June 2022

Arts & Letters

Standing and ceremony: The 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial

By Jennifer Higgie

Robert Fielding, Western Arrernte and Yankunytjatjara peoples, Graveyards In Between, 2017, image courtesy the artist and Mimili Maku Arts © the artist

Themed around ‘Ceremony’, the NGA exhibition provides a moving examination of what it means to be Indigenous in 2022

One man, guided by his mother, scars trees; another sets an abandoned car adrift on a lake. A dancer stands in the rain and lets it soak him to the skin. A mourning woman makes bowls; another pays homage to a sacred woman’s place in her intricate paintings. A sculptor shapes burnt banksia forms from the soil; two sisters weave black dillybags from fibres harvested from plants; a filmmaker covers himself with clay in the sea. Across 18 commissioned works – in film, performance, painting, photography, weaving, ceramics and more – the 16 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and two collectives in the 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial make clear that the idea of “ceremony”, around which this engrossing and moving exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia is themed, is wildly adaptable. Whether sombre or celebratory; via the earth, the sea or the sky; addressing trauma, reconciliation or hope, the deep past or immediate future; what it means to be Indigenous in 2022 contains multitudes. As the exhibition’s curator, Arrernte and Kalkadoon woman Hetti Perkins, notes in the catalogue, the shape ceremony assumes can be “public and private, secular and sacred, traditional and contemporary”. For the triennial, she sought “works that are active, works that are activist, works that activate”.

It is apt that Ceremony opened with a performance that was both an act of protest and restoration. In the gardens of the NGA, on Ngambri and Ngunnawal land, local man Paul Girrawah House, advised by his mother, elder Dr Matilda House, carved traditional designs into several eucalypt trees. Most of the 12 “scarrings” he’s done so far – which don’t harm the trees – have a practical as well as symbolic purpose: a coolamon (carrying vessel) is created from the removed bark. Mulanggari yur-wang (alive and strong) (2021–22) is the first step in a project that the artist hopes will extend to the trees in the Parliamentary Triangle. In the catalogue, House explains: “The contemporary marking of trees on Country and in the Parliamentary Triangle, which includes the National Gallery Sculpture Garden, is about many things, including the ‘right of might’ approach – a right for our ancestors and families to be acknowledged, respected and honoured.”

The right to be acknowledged – as individuals, as nations and as the original custodians of the land – hums through the show. At its entrance, visitors are greeted by Blak Parliament House (2021), which commemorates 50 years of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Employing humour and gentle satire, it comprises a group of soft sculptures and paintings established by 11 Yarrenyty Arltere artists and Tangentyere artists. A flimsy structure scaled by a giant goanna, the seat of government is surrounded by people and animals made from reclaimed blankets dyed with pigments sourced from plants, tea and corroded metal, and decorated with feathers. The Commonwealth coat of arms is a multicoloured shield and the Australian flag now includes an image of yeperenye, the ancestral creator caterpillar. The scene is flanked with placards emblazoned with various messages – no trouble, Iterrke Akwetethe Always Strong, Don’t frack our future – while the Queen, made of wool, raises her right hand in a genial greeting. In an interview published on the NGA website, one of the artists, Marlene Rubuntja, explained: “This Parliament House is for everyone. White, Aboriginal and any other colour. It belongs to the community … We [are] not ashamed to talk, not scared of those people in that Parliament House in Kamberri/Canberra. They better listen because we really have something to say: Really good, kind and strong for everyone and for Country.”

For Wiradjuri artist S.J Norman, ceremony is an act of commemoration. In collaboration with the Walgalu/Wolgalu community, for his long-term project Bone Library (2010–22), Norman engraves the bones of sheep and cattle – animals introduced to the continent by colonial settlers – with words from Aboriginal languages that are classified as moribund or extinct. The skeletal remains fill a few vitrines: they’re elegiac objects, stripped of life but still visceral. On the artist’s website, Norman asks: “How, through these gestures, might we collectively reinvest with life that which has been declared ‘dead’?” The answer is ongoing.

Collaboration – cross-cultural and generational – weaves throughout the exhibition. Wiradjuri artist Nicole Foreshew’s Wir Guwang (sky rain) – an “immersive healing mist” infused with bush medicine harvested from the bushland surrounding the artist’s studio – is installed in Fiona Hall’s Fern garden (1998), enhancing it as a place of rest. Inside the gallery, Foreshew created Mambanha (the cry of mourning) (2021–22), a large group of delicate clay vessels stained with ochre (commonly used in funeral rites) collected from Gija Wiradjuri and Gumbaynggirr Country, to pay her respects to her late friend and long-term collaborator, the Gija artist Boorljoonngali. The bowls are displayed alongside Gemerre (2007), a powerful suite of Boorljoonngali’s paintings comprising 24 panels formed into six works. Three colours – ochre, black and white – travel hypnotically along the paintings’ surface: an evocation not only of a journey without beginning or end, but of the scarification designs used in Joonba (ceremony), a form of bodily and spiritual protection. Pintupi artist Mantua Nangala also intimates movement, stillness and vastness in her dazzling suite of untitled paintings, which are inspired by Marrapinti, or the “sacred women’s space” that is her Ngurra, or Country. Although painted on flat canvases, the surfaces appear to undulate; a vertiginous repetition of dots shifts in mood, like the setting sun, from bright, burnt orange to muted lilacs.

Time, here, is both ancient and very contemporary. From Mol Mindirr (black dillybags) woven from natural materials by sisters Margaret Rarru Garrawurra and Helen Ganalmirriwuy Garrawurra (Liyagawumirr/Garrawurra people) to Ngemba man Andrew Snelgar’s incised shields, clubs and boomerangs, which were inspired by the songs of Yaegl traditional custodian Michael Laurie, ancient traditions are reimagined for the 21st century. Snelgar explains: “There’s a lot of song in Country … those songs and stories are still there. If you listen, you can hear them.”

Some of the artists grew into ancestral knowledge. Luritja and Pintupi man Kunmanara Carroll left his Country as a teenager but returned as an old man. (He died in 2021.) Making art, for Carroll, was about remembrance and rediscovery. Each of his seven beautiful ceramic works – vase-like objects glazed in blue, ochre, white and green pigments, and covered in geometric patterns – refers to a site of cultural or ceremonial significance, from the cruciform rock-hole of Yumari to the Wanampi (the Rainbow Serpent) and the Two Women Tjukurpa. By contrast, for Joel Bray’s seven-screen video installation and soundscape Giraaru Galing Gaanhagirri (2022), the Wiradjuri dancer and choreographer embraced new artforms to reanimate old stories. He speaks of having “a memory that is longer and more ancient than my own life”. He dances naked slowly in water, on rocks, on land, as digital images of Country are projected onto his body and the separation between his skin and the air dissolves. Bray consulted with Wagga Wagga elders to create the work and was guided by Uncle James Ingram. The title of his film translates as “the wind will bring rain”: during lockdown in Melbourne, the artist stood in storms that had travelled from Wiradjuri Country, allowing himself to be soaked and replenished.

K/Gamilaroi artist Penny Evans’ installation gudhuwali BURN (2020–21) consists of 280 burnt banksia forms sculptured in terracotta and black clay, materials she describes as therapeutic and “forgiving”. The sculptures are displayed across a vast white wall in patterns that imply webs and constellations, and various kinship structures, family groupings and ceremonies. Look closely, and the interior of some of the banksias spark with fiery glazed hearts. The intimation of fire suggests both the catastrophic rebuttal of Indigenous land practices that, along with the ravages of climate change, resulted, in part, in the bushfires of 2019–20 that decimated 20 per cent of Australia’s forests and killed more than a billion animals.

Wiradjuri activist and architect Joel Spring’s nine sculptures – untitled (winhangarra) (2022) – also echo something of the trauma of the 2019 bushfires. The artist set branches and logs from Yuin, Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country into nine large slabs of tombstone-like concrete. The wood was then burnt, leaving a cast or impression of something once alive, which cannot be erased. In an accompanying short film, Spring says: “Ceremony, as a word or as a description, for some people does mean silence and absence. The absence is not the evidence of something not being there. It’s all a part of the story. We need to relearn the ceremonies that have existed in these places. And I think that that starts with listening to these places. Even when they’re silent.”

Both ceremony and nature are central to the identity of Gumatj artist Gutiŋarra Yunupiŋu’s community in north-east Arnhem Land: his surname refers to a rock in the sea and his family totem is the Bäru (crocodile). To a soundtrack of traditional song, Yunupiŋu performs the buŋgul (dance) of Bäru in the persona of Maralitja, “an ancestral being of wisdom, and a powerful leader”. As waves crash around him, Yunupiŋu stains his face and body with yellow ochre and white clay to honour the dead, gazing out at the vast, swelling sea that borders his homeland. “When people look at my art,” he says, “I’d like [them] to get a feel for my clan’s culture and to make them feel good. I want to show all Australians some of my Yolŋu culture.”

As Hetti Perkins makes clear, the triennial is just one part of a complex and ongoing conversation. As if to emphasise that walls aren’t robust enough to contain Indigenous creativity, the wreck of an old Holden station wagon floats on a pontoon in the lake in front of the National Gallery. The artist Robert Fielding painted the car – a carrier of people transformed into a symbol of movement – with designs drawn from his Western Arrernte and Yankunytjatjara cultures. The work refers to the damming of the Molonglo River in order to create Lake Burley Griffin in 1963; in the process, a ceremonial ground was lost beneath the water. But, like so much of the work in the exhibition, Fielding’s gesture is not simply a lament. Rather, it’s what he describes as “bringing back to life something long thought dead”. Ceremony, for Fielding, is about story and dance, “the past, the present, the future, and about how important it is that we embrace one another”. In these divisive times, such resilient words are both a solace and an inspiration.

Jennifer Higgie

is an author and art critic. Her latest book is The Mirror and the Palette: 500 Years of Women’s Self-portraits.

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