Sell-Abrasion of our Nations

Curator and artist Brenda Croft gets experiential in telling about Australia Day, her latest exhibition Stop (the) gap and what is shared by indigenous people around the globe.

Stop(the)gap: indigenous art in motion was a multidisciplinary exhibition and moving image project curated by Brenda Croft and held in conjunction with the BigPond Adelaide Film Festival and the Anne and Gordon Samstag Museum of Art, 24 February - 21 April 2011.

The project explored the fertile ground between the visual arts and cinema. Below an excerpt from Croft's catalogue essay and some of her observations of the site specific part of the event at Port Adelaide.

Driving slowly down the coastal esplanade on a classic antipodean summer’s day, I am gripped with a sense of unease and rising irritation. It’s the country’s biggest public holiday: Australia Day.
Everywhere I turn, my eyeballs are beset by the colours of another country – the red, the white, and the true blue. Flags are flying from every second car, cruisin’ for a nationalistic bruisin’, embroidered on hats, printed on bikinis, shirts and swimmers, in temporary tattoos adorning the faces and arms of young and old, snapping breezily from public and private flagpoles. The faces are overwhelmingly white, their gait relaxed and confident. The expectation is that all of us are willing to be co-opted into this annual back-slapping, colonial, self-righteous ritual.

"I’m a big advocate of the Australian flag; I want it to stay the same." 2

Cars of every shape, shade and decade drive by, reddened arms resting lazily on open windows, drivers smugly showin’ off... but for whom, and to what purpose? And why do I feel like I am in the Deep South of the US of A? Maybe my unease is linked to how these innocuous symbols of stars and nationalistic colours have been increasingly appropriated for perversely patriotic purposes, and used like weapons.

“Australia. If you don’t love it, leave.” 3

With a sense of relief, I spy the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags hanging from the second floor of an ocean-front balcony, a defiant riposte to the (for now) restrained public gatherings on beaches, parks and lawns all over the country, a mood that will slowly but likely take a turn for the worse as the day lengthens, night starts to fall and more grog is consumed. Ironic, isn’t it, how some sectors of the community are encouraged to drink in public places, while others are condemned for it?

The red, black and gold of the Aboriginal flag4 first flew almost 40 years ago here in Adelaide, childhood home of our flame-haired Prime Minister as well as revered Aussie icons such as Cold Chisel and Paul Kelly.5

On 2 July 2009, the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, issued a press release outlining the Federal Government’s determination to “close the gap” of inequity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. This initiative was allegedly created to build upon the former conservative government’s 2007 parting gift to Indigenous people in remote Top End communities: the Northern Territory Emergency Response, otherwise known as The Intervention.

In The Intervention, government authorities - the army, in some cases - forcibly entered Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory to place restrictions upon inhabitants. These restrictions included the quarantining of welfare payments, and the compulsory introduction of a Basics Card which enabled recipients to purchase items deemed 'essential’ from the local store. Many people considered the card nothing but a return to the days of rations and apartheid-like regulations, particularly considering the fact that the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 was suspended in order for these measures to be introduced. How does this politically regressive action relate to international Indigenous experience, and what role do visual artists have to play in response?

Indigenous communities around the globe share colonial histories of dispossession, injustice, inequity and misrepresentation. Even in the 21st Century, contemporary Indigenous art continues to be configured through the historical contexts of Western art; its complex diversities and issues are distilled through Western perspectives of “authenticity”, “authority”, and “tradition”. Through these practices, the capacity of contemporary Indigenous communities to engage globally with each other, across disciplines and ever-shifting borders, is misconstrued and ignored.

***

Across town, an outdoor event associated with the Stop(the)gap exhibition took place over three warm summer evenings from 9 pm to midnight. Ethereal images glided across the 19th century red brick surface of Hart’s Mill in the continual looping of the co-joined works by Aboriginal artists r e a and Genevieve Grieves. The artists’ explicitly female sensibilities are honed by the historical resonances of their forebears, re-imagining those unrecorded moments at the interface of colonial culture-clash; as ancient experience fractures under the impact of imperial dominance. Black, red, white and blue echo off staged and authentic backdrops – the confining studio set-up and the forbidding, blackened Australian bush. Whose gaze is being mirrored, who is observer, who is observed? The ghosts in the (time) machine played across the wall of the derelict building, allowing the viewer to imagine them paying tribute to the spirit of local Kaurna woman Lartelare and her forebears, embracing the shared histories of Aboriginal women and their descendants nearly two centuries past.

A lovely moment occurred on the first night of projections, when three gangly Anglo-Australian youths, shirtless and carrying long-boards, appeared on the periphery of our small group watching the spectacle. Encouraged to come closer to see the images front-on, they sat for over an hour, watching the silent images intently, talking softly among themselves and recording moments on their mobile phones. When queried as to how they had come to the outdoor screening, they replied that they had seen the images from across the other side of the river, while skating along the waterfront near the recently created park named in honour of Lartelare. Intrigued, they crossed the bridge in order to have a better vantage point.

One venue for Stop(the)gap was encased in the climate-controlled pristine contemporary art space, the other was open to the elements, clouds gathering overhead hinting of rain in the humid summer night, with fat droplets hitting both the ground and spectators like kisses from above.

White cube/Black box Blak,
Brown and Red standpoints
Our day will come.

(Stop(the)gap artists were Rebecca Belmore of Anishinaabe-Canadian heritage, Dana Claxton from the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux nation, Alan Michelson a Mohawk member of Six Nations of the Grand River (Haudenosaunee or Iroquois), Nova Paul of Te Uri Ro Roi and Te Parawhau / Ngâ Puhi descent, Lisa Reihana, of Ngãpuhi: Ngãti Hine, Ngãi Tu descent, Warwick Thornton a Kaytej man from Central Australia, r e a from the Gamilaraay/Wailwan peoples and Genevieve Grieves from the Worimi people.)

1 26 January 1988 was Australia’s bicentennial, an event for which the national slogan was “Celebration of a nation”, presenting a white-washed country. The day became known as “Invasion/Survival Day” for Indigenous people and their supporters. A satirical view is that it is the official celebration of Australia’s first boat people or illegal immigrants.

2 Prime Minister Julia Gillard, ABC Radio National, 26 January 2011. Born in Wales in 1961, Gillard emigrated with her family to Adelaide in 1966.

3 For further opinions see Lisa Pryor, ‘Flying the flag for an upside-down kind of patriotism’, Sydney Morning Herald, January 6, 2007; Mark Seymour, ‘Australia. I love it, but leave me out of the flag-waving’, The Age, January 24, 2010.

4 Harold Thomas, a Luritja/Wombai man from Central Australia, living in Adelaide, designed the Aboriginal flag “created as a ‘symbol of unity and national identity for Aboriginal people during the land rights movement of the early 1970s.” First flown on National Aborigines’ Day March in Adelaide, 1971. www.aiatsis.gov.au/fastfacts/AboriginalFlag.html.

5 Cold Chisel formed in Adelaide in the early 1970s, disbanded in 1983, and reformed in 2009. Paul Kelly and Indigenous musician/activist Kev Carmody’s song ‘From little things, big things grow’ is widely regarded as an unofficial anthem of Aboriginal resistance to European domination and the start of the national land rights movement.

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