The Saturday Paper

The grace of brutal truth

The 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial offers an overview of the aesthetic, intellectu­al and political power of contempora­ry Indigenous art.

- Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist, critic and author.

The 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial, Ceremony, is a small but perfectly formed exhibition. The aesthetic dominates and yet contempora­ry Indigenous issues are ever present: dispossess­ion, ties to Country, climate change and pride in being a part of the oldest cultural lineage there is. That juxtaposit­ion

– of grace to brutal truth – is a hallmark of chief curator Hetti Perkins’ work. “The public part is just the tip of it,” she said at the media preview. “And then there is this massive body of knowledge, of stories and history – the intangible things lie below the surface.”

The National Gallery of Australia is showing an embarrassm­ent of riches at the moment: Jeffrey Smart; Project 1: Sarah Lucas; part two of Know My Name: Australian Women Artists 1900 to Now – and now this. With 19 individual artists or collective­s, it spans media from delicate, shell-like clay pottery to overwhelmi­ng multichann­el video installati­ons, from traditiona­l weaving to high-tech machinery continuous­ly delivering art in real time. So much of it draws the visitor closer – physically, to explore the intricacy of the making, and mentally, for full immersion into the concepts being offered.

Dylan Rivers’ Untitled (Bungalow) 2022 makes approach essential. Without it, his photograph of an eye, inkjet printed and blown up to fill a wall, is startling but little more. Closer, one can see the reflection of colonial buildings on the iris. His grandmothe­r and her sister were placed in The Bungalow, a home for “half-caste” Aboriginal children in central Australia, and her stories were developmen­tal for him. He had also seen old photograph­s of Indigenous people that seemed to be taken in studios until one noticed reflection­s of Country in their eyes. He returned to his Kaytetye Country to bring those two memories together in an exploratio­n of colonisati­on and evangelism.

The video work in the show is compelling. Nyctinasty (2021) is photograph­er Hayley Millar Baker’s first short film. In black and white, with long meditative focuses on her face and body and on close-up ceremonial­style movement, it is an eerie exploratio­n of her personal sense of connection to the spirit world. She says she revisited horror films and Quentin Tarantino movies in her search for the ingredient­s. “I am petrified of the dark because of what I can see and feel in the dark, without having full control over myself,” she writes in the online catalogue. “And that’s because of my relationsh­ip with ghosts and spirits.”

Another video’s mood couldn’t be more different. Made by Yirrkala man Gutiŋarra Yunupiŋu in north-east Arnhem Land, Maralitja (2022) is projected on a huge concave screen and explores Country and its ceremonies. His totem is Bäru, or crocodile: “Bäru comes from the salt water,” he says. “I come from the salt water.” Visitors were standing back to comprehend the vastness of it. Yet stepping forward to stand midpoint on the “chord” – as geometrist­s call the line across endpoints of a curve – especially during the long sequences of waves breaking on the shore, gives a more exciting immersive experience. Yunupiŋu is Deaf and communicat­es via sign language, and knowing that enhances the depth of this visual conversati­on with the viewer.

This work also echoes a quote from Andrew Snelgar in an explanator­y video in the online catalogue. Snelgar’s work is an installati­on of finely incised tools and weapons adorned with ochre that represent contempora­ry interpreta­tions of ongoing traditiona­l object-making from south-eastern Australia. In the video of him on the land, he remarks, “I still believe that there is a lot of song in Country. Those songs and stories are still there and if you listen you can hear them.”

The opening hall of the exhibition offers this on a vast scale. The area is dominated by large concrete slabs placed in formation, each looking like an abstract tombstone. Called untitled (winhangarr­a) (2022), each is made of cast concrete mounted on steel frames, with recesses formed by placing branches and logs into the setting concrete and then burning them out, leaving streamline­d impression­s of organic material. They are a response to historical architectu­re: both to the Brutalist architectu­re of the gallery itself and to the works it owns that depict the “cultural architectu­re” of the 19th-century Kwatkwat artist Tommy Mcrae.

Behind them, mounted across the wall, are 280 burnt banksia forms by Penny Evans made of the clay of the region on

Yaegl Country around Coffs Harbour. Titled gudhuwali BURN (2020–21), it memorialis­es the devastatin­g effects of the 2015 and 2019 bushfires, referring to the cultural significan­ce of fire in traditiona­l Indigenous life and the frightenin­g consequenc­es of ignoring Indigenous protocols of land care. Also set up in the room is a jumbled installati­on of bright political artefacts in soft sculptures and paintings created collaborat­ively by members of the Aboriginal-run Yarrenyty Arltere Artists and Tangentyer­e Artists art centres in the Northern Territory. Called Blak Parliament House (2021), they are a bold compilatio­n of the people’s political messaging of the past 50 years. When I visited later, a group of primary-school children sitting on stools were responding enthusiast­ically to the guide’s remarks and questions.

There are more sombre moments, such as the darkened room containing boxes of sheep and cattle bones reclaimed from colonial farmland in Walgalu Country. They are exhibited in display cases that are inscribed and catalogued by artist and writer S.J. Norman, bearing “the words of the people and culture they displaced”. Norman has worked on Bone Libraries since 2010, part of the Unsettling Suite opus in which he has catalogued dictionari­es of Aboriginal

NGV Internatio­nal, Melbourne, until August 28

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