the scheduled+for+demolition house fre(uently showed
up as components of .ather#s and Paulson#s paintings or sculptures.
The ne2t initiative of Campfire was to convene the first <ueensland *ndigenous
)rtists# Conference. )rtists here were conscious that the flourishing of a Central
;esert art mar%et was assisted by the presence of )rt and Craft Centres! wor%shops!
advisors! and government grants. <ueensland *ndigenous artists had to organise.
)mong those who became active in Campfire were indigenous artist 7aurie 0ilsen
and indigenous photographer+anthropologist /ichael )ird. The first conference too%
place in 1992 at Barrabah community near Cairns and resulted in the formation of
<*C&) the <ueensland *ndigenous Committee for &isual )rts. The following year
the second conference too% place at 1oorabinda Community near 9oc%hampton.
<*C&) underwent a transformation to become <*))C! the <ueensland *ndigenous
)rtists# )boriginal Corporation. <*))C sought a comprehensive country and city
statewide representation that proved difficult to maintain! and thus it was Campfire
that remained the most stable catalyst for developing a voice for <ueensland
*ndigenous artists. The conferences were masterpieces of brin%manship and
improvisation that has remained a hallmar% of Campfire strategies. Grants were
somehow obtained! people were somehow notified and busses of artists converged
from all over <ueensland even though the grant money had not arrived on time. The
host communities welcomed everyone with generosity and goodwill and fierce
daytime debates were followed by unforgettable evening celebrations.
8ne offshoot of these conferences was the identification of a need for tertiary
education in *ndigenous art for *ndigenous artists taught by *ndigenous artists. Thus
began a long process of community consultation which in 199C produced )ustralia#s
first 4achelor#s degree in Contemporary )ustralian *ndigenous )rt =4o&)C)*)> at
the <ueensland College of )rt! Griffith 6niversity! in 4risbane. )mong those who
championed this course were 9obin 8#Chin! and Campfire artists 1esley =4at>
Conlon and /ar% Garlett =both of whom also enrolled among the course#s first
students>. * was fortunate to be able to help by gaining course approval and seed
funding from my 6niversity =the <ueensland College of )rt at Griffith 6niversity>
and! with Aennifer 'erd! who was appointed the indigenous coordinator! designed a
course structure that synthesised the suggestions gained through consultation.
The first e2hibitions organised by Campfire from 1991 to 199D were at The $pring
'ill 4aths , a heritage+listed swimming pool managed by Catherine /acTaggart -ust
across the road from the studio. 'ere! a dressing shed became a gallery5 and
openings spilled out late into the night in the courtyard. )gain! wor% by urban
community artists relatively un%nown to the mainstream! such as 7ucy Coolwell#s
painted rum bottles! was e2hibited alongside wor% by central desert artists of
legendary status such as .mily Engwarreye.
)nyone involved in )boriginal art visiting or passing through 4risbane would
inevitably drop in for a chat at the Campfire studio =as they also did later at ire+
1or%s gallery>. $ome would leave behind wor%s to e2hibit. $ome would send
canvases rolled up li%e rugs in the post. 1hen curator )nthony 4ond came by to
scout talent for his upcoming $ydney 4iennale! .ather unrolled 9ichard#s
Prospectus.22 for him straight onto the dusty floor. The success of this %ind of
display evidently spurred Campfire to visit subse(uent author of the highly+regarded
boo% Aoriginal Art 1ally Caruana in Canberra + this time unrolling 9ichard#s wor%
Crisis in the carpar%. Caruana purchased it for the 0ational Gallery of )ustralia.
Thus began Campfire#s commercial activities.
The first commercial gallery established by Campfire was in George $t 4risbane in
the space of the then recently relocated /ilburn Gallery. *t started out in 199F as a
temporary e2hibit + a satellite event of the first )sia Pacific Triennial called Political
Bedrooms. Campfire artists invited )PT artists to collaborate in setting up
installations based on a political theme. 4efore the opening they found that the
electricity was cut off and had to be paid in advance. *t seemed a waste not to
continue operating as a gallery after this investment and thus ire+1or%s gallery was
born. ire+1or%s new status did not prevent it from continuing to show challenging
art G for e2ample! in 199D! !PC"AC Prison Art and Political Boats.
rom the start! Campfire also sought a national and international presence. *n 1992
Campfire artists produced an installation at the 9
$ydney 4iennale The 4oundary
9ider called !sland which offered )ustralia as "an island for sale# to any more
responsible coloniser. 9ichard 4ell and /ichael .ather in the following year were
also individually invited to the )delaide 4iennale. *n 199F Campfire gained a grant
to send #tories$ Contemporar% Aoriginal Art and artists 7aurie 0ilsen and
/arshall 4ell to inland and 0orway. Commitments, curated also in 199F at the
*nstitute of /odern )rt! travelled to Canberra and to )rtspace in $ydney. *n 199D
Campfire artists also participated in &'',''' "ours (Mortalit%) at the .2perimental
art foundation in )delaide and in 199C sent eighty wor%s to $ingapore =featuring
&incent $erico>. )n invitation to otofeis found them in .dinburgh! $cotland in
199H. $ince then! in 2001! they have also sent a ma-or e2hibition of )boriginal art +
Dreamtime$ The Dar* and the Light + to Elosteneuberg in )ustria.
The Fortitude Valley Fire-Works
1hen in 199C an opportunity came up to ac(uire a space at )nn $t! ortitude
&alley! ire+1or%s moved. 'ere was the sound of traffic and the smell of
coffeehouses5 late night bands at slea?y nightclubs! and hungover brea%fasts in the
mall in homage to a smoggy sunrise. 4ut also there were tourists. The gallery
opened into the busy street. Passers+by wandered in. Tourist artefacts and printed t+
shirts drew the punters in! but political art made them stay. The raw sardonic wor%s
of Cherburg artist &incent $erico could be sold to customers who intitially only
came in loo%ing only for decorated didgeridoos. 0ow the economics of maintaining
their pro-ect became more evident to the Campfire group. 1hen /arshall 4ell
increasingly gave up art for land rights politics the administration of ire+1or%s
Gallery was formalised with /ichael .ather ta%ing the role of Gallery ;irector and
7aurie 0ilsen becoming Cultural ;irector. This acceptance that art also has to be a
business is ironically registered in their installation at the 199I )sia Pacific Triennial3
All #toc* Must +o,.
All #toc* Must +o, was a controversial event. *t was curated by a Thai scholar! ;r
)pinan Poshyananda! who! in the spirit of fair e2change! was accorded the tas% of
curating the )ustralian segment of that Triennial. Poshyananda too% a cynical view
of the )ustralian art mar%et e(uating it to tourist e2ploitation and suggested a
format whereby the "ugly truth# of commerce was displayed alongside that pristine
temple of culture! the <ueensland )rt Gallery. Thus the Campfire group were as%ed
to display *ndigenous art , by now held sacrosanct by guilt+ridden white society#s
museums , as being "humiliatingly# sold off the bac% of a truc% par%ed -ust outside
the gallery. The Campfire team pitched into this with typically rec%less gusto. 'ere
was a perilous strategy. Poshyananda had (uite arrogantly elected to use )boriginal
art to ma%e his own cynical statement3 )boriginal art was reduced to a souvenir. 8r
was itJ Campfire#s sense of humour won the day. 9eversing the power balance of
curators to artists they produced ironic "promotional# material for the event3
photographs of themselves as barefoot "directors# in the boardroom of the Gallery
with the good+natured cooperation of the actual ;irector of the <)G! ;oug 'all!
posing as a waiter serving them drin%s. .verything off the truc% =including its
wheels> was sold before the conclusion of the )PT.
The strength of Campfire! and indeed of much of contemporar% *ndigenous art!
clearly lay in the use of humor to cope with any vicissitude. /arshall and /ichael#s
Balance of Trade Figures and 9ichard 4ell#s Prospectus .22 were models for a
cultural guerrilla warfare that stood them in good stead from the start. This point
was consolidated with the e2hibition Blac* "umour in 199H! in which Campfire
artists 7aurie 0ilsen! 9ic% 9osser! 7amic%y Pitt! $imon Turner! and 9obert /ercer
satirised the ultra+conservative )ustralian politician e2+fish+and+chip+shop%eeper
Pauline 'ansen.
acing the very commercial imperatives they lampooned! Campfire e2hibited at the
/elbourne )rt air in 199:! and again in 2000. 'owever! parallel cultural pro-ects
always ensured an integrity and relevance to their own community. Thus they also
organised collaborative art events at the 1oodford ol% estival =from 199C>! the
;)9 4risbaneKPapunya e2change pro-ects with the 4risbane City Council =since
199:>! and sundry $eminars! e2changes! residencies and educational wor%shops for
)lthough initially male+dominated! Campfire also accommodated women#s issues. *n
199D they had organised That-s .omen All /0er! an e2hibition of women#s art from
diverse locations curated by Aoyce 1atson. )nd! as well as established women
artists from the desert Campfire supported young and unrepresented women artists
such as $ue .lliott who wandered into the Torrington $t studio with bi?arre
canvases signed $tranger 29. )lso they too% in wor% by 4ianca 4eetson and 9uby
)bbott 0apangardi. .2uberant 4ianca outrageously combined "earthy# "women#s
business# with pin% and fluffy humour while 9uby spent periodic stints at ortitude
valley away from her home in )lice $prings painting her own e2(uisite starburst
patterned dreamings. )lso shown were 4arbara 1eir from 6topia! $amantha /ee%s
from Cairns! and Aoanne Currie from /itchell. )nd! when her onerous teaching load
allowed her! Aennifer 'erd! originally a theatre costume designer! too% part in
installation wor%.
The broad mi2 of 0orthern! $outh+eastern! and 1estern <ueensland! and Central
)ustralian participants in Campfire was best illustrated by the show $altwater!
reshwater! 4orewater in 199I.
Stratton Street Fire-Works
The third phase of Campfire history begins with the untimely passing! in 1999! of 7in
8nus! is characterised by Campfire#s promotion of "avantgarde# wor%s by veteran
central desert artist /ichael 0elson Aagamara! and culminates in the shift of ire+
1or%s Gallery in )pril 2002 to new premises on the previous site of $avode Gallery
at $tratton $t 0ewstead.
7in 8nus had acted as an inspiration for @urban@ *ndigenous art. 'e was a competent
spo%esman on indigenous cultural issues! and a highly respected artist. /ichael
.ather first met him ....
.ather continued the collaboration even after his passing. The /ngoing Ad0entures
of 1 and 2a% =1999> was a tribute that maintained the legend and saw a continuation
of the themes that 8nus raised but somehow on a more personal level. )s a white
artist .ather@s @history@ was always essentially a personal adventure. 8nus! on the
other hand! could never escape the imperatives of his culture.
/ichael 0elson Aagamara =then spelled T-a%amarra> had been included in the 1990
4alance show when he still produced fastidious dot paintings in the tradition of his
native Papunya Tula region. ) decade later! with streamlined name and streamlined
art! now a core member of Campfire! he began to simplify his %ey symbols and apply
the paint in rapid "action painting# style onto plain unwor%ed fields of colour. *n this!
he had followed the trend begun by .mily Engwareye who towards the end of her
career produced increasingly simplified impasted oils at a furious rate. 4ut it is a
mista%e to identify Aagamara#s wor% with "hot# abstract e2pressionism. There is no
"passion of the moment# or release of an "unconscious# here3 the paint splatters are
as calculated and as bound to the storylines as Papunya dots were. )s if to prove
this! Aagamara continues to retrace the last gasps of modernism by also telling his
story through "minimalist# sculptural pieces. This @cool@ sophisticated phase of
indigenous art falls in complete accord with the new sophisticated space of ire+
1or%s on $tratton. 'ere! in one of 4risbane@s most spacious galleries! polished
floors have replaced bare concrete and tourist artifacts have given way to a more
financially ambitious mi2 of contemporary art including! in the new ire+1or%s#
opening show! artists that have no direct connection with indigenous issues.
Prior to the move! white nationally+collected sculptor and installation artist A/ Aohn
)rmstrong -oined the Campfire team as Gallery and Pro-ect /anager and in-ected a
sympathetic but strong element of efficiency to Campfire operations. These
evolutionary processes are indicative of contemporary *ndigenous art#s absorption
into the institutionalised mainstream. 4ut also they signal the success of Campfire#s
original pro-ect to ma%e that institution more tolerant and inclusive. *t remains to be
seen if success spoils their art#s authenticity but then they have weathered other
challenges and! so far! have emerged relatively unscathed.