August 2017

Arts & Letters

Wonder, invention, anger and dejection

By Sebastian Smee
‘Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial’ at Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia

The dog stops you in your tracks. Ears askew, it sits on the floor in a high-ceilinged room at Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia, and stares up at you with big, doleful, accusatory eyes. You might kick me, it seems to say, but you will never surprise me.

The taxidermy dog has a tag on its collar: “Archie”. Its maker, Archie Moore, is a Brisbane-based Kamilaroi man in his late 40s. So it is a self-portrait, of sorts – and as woebegone as any I’ve seen.

Moore’s stuffed dog appears towards the end of Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial (until 10 September), an exhibition that has already, by the time you get to “Archie”, had its share of harrowing moments. To the credit of its curator, Tina Baum, this overview of Australian Indigenous art through the work of 30 artists feels real – wedded neither to a romanticised idea of Aboriginal creativity nor to the crude distortions and simplifications of last night’s news. It is big, and at times overwhelming. But it strikes a complex chord of wonder, invention, anger and dejection.

Defying Empire marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum that granted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the right to be counted in the census and empowered the federal parliament to legislate specifically for them. As Vicki West, an Indigenous Tasmanian artist, writes in the exhibition catalogue, “the outcome of the referendum tore away the veil of deceit that was the ‘myth of extinction’”.

But if the marking of this anniversary seems less than purely celebratory, it is because the referendum’s legacy has been so mixed. The federal power it established was intended to be used for the good of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. But outcomes of the laws it enabled have often turned out the other way.

There is, as the American literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote, something in human nature that leads us, “when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion”. When it isn’t evincing flat-out bigotry, the story of white Australia’s relations with the country’s Indigenous population often appears as one long and depressingly literal demonstration of Trilling’s insight.

Thank God, then, for art. Defying Empire is full of beautifully made things, sharp indictments and life-affirming declarations, almost all of which provide a necessary human dimension to tired public abstractions, and correctives to ingrained habits of thought. The ambivalence of the great symbolic victory of 1967 helps account for the bittersweet tone of much of the work. As artist Dale Harding writes in the catalogue, “Popular versions of Australian histories are supported by convenience. The burden of the truth is shouldered by those who are silenced.”

The same point is made more trenchantly by Blak Douglas (aka Adam Hill). His LUCKYcountry is a series of digital prints in which colloquial expressions epitomising Aussie confidence and complacency – “TOO EASY”, “ALL GOOD”, “SWEET AS” – frame 19th-century documentary photographs of Aboriginal people in steadily worsening predicaments. Douglas has Dhungatti as well as Scottish, Irish and German ancestry, and was born in Blacktown. That suburb in western Sydney was once the location of the Black Town Native Institution, a colonial school for Aboriginal children who were separated from their families by practices that foreshadowed abhorrent practices (some of them well intended, but so what?) in the next century. The removal of children from their families was often aimed specifically at mixed-race children, part of an attempt, as curator Djon Mundine writes in the catalogue, to “break the generational bond”, to “bleach out the black”.

Attempts to dilute Aboriginality, or to define it out of existence, are the subject of many of the show’s most affecting works. Raymond Zada shows a video, At Face Value, in which the faces of men, women, girls and boys identifying as Indigenous morph into one another. The variety, the particularity, the beauty of these faces all speak volumes. So do their steady, unflinching gazes. Another work by Zada, racebook, co-opts the familiar typography of Facebook and fills each enlarged letter with taunts of the most hideous, annihilating kind, almost all relating to racial “dilution”.

Brook Andrew, one of Australia’s most celebrated contemporary artists, does more than just rail against fixed identities and absurd, outdated categories. His work, both in his recent solo show at the National Gallery of Victoria and here in Canberra, moves beyond categorical thinking, coaxing out a kind of swarming multimedia aesthetic that is haunted by the past yet resolutely of the present. His two tripartite canvases, Revealing Distance and Beginning of the Shape (Morphogenesis), are among the show’s clear stand-outs. “We exist as multiples like we have never existed before,” writes Andrew in a statement in the catalogue. And although “we are the sum of our Ancestors”, nonetheless “we are not yesterday, we are today”.

Some of the artists, who, like Andrew, are based in the city, make the kind of conceptual work that prevails in contemporary art internationally. And yet they remain beguiled by the idea of Country. Sydney’s Jonathan Jones, for instance, has made a series of works that doctor historical prints of colonial towns and properties established in Wiradjuri country. In an act of imaginative reclamation that is more visually subtle and emotionally affecting than it sounds, Jones has replaced buildings and other structures with Wiradjuri murru (design) – repeating diamonds, chevrons and radiating lines that designate ceremonial areas and other forms of cultural knowledge.

Another urban artist, Reko Rennie, was provoked by stories he heard of Australian pastoralists in the early 1900s driving Rolls-Royces and Bentleys to church, leaving the Aboriginal people who worked for them languishing in poverty back on the station. “It made me think of my grandmother, Julia,” writes Rennie in the catalogue, “and how she was also enslaved on pastoral stations and missions due to former government policies.”

Rennie has an idea: he buys a vintage Rolls-Royce, handpaints it with traditional Kamilaroi and contemporary camouflage designs, and drives it from Melbourne, where he grew up, to Kamilaroi land, in northern New South Wales. “[I] thrash the Rolls-Royce on Country,” he explains in the catalogue, “creating donuts on the land.” His good work done, he returns to his “other home” – the city. All this is shown in a short, delightful video – a sort of condensed road movie. The actual Rolls-Royce, meanwhile, graces the NGA’s lobby.

Rennie’s donuts don’t just express the anarchic, mad defiance of donuts everywhere. They also allude to traditional Kamilaroi sand engravings. And so there is a connection between them and Jones’ doctored prints. Both are acts of reclamation and repair, symbolic by nature and acutely aware of their own contingency.

Rennie’s is not the only work that has a sense of humour. But the mood of the exhibition as a whole is angry, and – as the title announces – defiant. Given the obstacles Australia’s Indigenous people have faced and continue to face, this should come as no surprise. There are varieties of beauty, too, each brought to a pitch of intensity that is humbling. The great Tiwi clan leader Pedro Wonaeamirri paints sophisticated geometric designs derived from scarification and body painting in natural pigments on canvas. Nonggirrnga Marawili, from Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land, paints abstracted images – relaxed, meandering, not harried or forced – of sea spray and rocks covered in barnacles. “You may spy on me and think I am painting sacred things,” she says in a disarming statement in the catalogue. “This would be a lie.”

There is both beauty and material novelty in the necklaces of Lola Greeno, a matriarch and master artisan from Prickly Bottom on Cape Barren Island in Bass Strait. “You’ve always got to be grounded in your own culture,” says Greeno, who learned her craft from her mother, her grandmother and her mother-in-law, and whose necklaces are made from maireener shells, scallop shells, echidna quills, kangaroo vertebrae and casuarina nuts.

And there’s a unique vigour in the large-scale wall sculptures, made from wood, feathers, plastic and pearl shell, by the celebrated Torres Strait Islander Ken Thaiday Senior. Thaiday is inspired, he writes, by his father’s choreography, his totems (the shark and the frigatebird), and by God.

Archie Moore’s taxidermy dog is another kind of totem, I suppose, and one I keep returning to in my mind. The dog is black – although apparently not “black” enough. It has been duly darkened with boot polish (a medium that is, thanks to blackface and minstrelsy, as redolent of race as they come).

The term “black dog” is also, of course, synonymous with depression. And so it is in this sense as much as in the bitter reference to skin colour that Moore’s self-portrait feels so painfully honest. The suicide rate of Indigenous people, who make up about 3.3% of Australia’s population, is more than double that of non-Indigenous Australians. This statistic gets worse when you break it down by age: for Indigenous children aged 5 to 17, the rate is five times higher.

Statistics are just numbers. They often remove us from the reality of actual lives. In their very ghastliness they can reinforce the distance non-Indigenous Australians feel from their Indigenous brothers and sisters. In countless different ways, the works in Defying Empire help with the task of trying to bridge this distance. They remind us not only of the historical causes of Indigenous despair but also of the many moving ways in which despair can be, and has been, overcome.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. His latest book is The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art.


Reko Rennie, OA_RR (detail), 2017. Three-channel high-definition film, sound, 8 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and Blackartprojects

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