Hard Sleeper artists: Peter Gardiner, Frances Belle Parker, China de le Vega, Fiona Foley, project manager Catherine Croll, Phil James, Guy Maestri, Red Gate Gallery Founder Brian Wallace, Chinese artists Guan Wei and Zhou

Catherine Croll: Picanniny's pool is down the road

Weve had conversations about your own identity and your possible Biripi/ Waradjuri heritage. What is your story?

‘‘Picanniny’s pool is down the road,’’ she told my mother. It was 1963 and we were visiting the public tidal baths on the Wallamba River in Forster. My father’s family had ‘‘jumped ship’’ at Seal Rocks in the mid 1870s and established a sawmill on the Myall Lake at Bungwahl. Although we lived in Sydney, we, like hundreds of others, spent our summer holidays at One Mile Beach where we shared a house with our cousin’s family.

Years later, when I was working with communities between the Tiwi Islands and Katherine, a group of elder women welcomed me saying ‘‘You’re from Forster aren’t you’’. It both delighted and astonished me that in the whole of Australia, they had identified my family’s place of origin so exactly!

My mother had worked with the Tiwi Islanders in the 1950s, assisting with the delivery of hundreds of babies, and many of the older women remembered her fondly. Her family had settled in the Riverina in the 1840s and included the Croft and Shelley families from Tumut and the Holliday and Lyons families from Wagga Wagga.

I knew little of this family history before I moved to Matong, a tiny village in the Riverina, and my maternal grandfather exclaimed ‘‘Matong! That’s where my mother was born’’. He began to tell stories. He told me that his mother, Annie Marshall, had been born near Narrandera in the 1860s; her father had arrived in a bullock dray after travelling across country from Adelaide.

After digging further I discovered our farm was located less than one kilometre from ‘‘Marshall’s Hill’’ and that Annie’s grave was one of the oldest in the local cemetery. While no birth or death records exist I learnt she suffered from diabetes and died in 1906 aged only 43.

My years in Narrandera were spent working with Indigenous women to design and deliver TAFE courses for their husbands and sons. I would teach ‘‘maths’’ while we were fishing down on the Murrumbidgee and we would take the Lands Council bus out to Lake Mungo where we would explore the dunes during the day and listen to Badger Bates share stories around the campfire at night.

‘‘Where are you from?’’ the local white farmers would ask me ... ‘‘Sydney’’ I’d reply, ‘‘Where are your parents from?’’ ... ‘‘Dungog and Sydney’’ I’d reply, … ‘‘But where were you from before that?’’ they’d persist … and I was always aware of the feeling of ‘‘otherness’’.

Visiting Chinese curators, Ye Funa and Li Gang meet artists from Warringarri Arts (Kununurra) Anita Churchill, louise Malarvie, Dora Griffiths and Art Centre Manager Cathy Cummings at Di Mossenson’s Gallery in Perth. Photo: Catherine Croll

You’ve worked in China for some time. What is the main aim of your projects?

I first visited China in 2006 following the death of my father and tragic suicide of my sister, Elizabeth. During the next two years I travelled thousands of kilometers solo across the length and breadth of the country, always pushing further into the more remote regions. Here I developed a fascination with exploring and documenting the rich cultural traditions of China’s 56 ‘‘minority groups’’.

In 2009 I was engaged by Brian Wallace at Red Gate Gallery in Beijing to manage their artist residency program. This allowed me to establish networks with many of our Chinese Australian artists and a range of individuals working to promote Australian arts and culture in China.

My lifetime association with Australian art and Indigenous culture resulted in a natural desire to share my knowledge by developing cultural exchange programs, which built a greater understanding of our rich cultural heritage.

Our first major exchange involved eight artists including Fiona Foley and Frances Belle Parker. The group spent one month travelling across provincial China ‘‘with the people’’ before undertaking a month long Red Gate Residency. The resulting exhibition Hard Sleeper was opened by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in Beijing.

I was determined that these programs would be reciprocal and that the individuals who supported our tours to China would in turn be invited to visit Australia. So, in 2011, we established the inaugural Australia China Curatorial Exchange Program, which has seen fourteen Chinese curators visit Australia to work alongside me while undertaking supported cultural ‘‘immersion’’.

This allowed them to meet with Australian artists, curators and gallery directors with a view to developing their appreciation of Australian art, Indigenous culture and Australian curatorial practices.

This, in turn, generated new collaborative opportunities for Australian artists in China. In 2013, Waringarri Arts (Kununurra) invited me to assist them to stage an exhibition of work by leading East Kimberley artists in Shanghai.

This extraordinarily beautiful exhibition was shown at the Salvo Hotel and OFOTO Gallery in the M50 art district. Chinese audiences were delighted to be able to truly interact with the artists who explained the artwork and ‘‘danced’’ the paintings farewell following the purchase of the entire exhibition by a Chinese entrepreneur.

Agnes Srmstrong, Peggy Griffiths, Cathy Cummings and Dora Griffiths ‘‘dancing’’ the artwork at OFOTO Gallery Shanghai

During the Yiban Yiban Yella Fellah project we met a number of artist co-operatives. Can you tell us a little about these people?

I had been exploring more culturally ambitious projects that focused on building a greater understanding of Australian Indigenous arts and cultural practices amongst Chinese audiences and exploring Chinese minority group art and rituals.

The Yiban Yiban exhibition was initiated during a curatorial exchange. Professor Fan Lin from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art visited Sydney to work alongside me on the Snake Snake Snake exhibition at Sydney Town Hall in February 2013. We met with Australian artists who were exploring their mixed Indigenous and Chinese heritage.

Meng Hao, project manager Catherine Croll, curator Djon Mundine, Consul-General Dominic Trindade, Gary Lee, Jason Wing and Shadow Chai at the opening of the Yiban Yiban Exhibition in Guanzhou

Fan Lin became very interested in exploring Indigenous culture and the links with her own Chinese heritage and invited us to work with her to develop an exhibition of Australian Indigenous artists with Chinese heritage to show in Guangzhou. We decided to use the exhibition as a vehicle to increase understanding of Indigenous culture and open discussion on the place of heritage, tradition and ancient culture in modern times.

During my travels, I have met extraordinarily innovative Chinese individuals and organisations that share my commitment to international cultural exchange. We believed it was important to work closely with these organisations to develop a challenging program of cultural engagement designed to bring together Chinese ‘‘Minority Group’’ artists and Australian Indigenous artists for the first time.

Our colleagues at Redtory Art & Design Factory, Guangzhou, agreed to host the Yiban Yiban exhibition and organise a series of floor talks and seminars to assist audiences to gain a greater understanding of Australian Indigenous culture.

We collaborated with Luo Fei at TCG Nordica in Kunming to prepare a special program of activities including a joint forum for local Naxi, Miao, Bai, Yi and Akha ‘‘Minority Group’’ artists to share their stories with the visiting Australian artists.

This allowed our artists to develop their understanding of ‘‘Minority Group’’ cultural practices, the issues that affect their communities, the ways in which these artists interact with and reflect their community’s values and unique cultural heritage.

Yangshu at Organhaus hosted our visit to Chongqing, providing opportunities to meet local artists and curators to discuss cultural practice and visit artist’s studios.

The Yiban Group meeting with Yangshu and Nikun at Organhaus in Chongqing

Do you have any comments on changes you’ve seen in art in China in your time there?

When I arrived in 2006 the art market was booming and the eyes of the world were on China. Sotheby’s had just conducted the first-ever dedicated sale of Contemporary Asian Art in Hong Kong, large private art museums were opening and art fairs were flourishing in the heady lead-up to the Olympics in 2008.

But the Global Financial Crisis caused an abrupt halt to the unprecedented growth of the market for Chinese contemporary art, which had risen from three million dollars in 2004 to 194 million dollars in the three short years to 2007. As a result, collectors and gallery directors alike welcomed what many saw as a timely correction to hugely exaggerated prices. The flood of poorer quality mid-range work and copies that had entered the market were also greatly reduced.

During this period, many Australian-Chinese artists had returned to China to establish studios. This was in part due to the extraordinary opportunities being offered through the low cost of labour, art materials and production coupled with China’s monumental scale and the readiness of audiences to engage in the arts.

Hundreds of others have undertaken residencies joining the rapid influx of foreign artists moving to Asia to take advantage of the low studio rents, highly skilled assistants and the ability to manufacture large-scale works in a range of materials, which would be financially out of reach at home.

There is an enormous amount to respond to in China politically, socially and environmentally, which has given rise to a great deal of challenging and increasingly controversial artwork.

Government interest in presenting a positive message is still strong and so Chinese artists and artwork can be deceptively subtle in the ways in which powerful messages are portrayed.

There is an increasing interest amongst both local and central governments and government managed cultural institutions in ‘‘international cultural exchange’’. Artist residencies and support for the development of vitally important person-to-person relationships is finally being embraced and is beginning to receive the support required to ensure that cultural exchange programs like ours flourish!

Allery Sandy (Roebourne) explains Indigenous art in the Colours of Our Country exhibition in Perth to visiting Chinese video artist Zhu Yu. Photo: Catherine Croll

Catherine Croll is founding Director of Cultural Partnerships Australia, established in 2010. She has held the position of Director, Special Projects, at Red Gate Gallery since 2009.