What is close to us
AFH We had never worked together or even met before The National 4: Australian Art Now. Based in different geographical locations, over Teams meetings, emails, calls, and texts, conversations formed our collaboration. Our way of working has been a process of finding a shared language, identifying points of connection while leaving space for our distinct voices.
FC Presented as a conversation, this text reflects and speaks to our way of working together. It considers sites of sharing, collaboration, and the cycles and generations that encircle us. It is a story about what is close to us.
AFH When thinking about closeness, I am reminded of the conclusion journalist, editor, and academic Julianne Schultz makes in The Idea of Australia: A Search for the Soul of the Nation (2022): ‘There are big national issues at stake, but as always it starts with
little things. The stories of what happened, to whom, when and why are necessarily local, grounded in place. Learning from them demands listening’. (1) We started by considering how what is close relates to that furthest away. We looked for practices that listen to and care for what is close.
Sites of sharing
FC In August 2022, when the cooler weather was lingering in the south-east, we travelled north into the dry season of Arnhem Land to visit senior Warrawarra artist Susan Balbunga, on Yurrwi/Milingimbi Island. The journey across Country was familiar to me. I had previously travelled to Yurrwi with my mother and sister, as Ngugi people belonging to Quandamooka Country, we were guests from saltwater Country.
The large floor mat in the Milingimbi Art and Culture Centre became a site of sharing through weaving, storytelling and plenty of cuppas. Susan and her family collectively shared memories of bamugora (conical mat) in language while looking through historical imagery. As Susan recalls, ‘Bamugora is very special and it is very powerful. Old people used them a long time ago. I watched my grandmother when I was a young girl. I watched her with my eye and recorded it in my memory.’ (2)
Storytelling continued on a bush trip with Susan and her sisters. We walked on the bright red dirt and through old and new growth of greenery to collect gunga (Pandanus spiralis) for weaving. We were surrounded by Susan’s closeness to Country, interwoven with being, identity, and culture.
AFH Over our shoulders we hauled Australia Post mail bags heavy with the spiny pandanus leaves Susan and her sisters had dislodged from the crown of the plant. Sitting on the mat, our eyes followed the hands of the sisters as they weaved stories into fibre.
Talking about sharing and storytelling, I think of the writer Olga Tokarczuk’s concept of tenderness in ‘The Tender Narrator’ (2019). She argues for a tender hand, as tenderness ‘perceives the bonds that connect us, the similarities and sameness between us. It is a way of looking that shows the world as being alive, living, interconnected, cooperating with, and co-dependent on itself.’ (3)
Jason Phu shares stories about daily life. Working in many forms, he plays with language and symbolism taken from culture and tradition. Unapologetically personal, fantastical, and irreverent, Jason’s tales encourage us to tell our own. In the frog band plays in a frog pub to small frogs in the frog swamp at the beginning of time (2023), Jason conflates memes, cartoons, and Chinese and Vietnamese proverbs to create a shrine to this funny creature. For the work, he invited friend and Wiradjuri poet Jazz Money to write ‘The Frog’s First Song.’ Telling a creation myth for our age, her story reassures us that ‘even in dark times, when we come together with song or dance or story, suddenly the world is easier, and no one needs to be alone.’
FC When I first heard Jason’s frog story, I reflected on the 2022 summer flooding in Meanjin/Brisbane. In open, low-lying waters in nearby backyards, you could hear the loud and collective chorus of frogs almost everywhere.
AFH In town for the 2022 Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF), we listened to Angkamuthi/Yadhaykana artist Teho Ropeyarn and his father-in-law Graham Brady in conversation at NorthSite Contemporary Arts. Sharing stories about the making of Teho’s Athumu Paypa Adthinhuunamu (my birth certificate) (2022), they described working together, creating the large-scale lino print under a temporary gazebo erected in the family’s backyard. Supporting Teho, Graham observed how the work was not a product of two, but it ‘produced itself, it took on its own life.’ (4)
Working from a shed in her backyard on Ngudooroo (Lamb Island), Erika Scott creates assemblages from domestic debris. Fish tanks, tires, Tampax instructions and other found items are held together by a set of rules. Playing with substrates and surfaces, Erika gives form to feelings. Stranding a four-metre-high hourglass in an inflated pool amongst inverted tanks and floating sand farms, The Circadian Cul-de-sac (2023) explores the immediacy of sensation. The scene plays out over multiple narratives to test how personal understandings relate to ‘broader currencies, systems and languages.’ (5)
FC Ngudooroo looks across Quandamooka waters to Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island). On Minjerribah, I work closely with my mother and sister in regenerating Quandamooka weaving. I associate our weaving with forms of culture, feeling, and storytelling. Important to the continuity of these practices is adaptation, collaboration, and working intergenerationally. These ways of working and being are also how I have come to understand the importance of collaboration in curating.
FC We met Heather Koowootha at CIAF in 2022 when she was looking after the Wik & Kugu Arts Centre booth. Belonging to Wik-Mungkan people from her father’s side, Kugu people from her paternal grandmother, and Yidinji/Djabugay/Gunggandji from her mother’s side, Heather proudly spoke of the importance of her family teachings in her art-making and her deep respect for her parents, who taught her cultural knowledge from a young age. In her work she represents cultural practices, seasonal cycles, and interconnected relationships to Country. As she describes, ‘These teachings are very alive; they are always there for me and my people. Teachings can be told over and over again, so they are still fresh.’ (6)
Many of the artists we are working alongside engage in forms of collaboration with their family, other artists and within their larger communities of practice.
AFH Frances Barrett describes her practice as collaboration through conversation. As both artist and curator, for her, collaboration ‘destabilises the fixed boundaries between self and other. It is a shared encounter, an entanglement of ideas, and a commitment to move together into terrain both known and unknown.’ (7) Frances’ practice reminds us of the possibilities that come from finding a shared language. Working with vocalist Joanna Fabro, Cry (2023) layers a single voice to complicate the distinction between one and many. A voice anticipates a listener, but a voice without language – a noise, a cry – transforms how we can hear and relate to each other.
(And with the chorus cry there is an echo of the frog’s first song, calling us together.)
Jo Lloyd also makes her works with others, using movement to understand how we relate to each other. Interested in developing a method and form that lasts, Jo and her collaborators (performers, composers, and costume designers) inform and form the dance. I remember standing among strangers outside The Substation, Naarm/Melbourne after watching Handsome (2022). Someone was wearing the perfume Jo had co-created to accompany the dance work. We smelt the smell, and remembering the work, we all described how good we felt. Like a scent, FM Air (2023) fills the space: three bodies, three times, appearing and disappearing over the duration of The National. In the dance, Jo explores how ideas sustain themselves to ask what lingers when we are gone.
FC When Aarna first described Jo’s dance practice to me, she used hand gestures and it reminded me of weaving strands together. More than a physical act, the cultural practice of weaving brings together strands of Ancestral, cultural, and lived experiences. This movement between the physical and spiritual transcends time and generations.
Cycles and generations
AFH Elizabeth Day shows us how sustainable practices are ongoing and careful. She has made art for over 30 years while also working in prisons and mental healthcare spaces. The 25-metre-long The Flow of Form: There’s a Reason Beyond a Reason. Beyond That There’s a Reason (1797 Parramatta Gaol), Carriageworks, Redfern (2023), made onsite through Carriageworks’ artist residency program, offers a tender response to a hard history. Elizabeth started her ‘unravelling’ series with The Unravelling of Form (1995), a site-specific project that wrapped in wool the base of a railway viaduct. She has continued this process of pulling apart and rearranging the tendrils of op shop woollens (saved from landfill), transforming them into mottled ‘paintings.’ Her ‘unravellings’ are a way to unfurl personal and public histories. Animating the wall at Carriageworks, Elizabeth’s textile conjures the ‘prison on the landscape’ as an image of colonial Australia that persists today. (8)
FC I reflect on the powerful presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural legacies inherent in artistic practices across Country. These practices embody acts of resistance and healing from histories and ongoing experiences of colonisation. By practising culture; caring for Country; continuing and regenerating forms of language; sharing stories and knowledge; and creating inheritances for the future, connections that have always remained are sustained.
Fundamental to Teho Ropeyarn’s work is its interconnectedness of Country, language, story and cultural protocols. Teho spent much of his earlier years growing up in Injinoo, located at the very top of Cape York Peninsula, Far North Queensland. Going out on Country with family and learning language, song, dance, and knowledges from his Injinoo Elders has become the touchstone that Teho continually returns to in his work. By documenting language and stories, Teho’s work carries teachings for the next generation. In Wintinganhu (sister-in-law) (2023), Teho tells his mother’s story through printmaking and sound. Collaborating with his mother, Jennifer, Teho honours her important role in funeral ceremonies.
AFH Wiradjuri artist Nicole Foreshew uses materials as language. For her, they are a way to talk through experiences and connections. Often collected from Country, her materials represent the cycles and changes in the world around her. For The National, Nicole draws on a personal story, involving her family and the police, to articulate the broader context of colonisation and its persistence. In Dreaming (the weight of collective crimes) (2023), prisms specked with mica are suspended, connecting the sky and the ground in a long continuous line to refract the nation’s prejudice. Adjacent, a snarling dog confronts our reflection in Run (like you have never done) (2023).
FC Nicole’s approach to working with natural materials and elements is an intimate process that involves deep listening and seeing. Knowing and connecting with material that is embedded within the life and spirit of Country is an act of healing. In Nicole’s work, the experiences of loss, hurt, and destruction are placed within the context of hope and strength. As Nicole acknowledges: ‘Our enduring spiritual connection to Country and the restorative power to tell our stories is something that lives within – if you listen deeply, you will hear it’. (9)
Country, memory, and materials of place are complexly intertwined. Yindjibarndi artist Katie West uses materials and objects gathered, found and sought in place. The women plucked the star pickets from the ground and turned them into wana (digging sticks) (2023) relates to Katie’s experience growing up on a farm in the Wheatbelt region of Western Australia and her recent return to this area on Noongar Ballardong Boodja. In this work, she considers the similarity of form between wana (digging sticks) and harsh remnants of industrial agriculture such as steel star pickets. Both forms embody stories of Country.
AFH Connecting us all, Naminapu Maymuru-White paints the river of stars, Milŋiyawuy. Naminapu has made art and shared her Ancestral story for over fifty years. I first saw Naminapu’s work at The Cross Art Projects, Gadigal Country, Sydney near where I live. I remember the calm that her dappled black-and-white constellations brought to the end of 2020. Two years later, Freja and I visited where Naminapu lives and makes art, at Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala, East Arnhem Land. Going out in the art centre troopy, we ate mud mussels smoked near the mangroves. Late getting back, our feet were salty and silver on our flight out, speckled like the night’s sky.
FC In Milŋiyawuy – Celestial River (2023), Naminapu beautifully speaks to how culture flows from a deep and eternal source, from Ancestors and from Country. This spirit of continuity is also embodied in her process of sharing the vitality of cultural inheritances by teaching and painting alongside the next generation. This is how she learnt. From a young age, Naminapu watched her father, Nänyin, paint. In due time, Naminapu learnt how to paint under the guidance of her father and his brother, Narritjin Maymuru, and was given permission to paint miny’tji (sacred clan designs) on bark.
Meeting Naminapu for the first time on Larrakia Country and then visiting Susan Balbunga on Yurrwi reminded me of the collective strength of matriarchal arts and cultural leaders across Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Art is living culture, and is inseparable from care for family, community, and Country, and everything that is in between.
What is close to us
FC When we started working together, Katie West’s We hold you close (2022) had just opened at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. With Covid travel restrictions still in place, the Western Australian border was closed off. From a distance, on a screen, my eyes followed the pastel, hand-dyed textile banners embroidered with woven bags. Through collaborating with community and connecting with Country, the installation was a welcoming space for learning string-making techniques and sharing yarns over cuppas. Katie describes it as ‘acknowledging and honouring the influence and nourishment of the collective – our families, friends, ancestors, and country, the others for whom we would not exist without and who need our presence too.’ (10)
What is close to us can’t always be described in language. It can be feelings, knowings, or learnings that are carried in the relationships that we inherit, form, nurture, or sustain. What is close is celebrated in culture, family, community, and Country and connects to a greater collective strength.
AFH The rain is back. When Freja and I began working together at the start of 2022, the floods across eastern Australia had stretched south from her to me, down the coast. Writing now, at the end of 2022, we’re warned of another wet summer. A new but persistent pattern is emerging. Watching the cycles that circle us, we must take care of what is close to us.
(1) Julianne Schultz, The Idea of Australia: A Search for the Soul of the Nation, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, Sydney, 2022, p.410.
(2) Susan Balbunga, ‘Susan Balbunga’, in long water: fibre stories, ed. Freja Carmichael, Institute of Modern Art, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, 2020, pp.76–77.
(3) Olga Tokarczuk, ‘The Tender Narrator: Nobel Lecture in Literature 2018’, The Nobel Laureate, December 7, 2019, retrieved 25 October 2022, https://www.nobelprize.org/ prizes/literature/2018/tokarczuk/lecture/.
(4) Teho Ropeyarn and Mr. Graham Brady, ‘Artist Talk: Traversing Three Realms: The physical, natural and spiritual’, NorthSite Contemporary Arts, 9 July 2022, retrieved 15 October 2022, https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=p1NLgSb03tw.
(5) Erika Scott, email correspondence with the authors, 23 October 2022.
(6) Heather Koowootha, ‘Artist Talk – Cairns Indigenous Art Fair 2022’, NorthSite Contemporary Arts, 8 July 2022, retrieved 27 October 2022, https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=OdWv75dLHo0.
(7) Frances Barrett, ‘Process – Frances Barrett: Conversations’, Artist Profile, issue 58, 2022, p.126.
(8) Elizabeth Day’s current research and artistic project The Prison on the Landscape (2017–ongoing) relates to the ongoing impact of colonial institutions.
(9) Nicole Foreshew, artist process statement, 3 November 2022.
(10) Katie West, We hold you close, 2022, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, curated by Eloise Sweetman, 20 February – 24 April 2022, https://pica.org.au/whats-on/we-hold- you-closekatie-west/