Making History

Stephanie Radok takes the temperature of Aboriginal art and history in 2012.

Christian Thompson Down Under World 2012, 100 cm x 100 cm, C-Type print, Fuji Pearl (Metallic) paper. Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne.

Surrounded by a sea of white faces, there are few places where your sovereignty as an Aboriginal person is acknowledged.

Ali Gumillya Baker, 'Long Way Home', Artlink June 2012, page 84.

If Australians could find the courage to be proud of Aboriginal people and their culture - then Australia could indeed be a place of meaningful significance.

Fiona Foley, ‘The Elephant in the Room’, Artlink June 2012, page 66.

On June 3 in 1992 the Australian High Court announced its historic decision to overturn the legal doctrine of terra nullius. June 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the Mabo ruling.

Eddie Mabo worked as a gardener at James Cook University in Townsville. He also attended lectures and asked questions. When he found out that the land that had been handed down to him on Mer (Murray Island) was considered to be Crown land he, with others – fellow Torres Strait Islander owners and lawyers, commenced ten years of court cases ending in the Mabo ruling, though sadly he died in January 1992, at the age of 55, before it was decided.

Aboriginal history. Australian history. World history. Of great significance.

In 2011 lawyer, businesswoman and author Terri Janke gave the bi-annual Mabo oration organised by the Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland. She titled it Follow the stars: Indigenous culture, knowledge and intellectual property rights. Janke proposed a National Indigenous Cultural Authority to assist the users and owners of cultural expression to negotiate and agree on uses of cultural material. She said: "In recognition of Indigenous legal systems, the principle of Tag Mauki Mauki, Teter Mauki Mauki remains strong. ‘Your hand can’t take something that does not belong to you unless you have permission. Your feet cannot walk in, or through someone else’s land, unless there is permission.’"
In this issue of Artlink Indigenous, in conversation with broadcaster, writer and Artlink co-editor Daniel Browning, curator Hetti Perkins expands on her idea of a National Indigenous Cultural Institution – “a place of our own”.
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In March 2012 living national treasure and legendary singer Jimmy Little died at the age of 75. In 2006, after a kidney transplant, he began the Jimmy Little Foundation to improve renal health across Indigenous communities in regional and remote Australia. In the tributes and documentaries about this much-loved man what was remarkable to me was how handsome and graceful he was and what an amazing voice he had.

In May 2012 a famous Yolgnu woman artist died at the age of 69. Her artwork is in collections all over Australia and embedded in the Musée du quai Branly in Paris. She often painted the stars and Garak (the universe). In 2004 at an opening of one of her exhibitions in Melbourne she said: “There are many stars, more than we can count. We need the stars, they give us light. And people – we all need each other. There are many sorts of people: we need them all.”

On June 2, 2011 the first Artlink Indigenous was launched at the BMW Edge at Federation Square in Melbourne as part of the City of Melbourne’s Talk blak, talking back: conversations on political blak art. Speakers included writer Tony Birch, artists Vernon Ah Kee and Bindi Cole. Cole showed her video Seventy Times Seven, a tough and uncompromising work involving close-up faces of different Aboriginal people repeating the emotive words: “I forgive you.” They are non-mainstream faces that many Australians may never have looked at for so long a time and as they speak these faces soften and shift as they repeat these ‘healing’ words. Thus the work becomes an experiential watershed for both its participants and its spectators, if we enter into it.

In this issue of Artlink curator Bruce McLean writes about Cole’s work while über-curator Djon Mundine, in his essay written for My Darling Patricia’s production of Posts in the Paddock, a massacre story performed by both sides of the families involved, queries whether forgiveness is a personal or a national issue. He says “Forgiveness is not about forgetting but remembering.”

On June 28, 2011 the first Artlink Indigenous was launched in London at October Gallery, a place founded in 1979 as an educational, residential, visionary gallery and hub for art from all over the world. At the Artlink Indigenous Forum that accompanied the launch the speakers included Vernon Ah Kee and Fiona Foley. Ah Kee stated that no-one had ever criticised his work and when asked why he said that it was because they were afraid. This critical issue of the ‘dearth of criticism of Aboriginal art’ will be seriously addressed in the next Artlink Indigenous in 2013.

As the final contribution to the Artlink Indigenous Forum in London Christian Thompson performed a condensed version of a work called Tree of Knowledge that he developed for his Masters of Theatre at the Amsterdam School of Arts (Dasarts) Amsterdam. Thompson is currently a PhD candidate at Oxford University.

His newest exhibition is called We Bury Our Own and responds to the collections of the famous Oxford-based Pitt Rivers Museum, a nineteenth century time capsule of artefacts collected from all over the world.

In an interview Thompson said: “The items on show are not mere Imperialist trophies and we’re not the only ones to have suffered colonisation. There’s a global movement of Indigenous dispossessed people working to rewrite distorted stories of culture, as seen through colonialists’ eyes.”

Last June in Tree of Knowledge Thompson entered the room clad in multiple layers of fleecy hoodies which he removed one by one. As he did so a recorded harsh mechanical voice said: “Aboriginal stars Aboriginal Art Aboriginal Porn Stars Aboriginal Camera Aboriginal Cock Aboriginal Dog Aboriginal Fuck Aboriginal Ass Aboriginal Kylie Minogue Aboriginal Computer Aboriginal Ipod Aboriginal Glitter Aboriginal Casualty Aboriginal Land Aboriginal Hair Aboriginal Legs Aboriginal Aboriginal Cigarettes Aboriginal Alcohol Aboriginal Doll Aboriginal Bulgarian Aboriginal Jacket Aboriginal Fashion Aboriginal Nicole Kidman Aboriginal Chair Aboriginal She Aboriginal Rights Aboriginal Bjork Aboriginal Site Aboriginal Child Aboriginal…”

And so on and on, this is just a sample of the script which went on for forty minutes in its original manifestation. The audience laughed, felt uncomfortable, and both experienced and was confronted by the complexity of what it means to put the word Aboriginal in front of another word, any other word. The work finishes with Thompson dancing aggressively while singing hauntingly in language.

This issue of Artlink contains the work of artists and writers from all over Australia engaging with the making of history, the untangling, the analysis, the writing and rewriting.

And 2012 marks forty years since the formation of Papunya Tula Pty, Ltd in Central Australia. And forty years of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy occupying land in the heart of the nation’s capital. And as I write people are being removed from an occupation of Musgrave Park in Brisbane.

Aboriginal history, Australian history, world history of great significance.

Christian Thompson’s exhibition We Bury Our Own will be shown at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, Melbourne, 29 May --– 23 June 2012 and at Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 26 June – 6 December 2012.

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