Bigger than ourselves
A sense of chaos exists when beginning the development of a non-thematic, multi-venue group exhibition such as The National. This chaos is in the shape of the project; in the approach; in the collaboration; and, of course, in the times in which we are living. Writing this text – while numerous artworks are still only ideas spoken aloud and collaborators shift and change – feels much the same. The National 4: Australian Art Now at Campbelltown Arts Centre (C-A-C) began with conversations between artists, colleagues, and organisations. Contemporary artistic practice evolves, as it always has, in line with the circumstances of contemporary life. What was clear to me in those early conversations was that the cumulative effect of recent years could not be ignored when considering the Australian contemporary.
The constant, devastating reminders of climate change, ongoing impacts of colonisation, political and economic turmoil, a virus, and more, continue to push Australians to see behind the curtain. We see division and inaction; we see inequality across communities, cities, and society in general. Artists have always pushed us to look behind this curtain. Through personal stories they elucidate profound matters, telling stories of who we are, forcing our engagement, and shifting our perspectives. As discussion surrounding the development and reintroduction of a National Cultural Policy, missing for many years, continues, it is the constant and untiring work of artists to interrogate the contemporary that must be supported.
This fourth iteration of The National exhibition project is the first in a larger partnership form, expanding from its focus in the centre of Sydney into Western Sydney through the inclusion of C-A-C. This shift is an important step, bridging a gap which continues to grow starker while welcoming greater and more diverse audiences and, therefore, stories. As an exhibition series, the framework of The National offers contemporary Australian artists an opportunity to present new work and expand their practice in a unique context, free from a specified theme. However, at C-A-C and across partner organisations, the works rub against the exhibition title. Placed under the banner of ‘The National,’ the projects demand recognition of hidden stories and histories, seek solace, and search for connection.
Who gets to be remembered? Who do monuments serve, and who makes them? These questions are central to Shivanjani Lal’s sculptural installation Aise Aise Hai (how we remember) (2023) but also find relevance across the exhibition. Four projects in C-A-C’s presentation for The National 4 have been led by collaboration with community, family, and kin. For the artists and their collaborators, connecting with one another has served as a way to create space for sharing, to reassert culture, to combat trauma, and to account for lives lost.
Aise Aise Hai (how we remember) is a field of 87 plaster cast sugarcane stalks, referencing the number of boats that transported over 60,000 people from India to Fiji between 1879 and 1916 to work as indentured labourers. Among them were Lal’s ancestors. For Lal, this work always needed to be a collaboration with people from diasporas of indentured labour and South Sea Islander blackbirding. Through community involvement in the artwork casting process and the sharing of stories and songs, the work became a monument created by and for indentured labourers and their families. The field is a space for people to walk through, instead of an object to look up at. For Lal, this action completes the work and shifts the idea of a monument towards a place for healing, and for the acknowledgement that all human stories are worthy of being memorialised.
Through its making, Brook Andrew’s post-traumatic theatre script and film GABAN (2022) similarly creates space for collective healing. The work grew from a need for self-care and healing following Andrew’s intensive research into institutional collections, to become a collaboration with an international community of artists who share his commitment to decolonial practices. The film interrogates the legacy of museum practices and the ‘gaban’ (the Wiradjuri word translating to ‘strange’) hoarding of human remains and culturally significant objects. For Andrew and the collaborators, creating the work offered a pathway away from the pain and mistreatment inflicted by the institution on bodies of Indigenous, Black and queer peoples. Some of the characters in GABAN are named after archival objects, including ‘Massacre,’ based on a letter penned by a colonist recording the murder of 18 Aboriginal people in Victoria in the mid-nineteenth century, and ‘Photo,’ based on the multitude of ethnographic photographs of Indigenous peoples held in collections. Other characters take their name from aspects of power which exist within the museum ecology, such as ‘Public’ and ‘Judge.’ Presented across three double-sided screens installed in the round, the experience of watching GABAN is voyeuristic, creating an uncanny sense of implication in the ongoing trauma of museum practices and the need for repatriation.
Djennung! Yeyi Yorga Koorliny | Look! Now Women Coming (2023) is a curatorial project by early-career artist Yabini Kickett which brings together three Noongar yorga (women), from the south-west of Western Australia to Dharawal land on Australia’s east coast. Kickett has connected Aunty Sharyn Egan, a celebrated painter, weaver, and sculptor who is a member of the stolen generation, with Ilona McGuire, an interdisciplinary artist and leader from the next generation of storytellers. The artists represent different stages of life and practice, and in Djennung! they share their experiences, assert their presence,
and reflect on the legacies they may leave. This project is an iteration of Nih! Yeyi Yorga Waangkiny | Listen! Women Talking Now, presented on Noongar Country at Fremantle Arts Centre, Western Australia, in May 2022. The original project brought together five artists with the aim of asserting Noongar presence on home Country and inviting audiences to listen. By connecting women and creating space for the sharing of stories, Kickett’s intergenerational projects are a declaration of powerful, ongoing matriarchy.
The importance of kin in life and work continues through the practice of Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan, who live between Brisbane and Los Baños, Philippines. Los Baños is also the location of their studio, the Fruitjuice Factori Studio, a cultural and educational hub for artists, craftspeople, and artisans. The Aquilizans’ practice challenges the meaning of home, displacement, and diaspora, and is regularly referred to as a metaphor for the shared experiences of migrant families. Their family is entwined with their artistic practice as their five adult children, Miguel, Diego, Amihan, Leon, and Aniway, comprise the Fruitjuice Factori Studio Collective. Development of a new work for The National 4 offered the family the opportunity to reunite after a long period of separation owing to the pandemic. Their project was created through ongoing conversations amongst the family and over the course of a residency at C-A-C. During the residency, the artists continued their work with local communities by inviting local residents and artists to contribute personal belongings.
How do we find personal and collective certainty? How do we navigate instability? For a further four artists in The National 4 at C-A-C, the creation of work is more solitary. These questions, posed by Lynda Draper, consider the making of work
as a way to seek solace, share stories, process experiences, and imagine alternative pathways.
In Talismans for Unsettled Times (2023), Lynda Draper offers a solution to these questions: an intimate space featuring a sea of her ceramic sculpture – a space for connection, contemplation, and imagination. Draper is fascinated by humankind’s relationship to material culture and how we assign importance to objects while navigating love, loss, and change. Draper likens this body of work to votive offerings – a voluntary offering of an object to the gods in a period of anxiety or change. Talismans for Unsettled Times seeks individual interpretation from the audience, and Draper hopes one might find connection or be inspired to conjure and dream their own offering. Creating work is a deeply personal undertaking for Draper, a way to process the instability of recent years and to work through questions surrounding personal, long-held beliefs. And yet, the artist’s long- term role as a teacher and mentor never strays far from her mind.
As with Draper’s work, the interpretation of Julian Martin’s works and artistic language is a unique and individual experience for viewers, inviting contemplation and imagination. Martin’s practice spans more than three decades, and he has worked at Arts Project Australia, Naarm/Melbourne, since 1988. His solitary practice considers methods of communication, representation, and interpretation. The body of work exhibited at C-A-C was created between 2017 and 2023, presenting his focus on bold colours and shapes using the medium of pastel. In these works, Martin has drawn primarily from source imagery, often popular culture and still life, creating abstract interpretations that underscore the beauty, interest, and gravitas in the things that we see and experience every day. Martin is non-verbal and over the course of his practice has continued to develop and refine his personal abstract language.
For Jumaadi, time in the studio and making art ‘is similar to praying, writing letters, searching for clues and . . . all kinds of emotions.’ (1) His practice is an enduring consideration of life, love, and death, fluctuating in line with his emotional and personal life. The 500 paper pieces that comprise Joli Jolan (2022), one work by Jumaadi at C-A-C, were cut out in the studio while in lockdown in Sydney. The work considers the exchange between nature, animals, and humans during this period, with each fragment containing its own narrative: conspiracies about the increase of logging in Indonesia; a chicken which is no longer just an animal but a symbol of consumerism, an economic commodity; and the upset of affection between humans, leading to displacement and loneliness. This work was driven by Jumaadi’s intuition, emotions, and conversations. The imagery is hypothetical, a consideration of where we have come from and where we might go, but, he believes, ‘at the end of the day nature will win.’ (2)
Christopher Bassi also considers this inevitable outcome, as he constructs his body of work around a ruin being overrun by nature. Island Revelation (2023) tells at once a story of family history and Christianity in the Torres Strait, as well as a broader story about the construction of place. The installation is an evolution of Bassi’s interest in the theatrical elements of a body of work. The paintings operate individually and collectively: palm trees, a flower, shells, and a pigeon are images of island life, yet a shift occurs when these images are read in relation to the remains of a church. This sculptural element represents the ruin of a church on Moa Island, 40 km north of Thursday Island. Churches and similar constructions exist throughout the Torres Strait and the Pacific. These sites of colonisation had a great impact on culture, and continue to be a living part of it today. The sites symbolise a cultural shift – and yet, this church is in ruin and the landscape has begun reclaiming the space. For Bassi, the project grew out of a moment of consideration of conflicting influences in his life. He is navigating a ‘world of association,’3 engaging with stories of home from afar, stories of colonisation, as well as his knowledge of and training in European painting models.
And so, I believe we turn to artists amid the chaos, uncertainty, and inequality to add clarity and conviction to the world. The unique and individual practices captured in The National 4: Australian Art Now at C-A-C serve as a remedy, offering vital connection as well as space for reflection and to imagine alternative ways of being.
(1) Jumaadi quoted in Michael Young, ‘Jumaadi’, Artist Profile, issue 57, 2021, retrieved 10 November 2022, https://artistprofile.com.au/jumaadi-2
(2) Conversation between the artist and author during a studio visit, 15 November 2022.
(3) Conversation between the artist and author via Zoom, 28 October 2022.