The Third National Indigenous Art Triennial: Defying Empire at the National Gallery of Australia would have been unimaginable 50 years ago. Despite the widespread goodwill towards Aboriginal people in 1967, there was little recognition that they had a living visual culture. Those few curators, such as the late Tony Tuckson, who admired the aesthetic qualities of the intricate forms made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote areas of the north, rejected as kitsch works by artists such as Albert Namatjira who incorporated western traditions.
For the last three decades, Indigenous artists working in non-traditional media have made their mark, including at the two preceding National Indigenous Art Triennials and at national and international art exhibitions – including the Venice Biennale. It is not news to say that some of Australia’s most admired artists are Indigenous, so why is Defying Empire such a satisfying exhibition?
It all comes back to that year, 1967. Curator Tina Baum has woven a narrative and an argument around the legacy of that remarkable act of national unity when 90.77% of Australians voted to include Aboriginal people in the census, and to enable laws to be made on their behalf.
Ray Ken of the Pitjantjatjara/Yankunyatjara peoples and Lola Greeno of the Pakana people were adults in 1967. Maree Clarke of the Mutti Mutti/ Yorta Yorta/Wurrung peoples was a small child. Karla Dickens, a Wuradjuri woman was born months after, while Sebastian Arrow of the Yawuru came a generation later in 1994 – but all the artists here can claim to be heirs of the Referendum.
The word “1967” dominates Reko Rennie’s NGA Play installation at the entrance foyer of the building. This forms part of a special interactive project created for the exhibition, challenging adults and children alike. His defiant banner, Always Here, waves at the top of the escalators. His traditional Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay patterns also evoke camouflage.
Some Indigenous Australians survived over the years by camouflaging who they were, protected by paler skin. Others were stolen, their true identities hidden from themselves by the camouflage of institutional lies. This second history of camouflage is especially relevant to Reko Rennie’s OA RR, a gloriously dappled Rolls Royce parked at the National Gallery’s entrance.
Rennie’s grandmother was stolen and in her honour he has recorded his return to Kamilaroi land, filming from above the circular tracks in the red dirt made by the car to assert the ownership of the Kamilaroi people.
The running sore of the legacy of the stolen children runs through Defying Empire. Many of the artists are descendents of stolen children, but for Sandra Hill it is even more immediate. She is a Nyoongar woman who as a child was stolen, as were her mother and grandmother before her. In her Thin Veneer, layers of varnished wood stamp out the homogenised pattern into which she can never fit.
That question of identity lies at the core of Brenda L. Croft’s work. Croft was the curator of Culture Warriors, the first National Indigenous Triennial in 2007, but in recent years has turned her gaze away from the work of others and onto the legacy of her father Joe who was stolen from his Gurindji/Malgnin/Mudparra family when a small child. Her journey back to Gurindji country and the consequence of the Wave Hill walk-off is explored in great detail at Still in my mind, currently on view at UNSW Galleries.
The NGA work focuses on the tough landscape around Wave Hill, the remarkable portrait shut/mouth/scream, based on a fragment study of her grandmother’s face.
As well as children stolen, the history of race relations in Australia is of people murdered, sometimes indiscriminately as in Judy Watson’s exquisite record, the names of places – part of a project to record all the sites of massacres of Aboriginal people in Australia.
Then there are the particular events. Dale Harding’s their little black slaves perished in isolation evokes the 1930 killing of a girl forced into domestic labour and killed when her wooden prison shack caught fire. Harding’s reconstruction includes the pungent smell of the black burnt walls. Harding, a descendent of the Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal peoples, is only too aware of the extent of the massacres in Queensland in the 19th century.
Black days in the Dawson River Country places Victorian style dresses to commemorate the murder of a young girl, killed in broad daylight in the main street of the town now known as Toowoomba. Her murderer (wrongly) claimed she was wearing a dress owned by his murdered mother.
Not all the deaths were deliberate. The glass artist Yhonnie Scarce, of the Kokatha/Nukunu peoples in South Australia, was born in Woomera. She has created Thunder Raining Poison, where glass yams evoke the poison rain that fell on her grandfather’s country at Maralinga bringing sickness and death. Her magnificent control of the medium is seen in the Glass Bomb (Blue Danube) series where dark glass yams are contained in larger glass bombs – blown glass inside blown glass.
The colonial legacies of mass killings are also at the core of work by Julie Gough, from the Trawlwoolway people of Tasmania. Her Hunting Ground videos revisit the site of some of the terrible massacres of the early 19th century, and incorporate reproductions of the smug letters recording the deaths of hundreds of people, offering their bodies for dissection.
A fellow Tasmanian, Lola Greeno of the Pakena people, works in the ancient tradition of making shell necklaces, which she has exhibited for many years. She has produced a virtuoso series of works, with large mussel shells interspersing more delicate shapes. I have become so used to seeing (and admiring) her work over the years that it was a surprise to see her strike a different note.
The room in which Greeno’s work is displayed is near the entrance to the dedicated exhibition space, and is almost a separate homage to the first generation of Indigenous artists to have lived most of their creative life recognised as such.
Greeno from Tasmania, Yvonne Koolmatrie of the Ngarrindjeri people from South Australia, Pedro Wonseaamirri of the Tiwi people from Melville Island and Ken Thaiday senior of the Mariam Mer people of the Torres Strait, have well established records of exhibiting their work in national and international exhibitions.
Koolmatrie’s giant woven eel traps and baskets floated in the Australian pavillion in the Venice Biennale in 1997, her style is well established. But as well as the more familiar works, confidently executed, the exhibition includes a woven spiny echidna, complete with genuine echidna quills.
Ken Thaiday senior’s work has evolved from his original headdresses used in Torres Strait Island dance, to giant variations on these. His presence, along with that of Brian Robinson is a reminder that the reason the National Gallery has named this exhibition the Indigenous Triennial and not Aboriginal is that the people of the Torres Strait Islands may relate to Aboriginal culture, but remain distinct.
It brings into focus the central curatorial concern: how to show the complexities and the unities of an Indigenous culture that crosses both geography and generations, that deals with loss and redemption, that recognises the continuing intermingling of blood in what might be eight generations of colonisation, and yet never loses identity.
There’s a sense of the this in Raymond Zada’s video installation, At Face Value, that morphs a series of faces from black to blonde, from male to female, in a continual questioning of the notion of identity.
Tony Albert of Queensland’s Girramay/Yidinji/Kuku-Yalanji peoples has a different take on the notion of identity. He honours the many Indigenous soldiers who fought in Australia’s wars as equals to their white comrades only to face discrimination on their return. This is a part of a continuing project on his part as he is also responsible for the Aboriginal war memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park.
Albert’s work hangs near the quiet exposition of the most enduring act of defiance of empire – Jonathan Jones and Uncle Stan Grant Senior reinserting traditional Wiradjuri murru (design) into 19th century colonial prints. Uncle Stan Grant Senior has been a leader in the revival of Wiradjuri as a living language, which is also a part of the national revival of Aboriginal languages and the recovery of lost histories.
The defiance of Empire is not about being brash, but about endurance. While empires rise, they also fall. Those who appeared be conquered are now seen to be the long-term victors.
Defying Empire is at the National Gallery of Australia from 26 May – 10 September 2017.