ACCA’s exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art was a long overdue success
The dust settled on Sovereignty, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art’s (ACCA) long overdue survey of First Nations art from south-eastern Australia, a little over six weeks ago. Curated by Paola Balla in collaboration with ACCA’s artistic director, Max Delany, the exhibition brought together contemporary and historic works that sketched a diverse sense of community: recognisably “contemporary” art – a video by the Gunai–Monero artist Stephan Paton; a selection of work by the ever-present Brook Andrew – found space alongside the historic, the documentary and the vernacular. There was a shield from 1897 by the Woiworung–Wurundjeri elder William Barak, an early luminary in Melbourne’s intercultural world whose visage now adorns the façade of the Swanston Square apartments, and 8 mm film documentation of Bill Onus’ Aboriginal Enterprises, the groundbreaking mid-century artefact and furniture store he opened in the Dandenongs. One gallery was beautifully wallpapered with photographs of Victorian scar trees by the Gunditjmara elder, and former director of the Koori Heritage Trust, Jim Berg. Another was sound tracked by a music video for ‘Sheplife’, a 2012 hip-hop paean to coming of age in rural Shepparton by the Yorta Yorta rapper Adam Briggs.
Sovereignty, which engaged its marked inclusivity to push against the general perception of contemporary art as reified and exclusive in character, was a resounding success. Audience numbers were healthy: 25,000 over the exhibition’s four-month run. With three weeks to go, the exhibition catalogue sold out. Public programs included Indigenous-only discussions and featured Indigenous writers, activists, performers and curators. Many had never before stepped across ACCA’s threshold. In a gallery that to date has been marked by a pronounced lack of Indigenous programming the question that follows is obvious: what happens next?
Delany, who began as ACCA’s artistic director in early 2016, brought to his role an understanding that an exhibition like Sovereignty was a priority. ACCA’s previous artistic director, Juliana Engberg – a highly regarded figure who left her post to become a programming director for the roaming European Capital of Culture series, and is now based in Aarhus, Denmark – had clear preferences. Her directorship was characterised by high-level exhibitions of international contemporary art with a pronounced focus on Europe and North America. The gallery always gave an ambitious platform to local practitioners, notably in the annual NEW series that began in 2003, but there were few concessions to non-art-literate audiences, or to the many satellite communities that make up a more democratic picture of the local contemporary art world.
Sovereignty was intended to address what was perhaps the most pressing oversight. The gallery’s last dedicated survey of contemporary Indigenous practice came in 1994, well before Engberg’s tenure, with Blakness: Blak City Culture! – a curatorial collaboration between Hetti Perkins and ACCA’s then-curator Clare Williamson. As with Sovereignty, that exhibition aimed to provide a meaningful platform for contemporary Indigenous cultural production at the same time as opening ACCA’s program to a First Nations curatorial perspective. (Hetti Perkins, the sister of filmmaker Rachel Perkins, went on to become one of Australia’s most influential curators of recent times.) But as a one-off, Blakness: Blak City Culture! now risks being remembered as well-intentioned tokenism, rather than a sign of cultural shift.
Part of the challenge, of course, lies well outside ACCA’s walls: it’s part and parcel of a pervasive division in the Australian art world that often sees contemporary Indigenous practice treated as a different entity to non-Indigenous contemporary art. Although major state institutions like the Art Gallery of New South Wales (where Hetti Perkins resigned as senior curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art in 2011, citing, among other issues, her collection’s lack of visibility) and the National Gallery of Victoria have had dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art departments since the 1990s, this has had mixed consequences. With the art relegated to separate galleries, areas of true rapprochement have been few and far between. It’s only in broader contemporary surveys such as The National, currently running across three venues in Sydney, or various iterations of The Biennale of Sydney, where audiences might find this addressed.
For a non-collecting institution like ACCA it means there’s a clear opportunity to lead the way. One senses that for Delany, who I met with recently, this was part of Sovereignty’s appeal. It was the first exhibition he put on the books and when he reached out to his co-curator Paola Balla – a Wemba Wemba and Gunditjmara woman who has worked on a number of projects including the ongoing First Peoples exhibition at the Melbourne Museum – he readily gave her free reign. It’s also obvious that the question of continuing engagement formed part of the project’s basis from its early stages: how might a single shift in programming translate into something more enduring? An initial answer lies in the fact that Balla has already been invited back to take a seat on the curatorium for Unfinished Business, ACCA’s upcoming survey of the legacies of feminist practices in Melbourne, something that will draw her expertise well beyond Sovereignty’s dedicated focus.
Like other exhibitions such as Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial, soon to open at the National Gallery of Australia, Sovereignty was, of course, premised on a division: as a standalone survey it suggested that the history of Indigenous art in this country is somehow separate from its non-Indigenous counterpart. At one level, this was part of its power – in a gallery dedicated to the untethered currents of contemporary art, an exhibition that imparted a specific history seemed somehow radical – but its legacy will demand negotiating a more complicated ground. If Sovereignty was an act of reparation, the challenge in its wake is surely two-fold: how to maintain the disruptive potential of Indigenous practices at the same time as communicating the sense that all histories – colonial, Indigenous, and otherwise – lie entangled in our region’s current moment.