Idle no more: Confronting colonialism and the art museum
While non-Indigenous research has been intent on documenting the demise and cultural assimilation of Indigenous peoples, celebrating survival accentuates not so much our demise but the degree to which Indigenous peoples and communities have successfully retained cultural and spiritual values and authenticity.
Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngāti Awa/Ngāti Porou) (1)
As I begin to write this essay, I feel like I must do so with urgency. Things have been very different this past year – protests spread across the world, intertwined with ire directed towards the museum and inseparable from the global pandemic and the threat of climate change. The 2020 Black Lives Matter campaign, reignited first in the United States following the brutal police killing of George Floyd, and then in Australia, has brought greater attention to the fact that we are implicated by our past, present and future. This extends and includes our relationships with one another, particularly our connections to people we share culture or cultural lands with. Many of us come from places across the globe, bringing with us inherited baggage. If we are to heal together and share land as one, we must acknowledge the systematic and institutional inequalities experienced by Black and Indigenous peoples around the world, particularly here in Australia. In discussing the works for The National 2021: New Australian Art, it becomes clear that writing about, curating and making art with knowledge outside of Eurocentric modes of understanding is central to the evolution of contemporary Australian art for the here and now.
Historical national and state museums and galleries, the quintessential colonial institutions representing European Enlightenment, conquest and Empire, are at present being forced to reckon with their legacies and the continuing impact of colonialism. (2) As they begin to acknowledge these heritages, many are reimagining their mission as agents of decolonisation and social justice. The COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other Indigenous community issues felt across Australia have situated arts organisations at intersections of reflection and change. At this crossroads is the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), two venues hosting The National 2021. On 2 June 2020 these institutions publicly committed to change, adding their voices to those across the global arts sector who condemned police brutality against Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) communities, and racialised violence. The AGNSW said that, ‘as an institution, we must strive to do better’, (3) while the MCA acknowledged that they must ‘[listen] to those whose lives are different from our own’. (4)
But how can art museums, especially those who have strong relationships with Indigenous communities, really respond to the current national conditions of social unrest and political turmoil? And how do artists and curators navigate this space? From my perspective as an institutional curator, artists are bringing fresh new cultural viewpoints to these issues. The internationalisation of the Black Lives Matter campaign has highlighted decolonisation as the goal, but perhaps Indigenisation instead is the strategy. Further, decolonisation is urgent work, but can we do so if we have yet to transition into a post-colonial world?
Most artists included in the AGNSW iteration of The National 2021 come from either Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander or other cultural, coloured or immigrant backgrounds. (5) Their artworks cannot be contained: many exist between moments of categorisation and form, relying on and claiming the Indigenous or non-Eurocentric forms of knowledge that have often been marginalised by arts organisations due to settler colonial entitlement. Amid this cultural renaissance, the non-Indigenous artists exhibiting at the AGNSW for The National 2021 are also contributing to this discussion. Their work, equally intense in its resolve, highlights systematic inequalities. These artists reveal a deep, personal expression of identity in connection with the unceded sovereign Indigenous lands they live on, along with providing commentary on the destruction and policing of Indigenous lands, peoples, knowledges and culture. It is a privilege that we can bring these staunch cultural affirmations and activist expressions – white and Blak (6) – together for you here.
The deep connection between Anangu and Country is emphasised by Betty Muffler and Maringka Burton in their two new large-scale canvases, Ngangkari Ngura (Healing Country) (2020). Stroke by stroke, Muffler and Burton document their home Country, Anamara Piti, and the area south of Watarru, referring in dramatic detail to the myriad ways in which the land and geographical features come alive to protect Anangu and their way of life. The pair are aunt and niece, but also ngangkari, traditional healers renowned for their practice throughout the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. Here they demand of us to see the world through their eyes: they stand steadfast in their sovereignty, they freely see spirit, care for it, and are connected to all lifeforces that have existed since time immemorial. Because Country is sentient, Muffler often advocates for its protection, regularly citing the nuclear weapons that were exploded at Emu Field and Maralinga in the 1950s and 60s. Having lived through this nuclear colonial devastation, (7) Muffler and Burton’s work inevitably becomes a call to action to protect and preserve. In return, the artists offer to us their messages of healing and hope.
In his photographic series We Call This Place… Kaurna Yarta (2020), James Tylor highlights important cultural sites for the Kaurna people in the Kaurna Nation (Tarntanya/Adelaide, Thura-Yura language region) and protests the names imposed on these places. By overlaying 25 daguerreotype photographs with etched Warra Kaurna language, Tylor reclaims and emphasises Kaurna people’s rich cultural connection to this region. He also undermines the very terms of the colonial photograph. The daguerreotype, a medium that long documented First Nations peoples through a colonial lens, has been requisitioned by Tylor to explore the effects of 19th-century Australia, and its continuing impact on First Nations people in the present day.
Non-Indigenous artists like Fiona Hall and Gabriella Hirst ruminate on the lack of Indigenous land agency by considering the climate and man-made environmental disasters of 2020. Hall’s installation EXODUST (2021) directly references the catastrophic 2019–20 Australian bushfires and presents the reality of a new ‘national’ ecosystem, devoid of more than three billion animals and organisms. Commandeering the AGNSW’s vestibule – an inherently colonial space due to its architecture and atmosphere – Hall’s charred, ruined remains become a monument to the dead. The reality of what is left behind post-fire is grim, and forces us to directly experience the consequences of ignoring Aboriginal people’s culture, particularly traditional land management and cultural burning practices.
In Hirst’s exposition on the environmental damage caused to the Murray–Darling river system, she too explores the enduring consequences of empiricism – the poor water management and water diversion strategies made by settlers, government and agricultural businesses to the Baarka (Darling River). Produced under the Ian Potter Moving Image Commission 2020, Hirst’s work Darling Darling (2020) parallels the precise and elaborate care taken to preserve The flood in the Darling 1890 (1895), a colonial painting by W.C. Piguenit, rather than the river itself. Both Hall and Hirst implicate the viewer within the contradiction of the AGNSW, the gallery a biproduct of the same colonial ideology that has wreaked havoc on First Nations people, culture and Country.
Then there are The National 2021 artists from diverse backgrounds, such as Thai–Australian artist Phaptawan Suwannakudt and Australian–Balinese artist Leyla Stevens, who have also worked to challenge dominant colonial paradigms and narratives specific to their cultures. In Suwannakudt’s RE al-Re-g(l)ory (2021), she shifts between ideas of displacement and the pull of who we are and what we are capable of. Suwannakudt has appropriated and reproduced rhetorical Thai posters produced during the Cold War that portray what is good and what is evil. She overlays them with blank white sheets to speak to the silent protest of Thai students who demonstrate against the Thai government today. Suwannakudt also considers one’s ability to protest in the face of authority, comparing the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests across the world that were deemed unlawful due to COVID-19 restrictions against her own experiences of 1976 Thailand and the Thammasat University massacre.
For Leyla Stevens, her 2-channel work Patiwangi (the death of fragrance) (2021) reclaims the marginalised histories of Balinese women artists within Bali’s art cannon. The work comments on the lack of representation of female artists within historical state galleries such as the AGNSW, especially when considering the statistics of women artists collected outside of the usual non-Indigenous Australian and non-Eurocentric international collecting priorities. In Patiwangi (the death of fragrance) Stevens directs two dancers (Melanie Lane and Ade Suharto), using the biographies of legong dancer Ni Pollock and Balinese painter I Gusti Ayu Kadek Murniasih as a point of departure. The two performers shift and move between the roles of teacher and student within an old industrial warehouse. By removing the performance from an identifiable Indonesian location and the continued imaginaries of Bali (this was partially due to COVID-19 and Stevens no longer being able to travel), she dismantles the exoticised tropes imposed on her people and culture. The work thus offers feminist provocations and a transcultural lens for viewers to examine western-based modernism and the late colonialism period of Bali’s recent history.
Most artists presented in The National 2021 at the AGNSW express their cultural defiance to the lingering effects of colonialism through language, whether marked on a wall (Judy Watson), woven into a textile (Abdullah M.I. Syed), expressed by the body (Justin Shoulder), infinitely suspended in virtual reality (Agatha Gothe-Snape), or captured and preserved within photography (Benjamin Prabowo Sexton). Then there is language that has been resistant to colonisation and the subsequent classifications of Empire, due partially to its speakers growing up on Country, speaking and learning language. This language takes many forms, captured, for example, in Alick Tipoti’s sculptural objects, chants, dances and linoblock prints that document traditional life on Badhu (Mulgrave Island) in the Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait). Dhangal Madhubal (2021), Baydham (2021) and Seseren Aadhi (2021) all recall Tipoti’s ancestral spirits and associated cosmologies. Inspired by the past but also by Country and sea, he weaponises Kala Lagaw Ya culture and language purposefully, for its own preservation. Tipoti is among the last generation of Islanders to grow up on his home Island and to continue to live there and work, and so his work becomes a cultural archive and repository of knowledge for future Torres Strait Islander generations.
The intersection of religions, cosmologies and cross-cultural dialogues also becomes apparent as you move through the exhibition. In Lisa Sammut’s work A stellate habit (2021), she forces the viewer to reflect on the human condition from a non-human and cosmic perspective. With Wona Bae and Charlie Lawler’s Regenerator (2021), the duo explore notions of connectedness within and throughout a multiplicity of perspectives. The artists draw from their Korean and Australian heritages to navigate the visceral and symbiotic connections that exist between mankind and the natural world. Situated within the gallery’s entrance court, concentric rings of charcoal hang almost in a state of suspended animation. There is an ethereal quality to this material that sits in noticeable contrast to its darkened mass. Perhaps it’s how the material is made, forged in fire, that makes Bae and Lawler want to interact with this medium. Here they offer once-sentient material to use as a giant filter for humanity, drawing out good energies and offering healing to fragile ecosystems. Rather than focusing on the influences of relationships on climate and Country, Bae and Lawler prefer to encourage the viewer to consider their relationships within one overarching natural system, of which we are all a part.
At its core, The National 2021: New Australian Art at the AGNSW is the presentation of 14 artists’ projects that explore the potential of art to heal and care for fragile natural and social ecosystems. It also attempts to look at the global situation from an ‘otherness’ – to relocate and centre understanding from an Indigenous or cultural perspective. While not a theme or curatorial concern, the artists have predominantly responded to the tumultuous year that was 2020. The effects of the catastrophic bushfires, COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement were felt deeply by the nation, and certainly across the globe. These effects particularly helped Australians reflect on the historical and contemporary realities of First Nations people and immigrants as opposite to the general Australian. Collectively, along with other nations of the world, mankind is lurching closer and closer to catastrophe, whether that be through the colonial desire to want and possess, or in response to colonial legacies. Humanity has but a short time to remedy the consequences of colonialism before we can no longer reverse our mistakes. The National 2021 suggests to viewers that we, as a nation, should begin to seriously try, starting first with addressing the inconvenient national truths borne from Australia’s colonial pasts.
(1) Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, Zed Books, London, 1999, p.145.
(2) The term ‘colonialism’ here, and used throughout this essay, refers to the ongoing structural consequences that exist in Australia regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, their lands, culture and languages, following the establishment of the British colony in Australia from 1788. These consequences were and are oppressive acts, originally incited by British settlers made in the name of the British Crown but have progressed over time with settlements in different states. These ‘lingering effects’ or ongoing consequences are felt today in the present.
(3) Art Gallery of New South Wales, Instagram post, 2 Jun 2020, at instagram.com/p/CA7pzhFjqt1/?igshid=14ybr7q79nt5q, accessed 31 Dec 2020.
(4) Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Instagram post, 2 Jun 2020, at instagram.com/p/CA6_78Oj8z7/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link, accessed 5 Jan 2021.
(5) Throughout this essay I have preferenced using the descriptive terms used and provided by artists. I have refrained from categorising people in an effort to decolonise my own consciousness.
(6) The term ‘Blak’, coined by Erub/Mer (Torres Strait region) and K’ua K’ua (Cape York region) artist Destiny Deacon, refers to the politically conscious identity of First Nations people within Australia, and is used to reclaim historical, representational, symbolical, stereotypical and romanticised notions of Black or Blackness.
(7) Nuclear colonialism is a term that expands on the general definition of colonialism as stated above. This term includes detrimental acts of nuclear weapons testing, toxic dumping, ocean and land mining against Indigenous peoples and lands. It is the use of modern technology to perpetuate the historical devastation colonialism has caused to Indigenous peoples and land.