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Artbank and DFAT: A Long and Distanced Relationship

Since its inception in 1980, Artbank has been leasing artworks to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) for display in many Australian diplomatic missions and posts across the world. Artbank’s partnership with DFAT is a long distance relationship that has grown with numerous artwork exchanges and thousands of air miles, helping to showcase Australian contemporary visual art to the world. Artbank artworks enable the sharing of ideas, identities, cultures and arts practices and can open a dialogue when there is no shared language. Art can be instrumental in fostering mutual understanding and building relationships. Through art we can see ourselves and see others, and define our place in the world and the values we hold in it.

Australia’s rich and diverse arts sector is an enormous asset to our international relations, especially Australia’s Indigenous artists whose voice can shine the light on traditions, trade routes, and cultural ties, tens of thousands of years older than any being discussed in today’s news.

Artbank currently has nearly 1000 artworks placed in 70 diplomatic posts across the world. From the Cook Islands to Mongolia, from London to Cairo, Artbank artworks play a vital role in our international relations while bringing joy and a little piece of home to far-off shores. 

Ambassadors and their staff regularly approach Artbank to view the extensive collection and to piece together a story that tells of Australia’s vibrant contemporary arts culture, our Indigenous history of many millennia, as well as the more recent rich multicultural connections that make up our society and tether us to nations across the globe.

Like Australia, China has a sophisticated artistic tradition going back thousands of years. This was an important connection to make when Beijing Embassy Manager of Public Diplomacy, Sarah Schmidt, along with Artbank consultant, Courtney Kidd, curated the collection of Artbank artworks to be featured in the Australian Ambassador’s official residence in Beijing.

The Australian Embassy in Beijing has always featured a wonderful array of contemporary art from the Artbank Collection thanks to the leasing program. This new selection was a celebration of this long-standing relationship.

Dr Sarah Schmidt, explains "These artworks represent remarkable contemporary Australian painters, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, such as Rachael Mipantjiti Lionel (b.1976) and Phillip Wolfhagen (b.1963) among others.

The way that Rachael Mipantjiti Lionel’s 2018 Dreaming painting ‘Kapi Wankanya’ and Wolfhagen’s Tasmanian landscape, ‘Sixth Illumination’ (1996) relate in the installation, is notable: Indigenous and non-Indigenous works, of differing landscape traditions in conversation, each with a painterly style that is somewhat intangible or evocative.

Rachael Mipantjiti, Lionel Kapi Wankanya, 2018

Rachael Mipantjiti Lionel, Kapi Wankanya, 2018

The selection also includes some key figures representative of the development of Australian Aboriginal art, such as George Milpurrurru ‘Garr - Spiders’ (1983) for bark painting and Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri ‘Untitled (Women’s Dreaming)’ (1985) for the Western Desert art movement.”

The Artbank collection celebrates Australia’s multicultural arts sector which in turn reflects Australia’s diverse population. Chinese Australian artists have long played a part in our national and international arts scene. In another recent collaboration with Artbank and DFAT’s  National Foundation for Australia-China Relations, a number of Chinese Australian artists -  Guan Wei, Dongwang Fan, Louise Zhang -  were curated alongside Australian Indigenous artists Keith Stevens, Ginger Wikilyiri and Dhambit Mununggurr. Another artist who featured in the selection was Jason Wing with his work ‘Parramatta Dreaming.’ Wing’s father is Chinese and his mother is an Aboriginal woman from the Biripi people in the Upper Hunter region of New South Wales. In his art practice, Wing pulls apart his own bi-cultural identity, Indigenous political identity, environmental awareness and exploration of street art culture. His work is edgy and contemporary and uses motifs from both of the ancient cultures he straddles. The selection of Artbank artworks celebrate this unique cultural relationship between China and Australia.

Jason Wing Parramatta River Dreaming, 2010

Jason Wing, Parramatta River Dreaming, 2010

Although not always the top criteria for collecting, Artbank curators will often consider the cultural ties an artist or an artwork may have with our International Embassies. The recent acquisition of Yolngu artist Dhuwarrwarr Marika is an incredible contemporary work that references the very first trade relations between the Yolngu people on North East Arhnem land and Makassan sailors from Indonesia. Marika paints the Makassan swords and long knives that were traded for ‘trepang’, (sea cucumbers). This retelling of these early cross cultural exchanges are told defiantly throughout Yolngu and Makassan stories and also act as a modern day reminder of the cultural connections to our closest neighbours.

“Yolngu invited the Makassan people to their camp and explained to them who they were. Makassans explained who they were and why they came. In their heart they were Yolngu people. The Makassan taught the Yolngu their song and traditions and the Yolngu taught the Makassan their culture and law and tradition.” – Dhuwarrwarr Marika, artist statement, Telstra National Indigenous and Islander Art Award, Museum and Art Gallery Northern Territory, 2019.

Dhuwarrwarr Marika, Makassan swords and long knives, 2019

Dhuwarrwarr Marika, Makassan swords and long knives, 2019

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) was Artbank’s first client and, to this day, is its largest. Artbank and DFAT work together to ensure Australian contemporary art is represented in our embassies and high commissions across the world and helps foster important creative exchanges between countries. Artbank is proud of its role in foreign diplomacy, deepening cultural connections and raising awareness of our vibrant arts culture. Something Artbank will continue to celebrate during its 40th anniversary year.

Dr Sarah Schmidt is an Australian curator and public gallery director of twenty years experience who has curated this selection from the Artbank collection, as Manager Public Diplomacy, The Australian Embassy, Beijing. She was previously Director of Hamilton Gallery and Deputy Director of the Art Gallery of Ballarat.

Being an international curator, Sarah found Artbank's extensive database indispensable, being able from her office in Beijing to select works to represent our nation in China. Sarah expressed being very pleased with the tremendously efficient assistance of Courtney Kidd and Zoë Rodrigeuz who ensured the timely delivery of artworks to China to fit the Embassy’s timelines.