De­fy­ing Em­pire – Yolande Norris

Art Almanac - - CONTENTS - Yolande Norris

“We defy by ex­ist­ing” was a re­sound­ing mes­sage from cu­ra­tor Tina Baum at the un­veil­ing of ‘De­fy­ing Em­pire: 3rd Na­tional In­dige­nous Art Tri­en­nial’ at the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia. It’s de­fi­ance clear from the out­set, her­alded by Reko Rennie’s video in­stal­la­tion OA_RR, 2017. Tak­ing con­trol be­hind the wheel of a vividly painted vin­tage Rolls Royce, Rennie ca­reens over the land­scape, turn­ing burnouts in the red dust, leav­ing clouds to set­tle. The video sets a tone that sim­mers be­neath the work of the tri­en­nial’s 30 artists across a di­verse ar­ray of me­dia; an elec­tric­ity, a ten­sion and as­sertive­ness.

Through­out there is a di­rect­ness of in­tent and bold­ness of scale – with works of great size, skill and struc­tural com­plex­ity. Pieces by master weaver Yvonne Kool­ma­trie, shell neck­laces by Lola Greeno and the com­mand­ing Eastern Is­land War­rior head­dress (2014) by Ken Thai­day Snr are im­me­di­ate ex­am­ples of cul­tural prac­tice in deft con­tem­po­rary mo­tion.

Early on the show be­gins to ex­am­ine the strength in recla­ma­tion – or a RE FOR­MA­TION, in keep­ing with the ti­tle of Me­gan Cope’s elo­quent in­stal­la­tion – form­ing new nar­ra­tives and read­ings of his­tory and the present. Re­cent works by Jonathan Jones, Brook An­drew and Tony

Al­bert are ar­rest­ing with al­ter­nate in­ter­pre­ta­tions of his­toric im­agery and ephemera. Oth­ers, in­clud­ing Ray­mond Zada, scru­ti­nise, dis­rupt and in­ter­rupt mat­ters of race and iden­tity in the dig­i­tal age and era of image sat­u­ra­tion. As out­lined in the ac­com­pa­ny­ing wall text, “By re­sist­ing rigid no­tions of what In­dige­nous art is, re­fus­ing pop­ulist views of his­tory and challenging stereo­types, artists con­tinue to use their art as vis­ual tools of re­sis­tance, re­plac­ing phys­i­cal weaponry with wit, satire and jux­ta­po­si­tion to chal­lenge and con­front.”

Archie Moore’s in­ter­pre­ta­tions of flags of po­lit­i­cal sym­bol­ism, such as Abo­rig­i­nal Anar­chy (2012) gal­vanise all around them in a col­lec­tive call to arms. An­other sug­ges­tion of up­ris­ing comes from the use of found ma­te­ri­als, as if build­ing from the ma­te­ri­al­ity or de­tri­tus of ‘em­pire’ it­self. Karla Dick­ens reimag­ines the Aus­tralian flag in Tak­ing back the Stars (2016), pro­ject­ing re­silience and a sense of ‘mend and make do’. She writes in her artist state­ment, “To protest as an in­di­vid­ual, art is my voice—yet walk­ing and stand­ing along­side oth­ers smooths the pow­er­less­ness.”

In the fi­nal spa­ces the mood be­comes more som­bre, around the theme ‘bear­ing wit­ness’. The works, while still pre­dom­i­nantly large in scale, be­come qui­eter, more med­i­ta­tive and touch on the muse­o­log­i­cal. Through map­ping, Judy Wat­son looks at the names of places (2016), how his­tory is or isn’t recorded in ar­chives and ac­counts. Daniel Boyd’s large-scale paint­ing Un­ti­tled (DOC) (2016) is an op­por­tu­nity for com­pre­hend­ing the gaps in what is known. Laid out as a fo­cal point are the al­most fu­ne­real dresses of Black days in the Daw­son River Coun­try – Re­mem­brance Gowns (2016) by Dale Hard­ing. These gar­ments pro­vide a con­stant, un­set­tling pres­ence.

Co­in­cid­ing with the 50-year an­niver­sary of the 1967 ref­er­en­dum, ‘De­fy­ing Em­pire’ is less cel­e­bra­tion as it is a poignant and harsh re­minder of wrong­do­ing and the ap­pallingly lit­tle that has been done since. To en­ter ‘De­fy­ing Em­pire’ with this aware­ness threads all works with an ur­gency and grav­ity that can’t be de­nied. For this mo­ment in time, the pur­pose of art is ir­refutable, as is the pur­pose of a Na­tional Gallery.

It is ex­cit­ing to see the whole foyer space of the gallery’s ma­jor wing utilised for the pre­sen­ta­tion. In fact the Na­tional In­dige­nous Art Tri­en­nial works spill out into the in­sti­tu­tion more widely: Rennie’s Rolls Royce, the very same seen in his video, stands guard at the main en­trance. Yhon­nie Scarce’s as­tound­ing glass in­stal­la­tion Thun­der Rain­ing Poi­son (2015) over­sees en­try to the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion. Laud­ably, en­try to ‘De­fy­ing Em­pire’ is free and the ab­sence of an ac­com­pa­ny­ing shop, into which vis­i­tors are usu­ally cor­ralled upon ex­it­ing ma­jor shows, en­ables the viewer to take the full force of what they have seen with them, keep­ing the art fresh in the mind and heart, rather than di­luted by com­mer­cial cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion. Fit­tingly, one of the fi­nal works is Fiona Fo­ley’s large, sweep­ing wall and floor sculp­ture I.O.U. (2016). The sen­ti­ment is apt and cut­ting.

‘De­fy­ing Em­pire’ is fierce, un­com­pro­mis­ing and im­pact­ful. The tri­en­nial is es­sen­tial view­ing, and a rich space in which to lis­ten and learn.

Yolande Norris is a writer and pro­ducer work­ing be­tween Can­berra and the re­gional town of Braid­wood, New South Wales.

Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia Un­til 10 Septem­ber, 2017 Aus­tralian Cap­i­tal Ter­ri­tory

Yvonne Kool­ma­trie, River Dream­ing, 2012 Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia, Can­berra Pur­chased 2016

In­stal­la­tion view: Tony Al­bert, Thou didst let fall, 2014, wood, plastic, metal, fab­ric, pa­per and twine, Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia, Can­berra. Courtesy the artist and Sul­li­van+Strumpf, Syd­ney. Me­gan Cope, RE FOR­MA­TION, 2017, il­menite and con­crete, Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia, Can­berra. Me­gan Cope, RE FOR­MA­TION, 2017, sil­ica sand and alu­minium, Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia, Can­berra. Brook An­drew, Be­gin­ning of the shape (Mor­pho­gen­e­sis), 2016. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Ox­ley9 Gallery, Syd­ney

Reko Rennie, OA_RR, 2017, 3-chan­nel high-def­i­ni­tion film, sound, du­ra­tion 8 mins Photograph: Justin McManus Courtesy the artist and Blackart­pro­jects Courtesy Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia, Aus­tralian Cap­i­tal Ter­ri­tory

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