Red Hand prints

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Red Hand prints


Butler, Roger

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Red Hand Prints
by Roger Butler

When the National Gallery of Australia opened its doors in 1982, displaying Indigenous Australian art in art galleries it was still considered innovative. Two decades later, works of art by Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders are acknowledged nationally and internationally in exhibitions and permanent displays.

Prints by Indigenous Australian artists may not have attracted the same glamour as painting, but the very fact that these works are editioned and can be sold comparatively cheaply has led to a wide and popular market both in Australia and overseas.

The production of prints by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is now big business. The most prominent producers in the Top End are Northern Editions at the Northern Territory University, Basil Hall Editions at Darwin, and the roving Theo Tremblay based at Bungendore, New South Wales.

Red Hand Prints, by comparison, is low key. But over the years it has worked with many of the most prominent Indigenous artists and has facilitated some of their finest work.

Getting into Prints
The Northern Territory was not always a big producer. Up until 1993 most Aboriginal artists producing prints did so in the southern states. Port Jackson Press in Melbourne, Studio One and the Canberra School of Art in the ACT were particularly active. The University of the Northern Territory had virtually no contact with the local Aboriginal communities in the late 1980s; under the direction of the English academic Brian McDonald, the Art Department was a bastion of English colonial thought. Some printmaking was taught at the local Community College and individuals such as Chips Mackinolty, Marie McMahon and Ray Young worked with Aboriginal communities.

The symposium Getting into Prints, A Symposium on Aboriginal Printmaking, held at the University in April 1993, was a watershed. Proposed by community art advisers, it was a joint initiative of the Association of Northern and Central Australian Aboriginal Artists and the School of Fine Arts. Supported by ATSIC, it was convened by Tim Smith and Steve Anderson. The 11 papers that were presented covered topics including print history (in relation to Indigenous Australians), printing in the bush, ethics, marketing and health and safety issues. There were also three exhibitions of prints by Indigenous Australians and print workshops for some of the many Indigenous people who attended.

These workshops were held in the recently completed printmaking facilities at the Casuarina Campus. The new building was light and airy, specially designed to take advantage of its location. The workshop was run by Dale Flemming, Leon Stainer was the technician. They were later joined by Franck Gohier who was employed as a part-time lecturer after completing his degree in 1992.

These were heady days, Stainer, Gohier and George Watts working closely together, with the common goal of establishing an Indigenous printmaking workshop at the University.

"During these first three or so years it was a challenging, new and exciting period… where we explored many different issues of print-ethics, techniques and mediums to facilitate the collaborative process of printmaking/editioning with Aboriginal artists… We wanted to create prints in collaboration with artists that had as little impact from the printmaker as possible by allowing every autographic mark of the artist to translate to the finished image".

The culmination of these early years was Printabout, 198*, an exhibition of lithographs, etchings and linocut prints by Indigenous artists from the Northern Territory University Art Collection. The inaugural exhibition of Artback NETS NT, it toured nationally to 76 venues. Stainer, Gohier or Watts printed all the 34 works in the exhibition.

The national reduction in university funding around 1996 resulted in changes to the running of the print workshop. Some part-time positions were abolished (including those of Gohier and Watts) and the editioning side needed to become more self-sufficient. Basil Hall (from Studio One) was appointed Manager of the “N.T. University print workshop”. Dunart, as the workshop was renamed, began to work more closely with publishers and distributors and retailing. A new name for the workshop - Northern Editions – was suggested and agreed upon in 198*

Red Hand 1997
Red Hand was established by Franck Gohier and Shaun Poustie in 1997 as “an open access studio that offered expert tuition for the community and a professional editioning programme to the numerous Aboriginal communities throughout the Kimberleys, the Tiwi Islands, Arnhem Land and Central Australia”. It was initially located at “Art Space” Coonawarra Rd., Winnellie, moving to a new purpose built studio at Albatross Rd., Winnellie in 1999.

The name Red Hand, has of course local references, in the stencilled hand prints found on rock faces across the Top End. But for Gohier, the name has added significance, linking the age-old cave images in his home region of France, with his adopted land

But in recent Australian print history, the word Red has other connotations; this is the political tradition of the alternative print/poster workshops such as Redback Graphix, Permanent Red and Red Planet. Based in Melbourne and Sydney these workshops worked collaboratively with communities, producing posters, prints and book and other graphic design items. All had produced work for Indigenous communities.

Gohier’s father was a union leader in Paris during the late 1960s. During the demonstrations of May 1968, communally produced posters played a major role in demands for social change and their use acted as a catalyst for political poster production in Australia.

After leaving the University in 1996, Gohier worked with local communities establishing a highly successful art programme at Berrimah Prison (which has a disproportionate, indigenous population) in collaboration with Correctional Servies, 24 HR Art. Shaun Poustie also came from this social/political tradition, having worked with Redplanet posters in Melbourne.

Their commitment to the local community continued with Red Hand, profits being

"ploughed back into buying ink and paper to create posters for Jabiluka protesters, free East Timor campaigners, Aboriginal rights lobbyists and anybody else who wanted to voice their community concerns in the Darwin region who felt marginalised by over 20 years of conservative government in the Northern Territory.

The posters allowed us a great deal of freedom to voice these concerns and also facilitated the exploration of of our personal interests in the graphic arts. It created a healthy balance between collaborating on other peoples work while maintaining our own practice. We also always stipulated that Red Hand would only work with and employ the exclusive skills of practising artists".

But the overriding concern of Red Hand was the production of prints in collaboration with the Indigenous community. Gohier believed that the increasing demands for the workshop at the University to be self-sufficient and its expansion from collaborator, to edition printer and print publisher and finally retailer, had led to a more market-driven product; that the prints had been cleaned-up, to make them more acceptable for the buying public. (This is an observation that has also been made of other print workshops, both in Australia and overseas, that control production and publication). Red Hand [these] issues were of utmost importance and so George, Shaun and myself decided that the editions that we collaborated on would be unadulterated and would include every fingerprint of the artist, as did our earlier collaborations at the NTU.

Secondly we felt that we would not sell or purchase any prints ourselves. Red Hand was based with a group ideology based on teaching and empowering Artists, particularly Aboriginal Artists. We would only work with artists and dealers through the appropriate community art centre co-ordinators so that any income generated could be injected directly back to the artists.

The decision to set up a print workshop was based on technical as well as ideological reasons. Gohier was skilled in intaglio and relief printing, (screenprinting had not been taught at the University since 1988 due to toxicity), while Poustie was a skilled screenprinter (his Melbourne business was called Studio Ink Works), and had experience with non-toxic inks. Their collaboration would involve sharing of their knowledge, teaching each other and experimenting with process that suited their location and client communities.

Simple technical innovations could alter the way artists worked. For instance when Gohier recounts that while at NTU collaborating with Warmun community artist Rover Thomas “the artist could not visualise how the black sugar lift solution he was using on his etching plate would become a red ochre print. So I simply made three different batches of sugar lift solution using black, yellow ochre and red ochre pigment. Problem solved.”

This same principle was applied to create a range of coloured blockout opaques for screen-printing. These allowed the artist to see what the final print would look like as they painted on the sequential layers of mylar. Red Hand collaborated with Avant-Guarde Art Supplies (who had a shop in the same building at “Art Space”) and the blockout solution was marketed as “Hemi opaques”.

The problem of toxicity associated with traditional screenprinting (particularly the solvents used) was also tackled. Poustie had worked with water-based inks in Melbourne but conditions in Darwin necessitated different formulas. Together with Avant-Guarde they pooled their experience and knowledge to produce water-based screenprinting inks “specifically tailored to our climate in the Top End. These inks need to keep moist and not dry out in the screen during our ‘Dry’ windy season and they need to be archival, light fast pigments with mould inhibitors for our extremely humid ‘wet’ season”. This Hemi range of colours, match the range of Hemi opaques, eliminating the often serendipitous “colour matching”, that had often taken place between the painting of the separations and printing.

The Hemi range of products were named after Pousties car – a bright red, Valiant Hemi coupe which sports a large mural on the roof by Melville Island artist Glen Farmer Illortarmani. Perhaps this is an indication of Red Hands sense of self. They were never inclined to take themselves too seriously.

In 1999 Poustie, moved to Sydney to commence studies at the Sydney College of the Arts, and now Gohier is also feeling the lure to once more immerse himself in his own work. The future of Red Hand might be uncertain, but its achievements are not. Over the years it has facilitated the production of some of the finest prints by indigenous Australians and generously passed on the skills of production to the community at large. Gohier writes we

Wanted to teach as many people “out bush” and locally, as we could to make prints and set up their own studios. We wanted to do this to undermine the need for institutions and “experts” and therefore we would gauge our success by the eventual collapse of Red Hand ... We wanted printmaking to be demystified and accessible to anybody who cared for the medium we love.

© Roger Butler
Senior Curator, Australian Prints and Posters
National Gallery of Australia.

All quotes are from letters and discussions with Franck Gohier.


Last Updated

13 Aug 2012