My art practice engages with queering as a strategy, to unsettle the ways that Aboriginality is constructed as pure and untainted by the complexity of sexuality, mixed ethnographies, mixed geographies and mixed appearances. By making works of art from different positions of identity I am taking part in reigniting, reinvigorating, and reimagining Queer-Aboriginal knowledge against the conventional ways in which colonisation has denied, repressed, and muted non-heterosexual ways of being, knowing, and doing Aboriginality. This activism is enacted through my studio practice, materials and subject matter.
My knittings destabilise the legacy of knitting as a domestic and gendered occupation. They subvert culturally established traditions of Aboriginal artefact-making, by using materials and techniques that are alter/native to what is normally considered Aboriginal textile art where objects are made from natural fibres sourced from the land. The notion of the land as fixed is also challenged by a studio practice that is highly migratory. The knitting is performed in private and in public spaces, in various towns, cities and locations, on trains, trams, buses, in parks and gardens.
Tomorrow (2009) is twenty-seven knitted objects that reference the form and purpose of the Aboriginal artefact known as the “dilly bag”. Dilly bags are generally woven from plant fibres and used for carrying food or other items around the neck of a human body. My dillies carry text messages instead of foodstuff, and they stand as sculpture rather than neck jewellery. They are embroidered with the song lyrics of Tomorrow from the musical film Annie (1977). The song speaks of hope in a world of sadness and chaos. The act of knitting with circular, spear-shaped needles gave me a direct emotional engagement with the lyrics through multiple karaoke performances, inviting the audience to sing along too.
The series Installations for Tomorrow (2011–12) unsettles the conventions of Aboriginal artefact-making and its presentation. All twenty-seven objects of the knitted work Tomorrow have had their pictures taken individually and in couplings, in various positions and locations around the world, including New Zealand and Iceland. The embroidered song lyrics on the dillies engage in a dialogue of wordplay with the landscape represented in the image.
An earlier series of work (pink) Poles (2006–11) was driven by the cylinder shape of burial poles that are both a pre-colonial and an ongoing tradition in a number of Aboriginal and Islander nations in the Pacific. To play with death, or more precisely to mimic so-called ancient signs that refer to death and the afterlife is a provocative act. Perhaps my Queer–Aboriginal approach might be uncomfortable for some, not because I am engaging in the subject matter of death, but because I am dealing with the subject matter of survival by reimagining the cultural artefacts of my ancestors as Queer. These works have had their pictures taken in a Schlossgarten in Berlin although the image appears like any number of European parklands. Ambiguous geographies are an important aspect of my landscape works.
Postcard (2010–11) is a series of art objects made of reconstructed Glomesh and “faux-mesh” from handbags, purses, and key-wallets sourced from thrift stores and grandma’s drawers throughout Australia. They herald communication between Australian places and personas – Alice Springs, Katherine Gorge, Bella Vista, Cherrybrook, Victoria Square, Sandy Gully, Crystal Brook, and other towns, rivers, and land areas that have been dragged by name from Europe. The objects are private conversations between “sistas’ who are living in locations throughout Australia and who, despite isolation, are connecting and conversing with each other through glamorous artefacts.
The high-ceremony of the Postcard designs takes a cue from the crescent-shaped “breastplates” of the late-19th and early-20th centuries that were presented to Aboriginal people who aided second-settlement colonists in the assimilation process, and who were regarded as friendly, or who demonstrated bravery towards non-Indigenous people and were considered suitably honourable for a “badge of distinction” . These breastplates were engraved with the names of Aboriginal people and often their tribal names were included. Sometimes the breastplates were decorated with motifs of native plants and animals, weapons, and emblematic coronets, and engraved with the names of the non-Indigenous chiefs who presented them.
In 2009 I made four digital collages called Making Camp. Three layers of imagery were assembled to create each print. Digital photographs represented landscape paintings by early Australian colonial artists: Evening shadows, backwater of the river Murray (1880) and A billabong of the Goulbourn, Victoria (1884) by H. J. Johnstone, Landscape near Ullswater (1820s) by John Glover and Forest, Cunningham’s Gap (1856) by Conrad Martens. The work also included digital photographs of Kaboobie, a drag queen who is one of my performing bodies, and digital photographs of my (pink) Poles. Each layer is from a different historical and cultural background and in bringing them together the new work queers them with complex, unsettling and playful juxtapositions of signs and meanings.
I Kaboobie, the art within art do convivially confess ... early second-settlement Australian landscape paintings are a fine place to camp. Those early colonist artists who painted impressions of locales where I camp, re/imagined country visually through application of painterly styles from their native England. They are highly glamorous portrayals, but there is dark glamour too: stories of friendship and betrayal. Aboriginal people tour-guided the new arrivals to sites on country to create works of art, but the paintings were used as evidence that the land was fertile and eligible for pastoral use, and were deployed to dispossess Aboriginal people from a right to country that was established across millennia.
I Kaboobie ... am using my live body as a tool – a weapon of choice to transform the paintings into my own new world. I rejoice imaginings and I enjoy those visions of Australian second-settlement landscape that I render and occupy. In Making camp at Forest, Cunningham’s Gap, 1856 (2009) with my kangaroo features and multiple-meeting-place dress, I am enjoying a wander in the wilderness, wondering where to camp next and when to reach for what is concealed in my pouch. This part-animal, hybrid-gendered, mixed-race menace is right at home in trans/locations. I like to be alter/native and explore new ways to belong. My body, the hand grenade, is a passport to inhabit multiple spaces. The explosion will cast glamorous contents into the air and makeover the cosmos.
Remodelled dialogue from “My body the hand grenade: Kaboobie’s Making Camp,” Social Alternatives 30: 2, 2011.
Troy-Anthony Baylis is a descendant of the Jawoyn People from the Northern Territory. Since the mid 1990s, Troy has been an Adelaide-based curator, writer and performance artist.