Queensland Art Gallery 3 July - 30 October 2004
The invitation came through the mail: Celebrate 'Blak Insights: Contemporary Indigenous Art from the Queensland Art Gallery Collection. The invitation was for a party held on Saturday 3rd July to celebrate three things: NAIDOC week, the opening of the exhibition, and the closing of the first day of an indigenous conference.
But I didn't know all the details at the time. All I knew was that the sculpture courtyard of the Queensland Art Gallery has been home to some of the most memorable events and off-the-record discussions in this town, and this, plus the fact that Djing was provided by Kina from blackbear with special guests Indigenous Intrudaz made the invite seem enough to lever me out of a temporary malaise. I'd just come back from a dispirited and flat Biennale of Sydney and the prospect of more art seemed like mild masochism.
So I bundled 4 kids together as ammunition against boredom.
No need. I was unprepared for the consequences. Sometimes a new 'hang' can bring together the most familiar things in the most revelatory ways. Perhaps it was the feeling of being salvaged from the dreary depths of the Biennale, Perhaps it was the fact that I was viewing the work at night in an empty gallery. Whichever, the effect of the works was staggering.
At the entrance to the show Vernon Ah Kee's litany was delivered in a diagonal slash. Black words tearing apart a white background. No compromise to performing as a native. No sepia. No dots. Instead, an eloquent and moving synopsis of the contradictions, pain and anger of being Aboriginal. Moving and haunting, the spirit of this work was a fitting re-introduction to the poignant Night Cries, which is presented small and with the precision of a plasma screen, almost like a painting, at the front of Gallery Two.
The magic of Moffatt's work lies in its entangled strands of grief and anger, fear and hope that threaten to pull any semblance of narrative under. The scene where the Aboriginal girl child, her neck wound around with thick black straps of wrack, sobs uncontrollably amidst the rocks that are continually pounded by a relentless sea, is an unforgettable image. At this most recent viewing I was struck by the extent to which the child looks so much like Moffatt, and by the fact that the kelp around her neck could as easily be interpreted as skeins and skeins of thick video tape. And the final scene, when a prone Marcia Langton lies sobbing like an inconsolable child beside the dead body of her mother/overlord introduces all the complexities that are so much the fabric of contemporary indigenous culture in Australia.
The room beyond is hung with photographs: more by Tracey Moffatt, Destiny Deacon, Michael Riley, Darren Siwes, Brook Andrew. The immediate effect is that the works are as cool as the medium suggests, but a longer looks bring in all the layers of passion and deadly humour that characterise so much contemporary Indigenous work.
Not until you head down the lifts to the Watermall are you forced to rub shoulders with paintings – either side hang six by Richard Bell that act as further reminders that we are in the land of the convincing and articulate: titles like I live outside your comfort zone and Hide your kidz seem directed in a personal way.
Yet in this exhibition the delight the works offer is more than equal to their challenge.
Ken Thaiday's dance masks, James Eseli's headdresses and Edrick Tabuai's witchdoctor mask are charged with Torres Strait colour and energy. The black and white prints of Dennis Nona, Laurie Nona and Alick Tipoti are no less energetic – the choppy restlessness of their marks is mesmerising. Other galleries are filled with all kinds of contemporary indigenous expressions: new invisibility paintings from Yirrkala, works from Arnhem Land, fibre works from Maningrida and Ramingining, feathered poles from Elcho Island, and new paintings and pots from Hermannsburg.
Outside in the courtyard the party was in full post-conference swing – people were being fed and watered in the style for which the QAG has become justifiably well known. The music was pumping. People were talking. The energy level was high.
The conference, as it turned out, was invitation-only – and was for indigenous speakers only. And according to all accounts a huge success. No wonder spirits were soaring. Sure there were complaints in the air. For sure there had been frictions and heated words and uncomfortable revelations. But when we think back at the number of times indigenous speakers have had the opportunity of opening up the debate in a situation that was sufficiently informal, sufficiently comfortable, to generate a critical mass, we are not plagued by examples.
Some of the white participants were feeling a little bruised. It's not often we whitefellas get a chance to feel we are part of the minority. Some of the facts and feelings about black/white relations in this country seem different when you have to press the flesh a little more closely. I put the matter to Vernon Ah Kee at the time. He seemed unperturbed, more interested in following the words of the Indigenous Intrudaz - a group of young rappers from the outer suburbs of Brisbane. And no wonder. 'This is where the real conference takes place,' he said. More Australian galleries and institutions might do well to keep this emphasis on hospitality in mind the next time they plan an event.