By Natalie Wilson, Curator Australian & Pacific Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales
In November, the Art Gallery of New South Wales will celebrate the life and art of its former deputy director, Tony Tuckson, with the exhibition Tony Tuckson: the abstract sublime. In his role as curator, Tuckson’s respect and admiration for the art of indigenous Australian and Pacific artists was borne out through an active policy to visit communities, meet artists, and acquire works for the Gallery’s collection. Because of Tuckson’s commitment, in 1962, the first works from the Pacific region entered the then-named ‘Primitive Art Collection’.
The exhibition Melanesian art: reduxexplores the collection of Pacific art shaped by Tuckson during his tenure, much of which has rarely been displayed. Sydney in the 1960s was home to numerous galleries that displayed Pacific art. The flamboyant Senta Taft-Hendry and Stephen Kellner were just two of the dealers Tuckson turned to when looking for works for the Gallery’s collection. A striking rmarkibarkcloth dance ornament, made by the Baining people of East New Britain in Papua New Guinea, was acquired from Taft-Hendry in 1965 and one of 377 works that Tuckson included in the exhibition Melanesian art, which opened at the Gallery in April 1966.
In preparation for Melanesian art, Tony Tuckson and his wife Margaret spent three weeks in Papua New Guinea at the end of 1965, with the intention of not only building the Gallery’s collection through judicious acquisitions where possible, but also sourcing loans for the exhibition. The Tucksons spent almost a week on a houseboat travelling along the magnificent Sepik River, purchasing work from villagers and council and mission stations along the way. More than 100 works were acquired for both the Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, which had requested Tuckson acquire works on their behalf. Unfortunately, few of the works arrived in time for inclusion in Melanesian art, and Tuckson relied on loans from institutions across Australia, as well as the PNG National Museum in Port Moresby.
Melanesian artincluded works from the private collections of Australian artists Sidney Nolan, John Olsen and Douglas Watson, and encompassed the many and varied cultures of PNG, Western New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, as well as works from the Torres Strait. An astounding 127 works borrowed from the vast collection of Sydney collector Stan Moriarty was an important contribution to the success of the exhibition.
Moriarty and Tuckson met in the early 1960s and their mutual interest in Pacific art led to one of the most significant donations in the Gallery’s history. From 1968 until Moriarty’s death in 1978, over 500 works were acquired from his 5000-strong collection.
Melanesian art: reduxwill display eight of the New Guinea highlands works that Moriarty loaned to the 1966 exhibition, together with the final work that Tuckson collected in the field for the Gallery: a woven yupinifigure from the Enga region of the New Guinea highlands, purchased at the celebrated Mt Hagen Show in 1971. The display will also include a group of sago petiole paintings from the Keram River (a tributary of the Sepik), a selection of Sepik River ceramics, and an important urungwallsacred figure made by the Abelam people of the Maprik region, all of which were bought for the collection on Tuckson’s trip to the Sepik.
In a brief period of just nine years and with limited resources at his disposal, Tuckson assembled for the Gallery a collection of Pacific art that represented the breadth and diversity of the region, and his close friendship with Stan Moriarty left an enduring legacy with the Gallery’s New Guinea highlands collection recognised as perhaps the most important of its kind in the world.
This article was first published in the Art Gallery Society of NSW members’ magazine LOOKin November 2018.
Melanesian art: reduxwas held at the AGNSW from November 17 2018 until February 17 2019.