What is contemporary Australian art?

Jennifer Higgie


The brief: ‘to write a text reflecting on the state of Australian contemporary art today as you see it, both here and in an international context’. I almost say no – the task is too daunting, the subject too slippery. Gone – thank goodness – are the days when art historians told the story of art as if it were a neat line of masterpieces by a few select geniuses – it’s far messier and more inclusive than that and, of course, is a reflection not only of the individual who made it but of the culture that produced the artist. To define Australian art now is to define Australia itself, in all its achievements and failings. But who could do that without resorting to generalisations? Who could do that without adding to art history’s notorious list of exclusions?

Each person brings their baggage to the question. Mine? I’m from Canberra, where I went to art school; I then did a Master of Fine Arts in painting at Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, where – like everyone I knew – art was less a career than a calling. None of us imagined we would make any money from it; the groundswell of artist-run spaces that were so prevalent at the time provided not only space for exhibiting, but a sense of community. I moved to London in the late 1990s, where I still live and work; writing and editing took over my visual practice. While I travel back home every year, I don’t feel entitled to make declarations on the state of contemporary Australian art: its temperature, tone, form, and focus seem to change in the blink of an eye. Also, very little of it makes it to the northern hemisphere: there’s next to no visibility, or knowledge, of Australian art in the UK. So, I emailed and talked to artist/curator/writer friends in Australia and overseas for their thoughts. At first, they were stumped – some of them laughed at the futility of summarising something so shape-shifting – but observations trickled in. Their various conclusions lack consensus, which seems apt – healthy, even – given that art is an imprecise science, one dependent on subjectivity and circumstance.

A summary: Australian art is not only made by First Nations artists, migrants, and people who have lived in the country for months or decades, but also by Australians who live elsewhere, and by those who don’t have an Australian passport. It’s made by artists with PhDs and those who never went to art school; by artists who have gallery representation and those who don’t. It can be collaborative or individualistic. It’s a ready-made, an idea, a possibility, and comes in every media imaginable: it’s painted, performed, photographed, filmed; constructed, composed, drawn, carved, crafted, woven. It’s about memory, place, loss, and belonging; the environmental crisis and global warming; it’s a celebration, a lament, a query, a translation, a reinterpretation of the art of earlier times. It’s made on bark, canvas, paper, floors and walls, on and through the body; it’s spun from air, rises from flames, emerges from fibre, sound, stone, detritus. It’s shaped by arguments, grief, music, spirits, stories, Ancestors, animals, half-remembered conversations, glimpses of other worlds. It’s abstract, figurative, something in-between. It’s an idea, an actuality, an enigma. It’s solipsistic, didactic, enigmatic. It’s Aboriginal, American, Asian, European; it’s parochial, outward-looking, regional, international. It’s provocative, contentious, baffling. It’s a neoliberal pawn. It’s exclusive, market-driven, innately conservative, even as it attempts to be radical, as it’s part of a system that treats creativity as a commodity. It’s furious, reflective, secretive; it’s essential to an understanding of community and Country. It’s too apologetic. It’s too arrogant. It’s too binary. It’s not binary enough. It’s made in cities and deserts and places in between. It’s life-changing, illuminating, an essential part of nation-building. It’s hypocritical; even as it declares its egalitarianism and rails against elitism, it’s often too coded for the person on the street to understand. It acknowledges complexity. It’s lost its way. It blooms in the cracks. It’s heartbreaking, enraging, moving. It’s anarchic, leftist, feminist, post-feminist, queer – a hot mess that preaches to the choir. It’s cryptic, too academic; as good as anything anywhere in the world. It’s fashionable, glib, worthy, virtue-signalling, cryptic, hollow – so crammed clear of ideas, references, connections, and profound longings – so much stuff – that, at times, it can’t breathe. It’s posturing; it’s full of potential. It’s polemical. It’s passive. It’s instrumentalised. It’s in thrall to the past. It’s forward-looking. It’s accommodating.

A few things become clear: while pluralism abounds, identity politics and critiques of class, colonialism, and capitalism are intrinsic to both the creation and reception of much work being exhibited now. But as soon as you cite the work of one artist, another comes into view. As soon as you identify a trend, others supplant it. As soon as you identify a community, you glimpse the outlier: the artist conjuring worlds on their own, unsupported, unrecognised. As soon as you hear dissent, a different viewpoint muscles in. Every list is an act of exclusion.

One young artist who now lives in London tells me she sees Australian art inflected by its geographical isolation; curators from the northern hemisphere rarely make the journey to our shores. She’s struck by the brilliant quality of some Australian artists who have never left the country, and how little they are known outside their milieu. She feels there’s something unique about Australia’s culture of artist-run spaces and intergenerational mentoring/friendships. ‘To me,’ she says, ‘it is an art world still very much run by artists, which I don’t see as much in London.’ (1) She adds: ‘I’m also really excited by the integration and platforming of Indigenous contemporary art practices; I feel like this has really improved since I left in 2016’. Another artist writes that she had an interesting conversation with someone about the lecture ‘Recession Art and Other Strategies’ (2020) by Peter Cripps; they discussed how Australian artists are very good at making art with no money and nowhere to show, ‘as it’s been so underfunded and under-supported for so many years, and this gives it a unique perspective.’ Some respondents mention the fact that Australia is a country not riven by religious or state intolerance: censorship is far less of an issue than it is in other countries. One writer expresses scepticism around the idea of art as an instrument of nation- building. ‘Context,’ he says, ‘is important. Australian art is part of larger dialogues in Europe, the US and Asia. Sometimes, a question like this – “What is Australian art now?” – is too limited by the constraints of false borders.’

An old friend writes: ‘From where I am sitting, in my studio in Bondi, I see the state of Australian contemporary art today as mostly an exciting, dynamic, varied, and rich response to myriad issues – of our past and our present – and deals in an urgent and critical way with how we care for and imagine our (better) futures. However, I recognise many artists are still not paid enough attention because of social isolation, geographical marginalisation, or because they’re not connected to the gatekeepers of key organisations. It’s a tough art world, and it’s not easy to navigate, especially if you aren’t connected to one of the tribes that get traction’.

A lecturer at a Victorian art school tells me that among the students there is an urgent questioning of systemic vices around race, power, and gender; that some of them are wondering if there is any point in accepting aesthetic paradigms inherited from Britain and Europe. She says there’s a prevalent struggle to balance the idea of art-making, and discussions around it, that honour ‘safe spaces’ alongside the need for the discomfort that every act of learning entails. Many discussions, she says, revolve around privilege and permission: who has the right to say what, and how.

I talk on the phone with a friend in Berlin – a writer and curator who once staged exhibitions in his studio on Russell Street in Melbourne in the 1990s. He says that, generally speaking, he sees non–First Nations Australian art as marked by a deep unease: one that combines a utopian longing with a sense of struggling with a terrible loss – a sort of postmodern malaise engendered by postcolonial guilt. He wonders how Australia being an island affects our collective imagination. An artist friend, who moved from Melbourne to New York and then London 15 years ago, tells me she’s reading a new book by Anna Clark called Making Australian History (2022). She sends me a long email and concludes by saying that it has made her realise that much contemporary Australian art echoes Australian history: how both are finally acknowledging who has been left out of the story and what perspectives have been valorised. She observes that an artwork can be viewed in one breath as ‘radical and questioning,’ and in the next could be seen as a reiteration of settler ignorance. She concludes that non–First Nations Australian artists have something more complex to negotiate than their international peers who don’t live on colonised land.

One painter, acknowledging that he’s an ‘invalid old grump,’ writes that, apart from First Nations work, which he finds endlessly inspiring, the contemporary Australian art scene ‘is a carnival of banality where stylistic repetition and mediocrity are applauded and petty gatekeeping is considered a great honour.’ Another mid-career artist, who is having a major show in Australia in 2023, writes: ‘After going to Melbourne earlier in the year, I noticed a whole new generation of younger artists and curators and I felt really out of touch. Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful and good luck with the text!’

Another friend writes that he keeps thinking about the exhibition Bark Ladies: Eleven Artists from Yirrkala (2021) at the National Gallery of Victoria – work by artists including Nonggirrnga Marawili, Eunice Djerrkngu Yunupingu, and others. He says that an awareness that ‘artists of this potency’ are active makes him ‘very strong in heart.’ He then cites powerful works being produced by communities, such as Kintyre (2020–21), a 3 × 5–metre painting created by 23 Martumili artists to protest uranium mining. He says: ‘I think about the work’s functionality, and how it’s a kind of official prayer, not just against mining in that area but for entire future states of being. That’s an extraordinary thing for a few people to achieve’.

I return to the brief: ‘to write a text reflecting on the state of Australian contemporary art today as you see it, both here and in an international context’. To reach a conclusion is an impossible task; it’s like trying to take a snapshot of a moving target. I recall a line I read somewhere in an Australian online art magazine: ‘Questions are the light that allow us to see the darkness around us.' (2) If one thing is clear, it’s this: no single orthodoxy dominates Australian art: it’s tens of thousands of years old and also a work in progress: it will not be contained. This, surely, is cause for celebration.


(1) All quotes supplied via email to or in conversation with the author, October 2022.
(2) Memo Review 05, 2021, see https:// memoreview.net/shop/memo-review-05.