Blak Beauty and Images from the Sea

Exhibition reviews Blak Beauty February 6- May 2 1999 Curated by Brook Andrew Images from the Sea December 5 1998- June 27 1999 Djamu Gallery: Australian Museum at Customs House, Sydney NSW

In December 1998 the Australian Museum opened its new space at Customs House, djamu gallery, with the aim of exhibiting its indigenous Australian and Pacific collections. djamu is an Eora word meaning "I am here", and it was chosen to indicate the decision of the Museum to allow an indigenous presence back to Circular Quay and into the museum itself. Brook Andrew, better known for his own art practice, is the first indigenous curator to work at djamu gallery. His exhibition, blak beauty, was programmed as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, as the campness of its installation testifies.

blak beauty shares the space with another exhibition, Images from the Sea, curated by the Australian Museum. The two shows, by chance side by side, create an interesting contrast and in their difference of aims and appearances stimulate some reflections on the nature of exhibiting Australian indigenous objects. While blak beauty is the result of the vision of an artist-curator, Images from the Sea is a good example of 'ethnographic' display. The latter show is built around the central idea of illustrating the complex relationship that Aboriginal people of the Top End have with the sea. This is explored in four sections comprising the creation stories of the Djankawu and Djambuwal the Thunderman, a group of Tiwi Pukamani poles from Bathurst and Melville Islands, the Morning Star Ceremony bark paintings collected by Djon Mundine in Ramingining, and a last section of carved objects and bark paintings depicting sea life. Many of these objects are outstanding and their display is unpretentious.
Long didactic captions, quotations and maps familiarise the visitor with the cultural context of the exhibits, explaining their usage and translating their histories. Thus the information surrounding these exhibits delivers a promise of 'authenticity', 'tradition' and transparency. Yet, this kind of exhibition reinforces the 'otherness' of Yolngu life and culture, leaving the visitor with the impression of a separated 'traditional' world floating outside history and change. In the choice of objects, for instance, Images from the Sea is located inside the convention started with the 19th century world's fairs and continued across this century, of exhibiting only 'traditional' objects collected in areas far away from urban Australia. blak beauty is a possible counterpoint to this kind of exhibition. Like a precious gem, it is tucked away in a shimmering black cocoon of feather boas, black walls, mirrors and artificial lights in the furthest rooms of the gallery.
There is no precise way in or way out, there are no captions and the objects on display can be identified only by reading the catalogue. In this contextual void the trappings of ethnographic display appear to be critiqued in favour of an all-aesthetic approach. Other conventions seem to suffer the same fate. blak beauty mockingly flirts with the jewel store type of display sometimes used to exhibit 'primitive' art, all dramatic spotlights on cases containing the gems.

Here this Tiffany approach to objects is, tongue in cheek, appropriated and conflated. Similarly the old cabinet of curiosity is re-invented in a wondrous confusion of objects and natural memorabilia shown together. A case harbours bracelets from Yirrkala (N.T.) held by a black velvet hand, a weedy sea dragon preserved in alcohol, pieces of black ochre from the Northern Territory, white ochre from New South Wales and green sea turtle eggs. To celebrate the variety and beauty against any other reading of indigenous objects Andrew has chosen a wide range of artefacts. Objects acquired early this century, such as a pearl nautilus chest ornament from Kuku-Yalanji country (Queensland), are exhibited together with contemporary necklaces by Lola Green and Val MacSween from Cape Barron Island, Tasmania. A glass bowl made in 1997 by Pamela Taylor is a new interpretation of the women's wooden carrying dish, the coolamon. In another case a North Queensland artist (non-recorded) has used woven wool and pearl buttons into a headband instead of plant fibre and shells. These pieces might look just beautiful but they also uncover another narrative curled within Andrew's aesthetic approach. As signs and reminders of how external influences are incorporated into pre-existing practices they speak of diverse indigenous cultures drawn together from different times and areas (all scrupulously recorded in the catalogue) finally disclosing the variety and the continuities inside the changes of Aboriginal culture.

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