The elephant in the room: public art in Brisbane

Artist-activist Fiona Foley recounts a recent incident of the commissioning of a public art work for Kurilpa (place of the kuril or native water rat). Kurilpa is the cultural precinct where GOMA is located. Foley imagines works by prominent Queensland Aboriginal artists dotted along that place.

I have a responsibility to be much more than simply a practising artist. This includes advocating on behalf of my community when faced with disturbing normative cultural practices that are taking place in Australia today.

While living in Algeria, Frantz Fanon wrote "The settler makes history; his life is an epoch, an Odyssey'”.1 The act of rewriting history and state violence toward Australia’s Indigenous nations belongs to this long epoch in the unending history of colonialism.

Over my lifetime, acts of dispossession towards Indigenous artists, our stories, our voices, culture, philosophy, intellect, politic and history continue in Queensland. I consider myself lucky to have had opportunities to tell another side of history through my public art. This has come about because I use my intellect to ponder serious questions.

As a child the first question I remember asking myself was "why aren’t there any Badtjala people living on Fraser Island?”. The answer to that question did not come during my six years in primary school, or my six years in high school or my six years in tertiary institutions - but after. No teacher in the Australian education system was able to provide me with any knowledge or understanding on that neglected aspect of Australian history. The answers came slowly – through a process of self-education. It was through the work of authors such as C.D. Rowley, Henry Reynolds, Raymond Evans and Rosalind Kidd that I gained insights into Australian cultural practices that set the tone for how we treat one another in the contemporary sphere and choose to validate cultures or destroy them.

Largely, the premise behind my public art is to write Aboriginal people, Aboriginal nations and Aboriginal history back into the Australian narrative. I do this because we have been written out too often.

I respond in a number of ways to statements I hear, articles I read or societal ironies I see. In response to a Queensland Art Gallery curator who made the comment that, “Australia had been settled peacefully”2, I created the permanent sculptural installation Witnessing to Silence (2004). Positioned outside the Brisbane Magistrates Court this sculpture reveals the 94 massacres that took place in Queensland. I employed a researcher to find out the place names of where Aboriginal people died in this brutal fashion. I dared to ask the question, how many massacres took place in this state? And there on the public record was my answer.

In response to Dr Rosalind Kidd’s publication The Way We Civilize I created Black Opium (2006) on the fourth level of the State Library of Queensland. This sculpture and suite of rooms speaks of the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of Sale of Opium Act 1897. When opium use was legal in Queensland, issuing of licences by the Queensland government generated annual revenue. Aboriginal people were paid in opium ash for an honest day’s work. This rendered a race of people addicted to opium and affected by ill health.

I produced another public artwork Sugar Cubes (2009) on the banks of the Pioneer River in Mackay in north Queensland in response to Mrs Rowena Trieve, who told me about her South Sea Islander grandmother, who was 15 years old when she was brought to these shores and later shackled on a plantation in Mackay.3 This sculpture tells of the forced 'blackbirding’ of South Sea Islander men, women and children from their islands to Queensland for indentured work on sugar cane plantations, sometimes labouring in chains.

The Possessive White Space
In Australia we currently live in two competing spaces. Through dispossessing the original peoples and denying their sovereignty the first part of the equation begins. The taking of Aboriginal lands historically has made it easy for the continuation of civic spaces to privilege whiteness. To the detriment of Indigenous knowledge systems, constructs of power are used to position cultures in the visual landscape.

I want to unpack for you one example that is unfolding in Brisbane and which, I believe, symbolises a deeper philosophical, intellectual and political space that defines who we are as Australians and our culture today.

In Queensland we have a public art policy called art+place. This policy is administered by the 7-member curatorial panel, comprised of peak advisors drawn from a spectrum of disciplines. The panel meets to consider public art projects from across the state.

Late last year the then Premier of Queensland Anna Bligh issued a press release: it was posted on the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) website, a virtual space. A new, one million dollar public art commission was announced. The commission was by invitation only and limited to three international artists.4

I, along with others heard about the public art process being blocked and diverted. The policy was put to one side. The art+place panel of experts was sidelined. Their decision-making powers were taken away from them, along with $750,000 of their budget, which was moved across to the, self-reverential Premier of Queensland Sculpture Commission.

In addition, a new selection committee was created to oversee the process and select the winner. It would be chaired by the Director of GoMA, along with the Deputy Director, a sitting member of the GoMA Board of Trustees and Deputy Director-General of Arts Queensland. You could suggest that only three out of the seven new appointees were independent and did not have a perceived conflict of interest.5

You might ask here: did anyone from within the arts industry raise any concerns publicly? The short answer is no. You might also ask did anyone from the media take issue with the process through the creation of the new selection committee? Again the short answer is no.

The Announcement
The traditional land called Kurilpa (place of the kuril) is also known as the cultural precinct in Brisbane. It is where GoMA sits. This tract of land is the site for the dreaming story of the native water rat, kuril.

On the 26 November 2011, the Premier of Queensland announced the winner of the one million dollar public art commission. It went to New Zealand and Maori artist Michael Parekowhai. With little fanfare at the event to celebrate GoMA’s fifth birthday, Anna Bligh took the satin covering off the maquette, to reveal the intended five-metre bronze elephant – upended, with its backside in the air, eye-balling a diminutive water rat. The sculpture, titled The World Turns, is commissioned for its completion to coincide with the opening of the 7th Asia Pacific Triennial.6

The commissioned work has its beginnings in an African fable, better known as the mouse and the elephant. By substituting the mouse with kuril or the water rat, we now have a Maori artist referencing Aboriginal culture.

Systematic Erasure
Civic spaces are a reflection of who you are; and where the bureaucratic arts community wishes to see itself echoed around the world.

When the landscape at South Bank, Brisbane could as easily be substituted for South Bank, London then something is amiss. What makes us different to any other place in the world? The answer is obvious. It is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. When Brisbane’s South Bank is visually barren of Indigenous art it says to me and every other visitor that Queenslanders do not value, respect or take pride in the original nations that they have replaced.

The foundation of Australian culture must begin with including the aesthetic of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. If their art and presence is nowhere to be seen in designated cultural spaces, then the commissioning of public art by international artists only adds another layer to the erasure of Australia’s Indigenous people.

The Gallery of Modern Art currently has three works in its public art collection. They are by Scottish artist Martin Boyce, Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei and Brisbane based artist Scott Redford.

In December, the Deputy Director of GoMA Suhanya Raffel stated that in relation to their fourth commission by artist Michael Parekowhai “international artists are in the minority so it’s an opportunity to have an international artist make work”.7 Three out of four is not a minority but a majority.

To abrogate responsibility towards Queensland artists could be viewed as a systemic cultural cringe that besets the state. The emphasis on cultural viability from the Asia Pacific region negates the culture that is ‘homegrown’. GoMA is uniquely positioned but fails to acknowledge the artists in its own backyard.

Space of Significance
Imagine if you took the same architectural infrastructure that currently exists along Brisbane’s cultural precinct but the visual landscape was completely different. Imagine a place that had public art by the following artists: a monumental bronze by Dennis Nona, a series of rainforest shields by Danie Mellor, a classic aluminium sphere by the late Gloria Fletcher, a contemplative work by Judy Watson, a flying fox sculpture by Arthur Pambegan; and let’s not forget the long overdue public memorial to Eddie Mabo.

If these artists had their work on the banks of the Brisbane River, imagine the landscape now? What would this new relationship say to us? Through a visual premise, in which the foundation of Australian culture is centred through its Indigenous people and their history and culture, imagine how different we would look to the rest of the world.

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

1. Frantz Fanon The Wretched of the Earth, Penguin Books, 1961, p39.

2. Comments made by a Queensland Art Gallery curator during the third Asia-Pacific Triennial conference held at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, 1999.

3. Mrs Trieve was pivotal in my initial investigations into the South Sea Islander history of Mackay. Other individuals and representatives from MADASSIA (Mackay and District Australian South Sea Islander Association) were involved in the lengthy public art process.

4. The Gallery of Modern Art website was the vehicle used to announce the Premier of Queensland Sculpture Commission.

5. The Selection Committee comprised: Tony Ellwood, Director, Queensland Art Gallery; Suhanya Raffel, Deputy Director, Curatorial and Collection Development, Queensland Art Gallery; Leigh Tabrett, Deputy Director General, Arts Queensland; Avril Quaill, Trustee, Queensland Art Gallery Board of Trustees and Artistic Director, Cairns Indigenous Art Fair; John O’Sullivan, Chief Executive Officer, Events Queensland; Anthony Hayes, Chief Executive Officer, Tourism Queensland; Simon Wright, Director, Queensland College of Art Gallery, Griffith University.

6. Michael Parekowhai has exhibited twice previously in the Asia Pacific Triennial - in 1999 and 2006.

7. Statement made by Suhanya Raffel, Deputy Director, Curatorial and Collection Development Queensland Art Gallery while in attendance at the Creative Capital forum held on 14 December 2011.