Tell – Simon Brigden
Now entering its 13th year, the ‘Ballarat International Foto Biennale’ (BIFB) is one of Australia’s foremost fairs of contemporary national and international photography. The ambitious 2017 program will be held over six primary venues and more than 80 public spaces, such as cafes and wine bars, across the Victorian city. The diversity of BIFB’s activated sites is matched by the thematic range of its program; ‘Self/Selfie’ investigates the role of the titular image in society; ‘#Dysturb’ showcases the work of international photojournalists seeking to short-circuit the 24-hour news cycle and ‘David LaChapelle’ is the first Australian solo exhibition of the American photographer. Amongst this flurry of activity sits ‘Tell’, an exhibition of contemporary photography by Indigenous Australian artists. ‘Tell’ is curated by Palawa woman Jessica Clark, a curator and tutor at Melbourne’s RMIT University who recently completed the Australia Council Professional Development Program at the 2017 Venice Biennale. ‘Tell’ includes the work of 17 artists who consider both the medium of photography and Indigenous stories. Its original and diverse photographic methods and narratives promise to enrich our understanding of the field of
contemporary Indigenous art in Australia. Clark sees photography as an “empowering medium for Indigenous artists to tell their stories,” with the works in the exhibition a “celebration of Indigenous presence, survival and resistance.”
Artists have directly responded to these themes through either commissioned or pre-existing pieces. The curator’s particular selection of artists, who range from the emerging to the more established, also suggest that ‘Tell’ will be a unique opportunity to view practices from across the professional spectrum. We will see work from Moorina Bonini, Maree Clarke, Bindi Cole Chocka, Brenda L Croft, Destiny Deacon, Robert Fielding, Deanne Gilson, Jody Haines, Dianne Jones, Ricky Maynard, Hayley Millar-Baker, Kent Morris, Pitcha Makin Fellas, Steven Rhall, Damien Shen, Warwick Thornton and James Tylor. Between the group, there are those who experiment with holographic projections, combine the photograph with archival material, and present more traditional items such as gelatin silver prints. ‘Tell’s’ celebration of Indigeneity combined with expanding photography’s horizons serves to challenge “people’s ideas about Indigenous art,” explained the curator.
Steven Rhall, a Taungurung man born on Wathaurong Country, presents a new and conceptual work commissioned for the exhibition. His sculpture responds to the expanded field of photography, looking at how sacred Indigenous sites, especially scar trees, are photographed by non-indigenous people (and tourists in particular). More broadly, Clark pinpoints how Rhall interrogates “the history of Indigenous people behind the colonial lens,” an approach the artist labels, an “essentialist and existentialist positionality.” As such, Rhall questions how Indigenous voices and cultural objects are engaged with in contemporary society, while reimagining the physical and conceptual limits of what can be said to be photography.
Dianne Jones is an emerging multi-disciplinary artist based in Melbourne. She is a PhD candidate at the Victorian College of the Arts. The visual research project she is undertaking as part of her studies is the source of her work in ‘Tell’. Jones is researching historical colonial archives, scouring such records for mentions of a specific cold case murder. By doing so the artist draws attention to the “fictional or the imaginary in history” and aims to “uncover the truth that hasn’t been told or has been obscured by these records.” The historical record is upended and called into question through photography – the very medium that we, naively, trust to truthfully capture light and life.
With a large part of Ballarat, its footprint and people, being absorbed into the Biennale’s sphere of activity, the poignant and challenging stories in ‘Tell’ are an opportunity to contemplate history while considering how togetherness within Australia might be accomplished beyond the exhibition itself. Clark hopes audiences will engage with the stories and the complex photographic practices these artists represent: “I think it’s really important that these stories are told and understood, and that we can come together and understand together, and that people get a new appreciation of photography and what photography can be.”
Ballarat International Foto Biennale The Mining Exchange Until 17 September, 2017 Victoria
Bindi Cole, Fertility 1, 2017, pigment print on rag paper, 80 x 120cm Courtesy the artist and Ballarat International Foto Biennale, Victoria