ART De­fy­ing Em­pire: 3rd Na­tional Indige­nous Art Tri­en­nial

Se­bas­tian Smee on De­fy­ing Em­pire: 3rd Na­tional Indige­nous Art Tri­en­nial

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

The dog stops you in your tracks. Ears askew, it sits on the floor in a high-ceilinged room at Can­berra’s Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia, and stares up at you with big, dole­ful, ac­cusatory eyes.

You might kick me, it seems to say,

but you will never sur­prise me.

The taxi­dermy dog has a tag on its col­lar: “Archie”. Its maker, Archie Moore, is a Bris­bane-based Kami­laroi man in his late 40s. So it is a self-por­trait, of sorts – and as woe­be­gone as any I’ve seen.

Moore’s stuffed dog ap­pears to­wards the end of De­fy­ing Em­pire: 3rd Na­tional Indige­nous Art Tri­en­nial (un­til 10 Septem­ber), an ex­hi­bi­tion that has al­ready, by the time you get to “Archie”, had its share of har­row­ing mo­ments. To the credit of its cu­ra­tor, Tina Baum, this overview of Aus­tralian Indige­nous art through the work of 30 artists feels real – wed­ded nei­ther to a ro­man­ti­cised idea of Abo­rig­i­nal cre­ativ­ity nor to the crude dis­tor­tions and sim­pli­fi­ca­tions of last night’s news. It is big, and at times over­whelm­ing. But it strikes a com­plex chord of won­der, in­ven­tion, anger and de­jec­tion.

De­fy­ing Em­pire marks the 50th an­niver­sary of the 1967 ref­er­en­dum that granted Abo­rig­i­nal and Torres Strait Is­lander peo­ple the right to be counted in the cen­sus and em­pow­ered the fed­eral par­lia­ment to leg­is­late specif­i­cally for them. As Vicki West, an Indige­nous Tas­ma­nian artist, writes in the ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­logue, “the out­come of the ref­er­en­dum tore away the veil of de­ceit that was the ‘myth of ex­tinc­tion’”.

But if the mark­ing of this an­niver­sary seems less than purely cel­e­bra­tory, it is be­cause the ref­er­en­dum’s legacy has been so mixed. The fed­eral power it es­tab­lished was in­tended to be used for the good of Abo­rig­i­nal and Torres Strait Is­lander peo­ple. But out­comes of the laws it en­abled have of­ten turned out the other way.

There is, as the Amer­i­can lit­er­ary critic Lionel Trilling wrote, some­thing in hu­man na­ture that leads us, “when once we have made our fel­low men the ob­jects of our en­light­ened in­ter­est, to go on to make them the ob­jects of our pity, then of our wis­dom, ul­ti­mately of our co­er­cion”. When it isn’t evinc­ing flat-out big­otry, the story of white Aus­tralia’s re­la­tions with the coun­try’s Indige­nous pop­u­la­tion of­ten ap­pears as one long and de­press­ingly lit­eral demon­stra­tion of Trilling’s in­sight.

Thank God, then, for art. De­fy­ing Em­pire is full of beau­ti­fully made things, sharp in­dict­ments and life-af­firm­ing dec­la­ra­tions,

al­most all of which pro­vide a nec­es­sary hu­man di­men­sion to tired pub­lic ab­strac­tions, and cor­rec­tives to in­grained habits of thought. The am­biva­lence of the great sym­bolic vic­tory of 1967 helps ac­count for the bit­ter­sweet tone of much of the work. As artist Dale Hard­ing writes in the cat­a­logue, “Pop­u­lar ver­sions of Aus­tralian his­to­ries are sup­ported by con­ve­nience. The bur­den of the truth is shoul­dered by those who are si­lenced.”

The same point is made more tren­chantly by Blak Dou­glas (aka Adam Hill). His LUCKY­coun­try is a se­ries of dig­i­tal prints in which col­lo­quial ex­pres­sions epit­o­mis­ing Aussie con­fi­dence and com­pla­cency – “TOO EASY”, “ALL GOOD”, “SWEET AS” – frame 19th-cen­tury doc­u­men­tary pho­to­graphs of Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple in steadily wors­en­ing predica­ments. Dou­glas has Dhun­gatti as well as Scot­tish, Ir­ish and Ger­man ances­try, and was born in Black­town. That sub­urb in west­ern Syd­ney was once the lo­ca­tion of the Black Town Na­tive In­sti­tu­tion, a colo­nial school for Abo­rig­i­nal chil­dren who were sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies by prac­tices that fore­shad­owed ab­hor­rent prac­tices (some of them well in­tended, but so what?) in the next cen­tury. The re­moval of chil­dren from their fam­i­lies was of­ten aimed specif­i­cally at mixed-race chil­dren, part of an at­tempt, as cu­ra­tor Djon Mun­dine writes in the cat­a­logue, to “break the gen­er­a­tional bond”, to “bleach out the black”.

At­tempts to di­lute Abo­rig­i­nal­ity, or to de­fine it out of ex­is­tence, are the sub­ject of many of the show’s most af­fect­ing works. Ray­mond Zada shows a video, At Face Value, in which the faces of men, women, girls and boys iden­ti­fy­ing as Indige­nous morph into one an­other. The va­ri­ety, the par­tic­u­lar­ity, the beauty of these faces all speak vol­umes. So do their steady, un­flinch­ing gazes. An­other work by Zada, race­book, co-opts the fa­mil­iar ty­pog­ra­phy of Face­book and fills each en­larged let­ter with taunts of the most hideous, an­ni­hi­lat­ing kind, al­most all re­lat­ing to racial “di­lu­tion”.

Brook An­drew, one of Aus­tralia’s most cel­e­brated con­tem­po­rary artists, does more than just rail against fixed iden­ti­ties and ab­surd, out­dated cat­e­gories. His work, both in his re­cent solo show at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria and here in Can­berra, moves beyond cat­e­gor­i­cal think­ing, coax­ing out a kind of swarm­ing mul­ti­me­dia aes­thetic that is haunted by the past yet res­o­lutely of the present. His two tri­par­tite can­vases, Re­veal­ing Dis­tance and Be­gin­ning of the Shape (Mor­pho­gen­e­sis), are among the show’s clear stand-outs. “We ex­ist as mul­ti­ples like we have never ex­isted be­fore,” writes An­drew in a state­ment in the cat­a­logue. And al­though “we are the sum of our An­ces­tors”, nonethe­less “we are not yes­ter­day, we are to­day”.

Some of the artists, who, like An­drew, are based in the city, make the kind of con­cep­tual work that pre­vails in con­tem­po­rary art in­ter­na­tion­ally. And yet they re­main beguiled by the idea of Coun­try. Syd­ney’s Jonathan Jones, for in­stance, has made a se­ries of works that doc­tor his­tor­i­cal prints of colo­nial towns and prop­er­ties es­tab­lished in Wi­rad­juri coun­try. In an act of imag­i­na­tive recla­ma­tion that is more vis­ually sub­tle and emo­tion­ally af­fect­ing than it sounds, Jones has re­placed build­ings and other struc­tures with Wi­rad­juri murru (de­sign) – re­peat­ing di­a­monds, chevrons and ra­di­at­ing lines that des­ig­nate cer­e­mo­nial ar­eas and other forms of cul­tural knowl­edge.

An­other ur­ban artist, Reko Ren­nie, was pro­voked by sto­ries he heard of Aus­tralian pas­toral­ists in the early 1900s driv­ing Rolls-Royces and Bent­leys to church, leav­ing the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple who worked for them lan­guish­ing in poverty back on the sta­tion. “It made me think of my grand­mother, Ju­lia,” writes Ren­nie in the cat­a­logue, “and how she was also en­slaved on pas­toral sta­tions and mis­sions due to for­mer gov­ern­ment poli­cies.”

Ren­nie has an idea: he buys a vin­tage Rolls-Royce, hand­paints it with tra­di­tional Kami­laroi and con­tem­po­rary cam­ou­flage de­signs, and drives it from Mel­bourne, where he grew up, to Kami­laroi land, in north­ern New South

Wales. “[I] thrash the Rolls-Royce on Coun­try,” he ex­plains in the cat­a­logue, “cre­at­ing donuts on the land.” His good work done, he re­turns to his “other home” – the city. All this is shown in a short, de­light­ful video – a sort of con­densed road movie. The ac­tual Rolls-Royce, mean­while, graces the NGA’s lobby.

Ren­nie’s donuts don’t just ex­press the an­ar­chic, mad de­fi­ance of donuts ev­ery­where. They also al­lude to tra­di­tional Kami­laroi sand en­grav­ings. And so there is a con­nec­tion be­tween them and Jones’ doc­tored prints. Both are acts of recla­ma­tion and re­pair, sym­bolic by na­ture and acutely aware of their own con­tin­gency.

Ren­nie’s is not the only work that has a sense of hu­mour. But the mood of the ex­hi­bi­tion as a whole is an­gry, and – as the ti­tle an­nounces – de­fi­ant. Given the ob­sta­cles Aus­tralia’s Indige­nous peo­ple have faced and con­tinue to face, this should come as no sur­prise. There are va­ri­eties of beauty, too, each brought to a pitch of in­ten­sity that is hum­bling. The great Tiwi clan leader Pe­dro Won­aeamirri paints so­phis­ti­cated geo­met­ric de­signs de­rived from scar­i­fi­ca­tion and body paint­ing in nat­u­ral pig­ments on can­vas. Nong­gir­rnga Marawili, from Yir­rkala in north-east Arn­hem Land, paints ab­stracted im­ages – re­laxed, me­an­der­ing, not har­ried or forced – of sea spray and rocks cov­ered in bar­na­cles. “You may spy on me and think I am paint­ing sa­cred things,” she says in a dis­arm­ing state­ment in the cat­a­logue. “This would be a lie.”

There is both beauty and ma­te­rial nov­elty in the neck­laces of Lola Greeno, a ma­tri­arch and mas­ter artisan from Prickly Bot­tom on Cape Bar­ren Is­land in Bass Strait. “You’ve al­ways got to be grounded in your own cul­ture,” says Greeno, who learned her craft from her mother, her

grand­mother and her mother-in-law, and whose neck­laces are made from maireener shells, scal­lop shells, echidna quills, kan­ga­roo ver­te­brae and ca­sua­r­ina nuts.

And there’s a unique vigour in the large-scale wall sculp­tures, made from wood, feath­ers, plas­tic and pearl shell, by the cel­e­brated Torres Strait Is­lander Ken Thai­day Se­nior. Thai­day is in­spired, he writes, by his father’s chore­og­ra­phy, his totems (the shark and the frigate­bird), and by God.

Archie Moore’s taxi­dermy dog is an­other kind of totem, I sup­pose, and one I keep re­turn­ing to in my mind. The dog is black – al­though ap­par­ently not “black” enough. It has been duly dark­ened with boot pol­ish (a medium that is, thanks to black­face and min­strelsy, as redo­lent of race as they come).

The term “black dog” is also, of course, syn­ony­mous with de­pres­sion. And so it is in this sense as much as in the bit­ter ref­er­ence to skin colour that Moore’s self­por­trait feels so painfully hon­est. The sui­cide rate of Indige­nous peo­ple, who make up about 3.3% of Aus­tralia’s pop­u­la­tion, is more than dou­ble that of non-Indige­nous Aus­tralians. This statis­tic gets worse when you break it down by age: for Indige­nous chil­dren aged 5 to 17, the rate is five times higher.

Statis­tics are just num­bers. They of­ten re­move us from the re­al­ity of ac­tual lives. In their very ghast­li­ness they can re­in­force the dis­tance non-Indige­nous Aus­tralians feel from their Indige­nous broth­ers and sis­ters. In count­less dif­fer­ent ways, the works in De­fy­ing Em­pire help with the task of try­ing to bridge this dis­tance. They re­mind us not only of the his­tor­i­cal causes of Indige­nous de­spair but also of the many mov­ing ways in which de­spair can be, and has been, over­come.

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