This exhibition took me on a journey from the past to the present and into the future through the lens of the First Nations peoples of South East Australia. I was taken on a tour: to explore culturally and linguistically diverse narratives of self-determination, identity, sovereignty and resistance; of how colonialists were first viewed, the settlement landscape and how there may have been harmony, happiness and joy; to work about hunting: being hunted, both physically and bureaucratically; and of work about mourning and a new cultural vision.
What marks this exhibition as culturally important, is not only the artistic expression and messaging on the subject of Sovereignty, but the curating, or putting together, of the exhibition itself. For the first time, this process was done using a consultative and collaborative model that drew on the expertise of an advisory group including elders, artists and community representatives.
This is a compelling exhibition that is thoughtful and energising.
After a coffee at the Malthouse I round the corner and step from the hot dusty air into coolness. Past the coffee cart and bookstore. I spot a large lime green banner at the back of the foyer but I wrench my eyes away from it - the entrance to Sovereignty is enticing: there is a work by William Barak painted in about 1880 of people dancing around a snake, and a warm family home video by Bill Onus, circa 1964. I am however distracted by the sound of rain - and 'thwack', then another. I walk through to an antechamber - a slightly larger, slightly lighter room and a video work by Steaphan Paton. An aboriginal man in camouflage standing in a wetland heath under an overcast sky. He holds a mechanised bow and arrow. The arrow pierces the air and punches through a painted wooden shield mounted on a pole. Thwack, thwack... thwack. The hunter moves around, watching, judging, moves closer to the shield and aims again. The sound of the rain relaxes me. The hunter and his weapon agitates me. The desecration of the shield saddens me.
From a cave like entrance, low and dim, I enter the second gallery which is high and wide. In here is art of contemporary aboriginal artists with works addressing, in particular, the subject of identity: Aboriginal cultural identity, sexual identity, western and urban identity. The works are diverse (video, montage, sculptural, painting) large, impacting, and intense in their use of colour, pattern and movement. A gigantic inflated sphere by Brook Andrew is suspended from the ceiling. It is black and white yet colour changing, and the pattern is geometric yet linear. It dominates the space, yet it is balanced by a video production presented to its left, and a collection of framed images by Kent Morris on the adjacent wall to its right. There are nine images in this series by Kent Morris. They are about the size of a poster and presented in landscape format. Each image is of geometric structure and a singular native bird. The image is reflected on itself, and also reversed on itself to create an abstract geometric shape, with one native bird becoming four. Opposite this is a video work of a series of people (and a stuffed cat) emerging from a gold tinsel curtain onto a stage with microphone (Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser). A music video by Adam Briggs, and ‘The Biggest Aboriginal artwork in Melbourne metro’, by Steven Rhall, reside amongst other smaller yet equally potent works.
The third room is smaller, yet the high ceilings remain. It has a contemplative feel. The colours here are subdued, greys, browns, whites and straw yellows. Works are static: the walls have become landscapes, and images are mounted upon them. I’m wanting to find free visual space but I am immersed and forced to look into the detail: loving photographs of scar trees who bear witness (Jim Berg), role honours of Aboriginal people who died defending their country (Vicki Couzens), and exquisitely weaved fish traps (Bronwyn Razem).
The contrast of mourning rituals between colonial and aboriginal culture (possum skin cloak, possum burial bags, the crucifix and black clothing), tactile and symbolic objects, are common to the following forth gallery which is painted a deep crimson. By Glenda Nicholls are three interpretations of the cloak representing the three stages of a woman's life: ‘Welcome’, ‘Acknowledgement’ and ‘Elder’. Crocheted netting shrouded in meaning and symbols, the cloaks seem to represent the merging of a naturally formed and synchronized culture with that of colonial culture. Incorporated into the crocheted fabric are glass beads, mirrors, fabric, and religious nick-nacks, all adorned with a possum fur collar and emu feather trim. Reflected on the other side of this gallery are three long and exquisite necklaces draped over and over, detailed and meticulous, made of downy cockatoo and galah feather, petite gumnuts, seed, and river reed beads. Adjacent is a video by Maree Clarke: a form emerging from, is born of, the landscape. It is a women in a long black dress. She then returns to the landscape.
In the final room are the slogans of change: banners from marches, pickets, camp-outs and protests in collage from floor to ceiling. I turn out of the final gallery and spot that lime green banner again by Reko Rennie. It is suspended from the ceiling just outside the gallery space. It is long and narrow and on it states the message: ‘Always have been, always will be’. I step from the quiet coolness back into the sun bleached hot, dusty, air.
Curators: Paola Balla & Max Delany
17 December 2016 – 26 March 2017
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA)
Sovereignty 2016–17, installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Photograph: Andrew Curtis. Courtesy Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne