Ethical relations, sovereign foundations

This curatorial essay was written for the exhibition standing still; looking back, looking forward at Incinerator Gallery, Moonee Ponds (2 June – 29 July 2018).

“Indigenous art has always served a community function; it was never viewed as something separate from life itself.”[1]

Urban Aboriginal artists have spent the better part of a few decades resisting the essentialist modes of classification that western art history attempts to define their work by. If it doesn’t meet the accepted standard of ‘authenticity’ as determined by white ‘experts’, then it ‘just isn’t Aboriginal enough’; if white critics and curators are unable to register it through their usual theoretical channels, then it ‘simply can’t be considered contemporary’. Given that the subject matter of urban Aboriginal art diverts from Central Desert dot painting or ‘traditional’ bark painting, where are the familiar visual markers of ‘culture’ to be found? Why are white critics and curators so determined to pigeonhole work that fails to mimic ‘acceptable’ aesthetics? One answer could be that this reaffirms their perceived authority on Aboriginal art, to have the final say on what qualifies as ‘authentic’. The irony of this scenario is that non-Aboriginal critics and curators have spent more time avoiding genuine and sustained contemplation of urban Aboriginal art than they have taking on the responsibility of educating themselves about the history and politics of this dynamic social and cultural movement.

As a result, there is still a lack of critical dialogue around urban Aboriginal art. The work is often deemed too political or read exclusively as dealing with ‘difficult’ issues. Meanwhile, white artists have the freedom to be as boundary-pushing as they please, celebrated for taking a radical stance on controversial topics, or refusing to pander to the more conservative echelons of the (white) art world. There is no pressure on white artists to prove their ‘whiteness’; they occupy a default position. Nor is their work reduced to the categories of ‘traditional’ vs. ‘contemporary’. Part of the ongoing obligation of white curators and critics (including the author of this essay) in unlearning these culturally insensitive stereotypes is to think locally and act locally – to connect with Aboriginal narratives on our own doorstep. As Mununjali writer Ellen van Neerven has stated, “white art is ‘nowhere’. Without a history of white art there may be more attention paid to the local”.[2] standing still; looking back, looking forward celebrates the “diaspora of Aboriginality” across contemporary urban contexts and privileges Aboriginal ways of knowing.[3]

monksandgroom
Amala Groom and Nicole Monks, momentous, 2018, production still. Image courtesy of the artists.

Artists Dean Cross, Brad Darkson, Katie West, Ashley Perry, Amala Groom and Nicole Monks have embarked on a project of compelling the viewer to abandon narrow historical prescriptions of Aboriginality. Their works reflect the complexity of lived experience “across and between the multiples in cultures”.[4] Cross enacts a strategic pastiche of Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) in response to the pervasive reading of Aboriginal cultural expressions as ancient phenomena trapped in a rigid time warp. He also playfully deconstructs racist caricatures of Aboriginality found on kitsch domestic items. Darkson uses sly humour to highlight the alarming misappropriation of Aboriginal art; in this instance, dot painting; and the lack of culpability for committing this blatant cultural theft. West draws on the lessons of her ancestors in an installation that resonates with embodied knowledge, guided by an open-ended approach to creative practice. Perry embraces his maternal heritage through a contemporary reworking of an important ceremonial object: the ‘moon prop’ used by his great-grandmother during the Kun-ji:-yil Ba:-bun (Moon Corroboree). Groom and Monks stand shoulder to shoulder in a collaboration that foregrounds sensory awareness and the power of stillness.

Curator and proud Palawa woman Jessica Clark employs a “deliberative staging of unfamiliar aesthetics” in order to subvert the western art hierarchy.[5] The artists featured in this exhibition refuse to have their identities reduced to a version of Aboriginality that is palatable for non-Aboriginal audiences. Instead, they hold a mirror up to white Australia, demanding that it confront the deafening silence which makes settler populations complicit in perpetuating colonial privilege.[6] For the viewer, this means entering into a mutual agreement with each artist that you will ‘do the work’ of interacting critically with their ideas, taking into account your own position as an interloper on sovereign Wurundjeri land. In the words of Yamatji academic Stephen Gilchrist, these cross-cultural encounters can be thought of as “pluralistic coalitionary engagements”.[7] If one experiences discomfort as a result of acknowledging their own role in maintaining power relations, this is exactly as it should be. Decentring whiteness, or “acting politically with self-understanding” is not meant to be an easy ride.[8] It forms part of the larger task of decolonising our solidarity with First Nations peoples.[9]

standing still; looking back, looking forward is timed to coincide with both National Reconciliation Week and NAIDOC Week 2018. These are significant dates on the calendar for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider Australian community, as they offer a chance for all of us to collectively reflect on how the past continues to shape the present and guide the future. As this year’s guest curator of Incinerator Gallery’s Indigenous-focused exhibition, Clark explores three intersecting themes: non-linear concepts of time, the continuing practice of culture, and self-determination. She establishes “an Indigenous theoretical framework that underscores the experiential aesthetics of Indigenous art practice”.[10] Memory and observation are tools for critical commentary, and each artist has responded to dominant cultural assumptions of Aboriginality by reasserting their right to determine their own social, cultural and political realities. As Yorta Yorta woman and curator Kimberley Moulton states, “there is strength in challenging the status quo, rejecting the pattern that our art, bodies and culture are only noticed when recognised by the white centre”.[11] As a non-Aboriginal ally committed to working in partnership with First Nations cultural practitioners, I couldn’t agree more.

Chloé Hazelwood is an emerging curator and arts writer based in Naarm (Melbourne).

[1] The world is not a foreign land, exh. cat., The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2014, 56

[2] UNFINISHED BUSINESS: Perspectives on art and feminism, exh. cat., Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2017, 91

[3] Standing still; looking back, looking forward, exh. cat., Incinerator Gallery, Moonee Ponds, 2018

[4] Standing still; looking back, looking forward, exh. cat., Incinerator Gallery, Moonee Ponds, 2018

[5] The world is not a foreign land, exh. cat., The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2014, 58

[6] Clare Land, ‘Decolonising activism/deactivating colonialism’, ALAR: Action Learning and Research Journal, 17(2), 2011, 55

[7] The world is not a foreign land, exh. cat., The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2014, 56

[8] Clare Land, ‘Decolonising activism/deactivating colonialism’, ALAR: Action Learning and Research Journal, 17(2), 2011, 53

[9] Clare Land, ‘Decolonising activism/deactivating colonialism’, ALAR: Action Learning and Research Journal, 17(2), 2011

[10] The world is not a foreign land, exh. cat., The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, 2014, 58

[11] Sovereignty, exh. Cat., Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2016, 31

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