Sally Gabori (Kaiadilt people), Dibirdibi Country, 2008, synthetic polymer paint on linen. Purchased 2008 with funds from Margaret Mittelheuser, AM, and Cathryn Mittelheuser, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation for the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery © Sally Gabori 2008. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2013

My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Interview with Bruce McLean

On curating My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia, opening at the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane on 1 June 2013. 

Daniel Browning__My Country, I Still Call Australia Home surveys a broad sweep of contemporary art practice in black Australia. As we’ve seen with the National Indigenous Art Triennials and other exhibitions which attempt the same thing – to reconcile artmaking which is itself diverse, not to mention the backgrounds of the artists, and to represent tradition and innovation – there might be a need to see a common theme underlying the work. For you, what is that commonality?

Bruce McLean__Every artist and work in the show makes a statement about the place of the artist, both in terms of their country and their place in contemporary society. The exhibition is drawn from the Queensland Art Gallery’s collection, so diverse media, views and regional styles have a presence, but all have something to offer in terms of the central themes and give people an idea of what is of most importance to the artists and/or their communities or families.

DB__The exhibition covers a vast geographical space, but also an intellectual and cultural space. Do you think there’s a synchronicity between works such as Bindi Cole’s emu-feathered universal statement of forgiveness, I Forgive You, and the collaborative topography Makarrki – King Alfred’​s Country by the Kaiadilt artists led by Sally Gabori?

BM__The exhibition is split into three separate but interrelated spaces and themes: My History, My Life, and My Country. Each of these could be an exhibition in itself, yet all have synergies and points of correlation. Bindi Cole’s I Forgive You (2012) is accompanied by a video work, Seventy Times Seven, in which members of her community in Melbourne repeat the mantra “I forgive you”. Taken together they are a moving exploration of the ideas and origins of hurt and the process of choosing to forgive.

The six-metre-long painting by senior Kaiadilt women, led by Sally Gabori, is a representation of an important part of their country that belonged to Sally’s older brother, who was a great leader of the Kaiadilt before they were moved from Bentinck Island to Mornington, where Kaiadilt people have lived as a minority for the best part of 60 years. Since the late 1980s people have been returning to their island seasonally and today painting provides a major financial means of reconnecting with their country.

For me, both works are portraits of parts of a community, they both comment on government policies and a shared colonial past and both offer a sense of hope, through healing and self-reconciliation on the one hand, and an emotional return to country on the other.

Bindi Cole (Wathaurung people), I Forgive You, 2012, emu feathers on MDF board.  Purchased 2012 by the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation for the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery. © Bindi Cole 2012. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2013
Bindi Cole (Wathaurung people), I Forgive You, 2012, emu feathers on MDF board.
Purchased 2012 by the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation for the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery. © Bindi Cole 2012. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney, 2013

DB__If there is a signature work (or works) in this exhibition that makes a bold statement about contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experience, which one is it?

BM__There are so many works that make incredibly bold and brave statements about the experiences of artists and their communities, but it is hard to say that any make a definitive statement about an “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experience”, and the exhibition will hopefully reflect the richness and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences.

But as a proud Murri man, two works really affect me – Vincent Serico’s Carnarvon Collision (Big Map) (2006), which chronicles Jiman (Iman) contact history leading up to the massacres of Jiman and other Aboriginal people in central Queensland; and Vernon Ah Kee’s Tall Man (2010) that records the day a tipping-point was reached on Palm Island following the findings of an inquest that the death of a young man in police custody had been the result of an accident.

DB__The idea of country as Aboriginal people understand it – of place, ownership and continuity over time – has been introduced to the vernacular. But how do you think the idea of country differs from the idea of the nation state, and are the two incompatible?

BM__My understanding of country in an Aboriginal sense does not differ markedly from the idea of a country in a Western sense. When I talk about my country, I don’t refer to an ethereal and intangible connection to a place on the periphery of Australian consciousness, as seems to be the concept attached to the vernacular idea of Aboriginal country in a mainstream Australian view. For me the statement is political, and asserts a sense of ownership and belonging to a place with its own law, cosmology, customs, language and society.

This continent was home to hundreds of Aboriginal nations before European arrival and all of these nations still have claims to their country despite 1770, 1829, 1901 to the present. I have to believe that there is a good amount of compatibility and that a higher degree of Indigenous autonomy is achievable and compatible within the constructed nation state. There are a number of regional/remote areas that do have a reasonable level of self-governance, so there is some hope.

Vernon Ah Kee (Kuku Yalanji/Waanyi/Yidinyji/GuuguYimithirr people), Tall Man, 2010, still, four-channel digital video installation from DVD. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery
Vernon Ah Kee (Kuku Yalanji/Waanyi/Yidinyji/GuuguYimithirr people), Tall Man, 2010, still, four-channel digital video installation from DVD. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

DB__The exhibition title conflates two ideas – My Country and I Still Call Australia Home. Both assert ideas of ownership, but there’s a duality in that statement.

BM__Absolutely, the two parts of the title combine and strengthen the claims made in the exhibition. The dual statements also have a sense of dichotomy, in using two iconic Australian written works – Dorothea Mackellar’s poem and Peter Allen’s song – to present the ways in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use those terms, have remixed those songs and relate to their country and society.

DB__Some artists complain that since its inception Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) has been determinedly overlooking Aboriginal art, that the focus of exhibitions is almost too global. Whether you agree or not, does the exhibition promise a new kind of engagement with art being made here now by Aboriginal artists?

BM__Since GoMA opened there has been an intense and vibrant exhibition program, which has included Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art exhibitions – including two Xstrata Coal Emerging Indigenous Art Awards; a retrospective exhibition for Ron Hurley; Floating Life: Indigenous Fibre Art; Land, Sea and Sky: Contemporary Art of the Torres Strait Islands; plus Joe Rootsey and Namatjira to Now in the Queensland Art Gallery.

More recently a new direction has emerged which calls for greater prominence and interpretation of our collections, and My Country, I Still Call Australia Home is really driven by our collection strengths. Being between Directors, a long term direction for the Gallery is yet to emerge, but I believe, and will advocate, that the Gallery should show art that reflects contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences.

DB__Hetti Perkins argued in the last issue of Artlink Indigenous for a national centre of Indigenous art controlled by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Do you see any merit in the idea?

BM__I think most Aboriginal people who have worked in a mainstream public institution will see the merit in the idea – being able to work in an institution where our art is at the core and not the periphery and an environment where our ideas are central and not marginal. I believe art that speaks to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditions and experiences belongs to world art and should be seen as widely as possible.

There should also be places where our art and artists can be seen in dialogue with the work of other Indigenous artists, and possibly artists from elsewhere who share the same concerns, in a space that consolidates and amplifies the voices and concerns of the artists.

The obvious drawbacks to having a separate institution for Indigenous art would be positioning our art outside wider contemporary art and curating ourselves and our artists into obscurity. I am an advocate for such a space if it is a place for interpretation and dialogue. If it’s a space for “Indigenous art history”, the National Gallery of Australia already has that covered with their new wing.

DB__How do you think the exhibition My Country, I Still Call Australia Home looks forward, aesthetically and politically?

BM__I believe that the contemporary artists presented in the exhibition are at the forefront of their approaches, be it in aesthetics, polemics, or otherwise. I hope that it allows viewers to appreciate the range of styles and media that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists use to express themselves, and the wide and diverse range of experiences from contemporary Black Australia.

Ken Thaiday Sr (Meriam Mir people), Symbol of the Torres Strait, 2003, plywood, synthetic polymer paint, feathers, black bamboo, plastic tubing, fishing line. Purchased 2004 with funds from Corrs Chambers Westgarth through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation for the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery
Ken Thaiday Sr (Meriam Mir people), Symbol of the Torres Strait, 2003, plywood, synthetic polymer paint, feathers, black bamboo, plastic tubing, fishing line. Purchased 2004 with funds from Corrs Chambers Westgarth through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation for the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery

 

Bruce McLean is curator of Indigenous Art at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art.

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