Jenny Fraser: The cyberTribe odyssey

Jeff Chief and Jenny Fraser, near Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 2005


noun od·ys·sey ˙ä-də-sē
1: a long wandering or voyage usually marked by many changes of fortune.
2: an intellectual or spiritual wandering or quest.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

When did you first go to Canada? Was this to get involved with media arts at Banff?

In 2000 I was keen to attend the International Curatorial Summit that was being held at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta. I was a High School Art and Media Teacher at the time so I had to take time off from work. As I didn't have a full grasp of the travel time or distance then, I flew into Vancouver on the West Coast, then was off on an 18-hour bus trip inland to Banff, and all the way back again, just for the three-day summit. Walkabout. Flyabout.

It happened to be my birthday, and the whole program for that day presented by the Banff New Media Institute was specifically about New Media Curating. Could I have asked for a better present? There was very little (if any) Native representation in the three-day program, but I remember that Australian Aboriginal artist r e a was an invited guest, speaking about New Media Art. It was also a particularly memorable experience for me, because a ghost visited me in my room there – the only time that I have seen one in my life.

Banff Camp is like Club Med for artists, so after my three-day experience I was keen to return. Later I did an eight-week Work Study program in the Photography Department in 2003 for their first all-Indigenous International Thematic Residency (which was initially supposed to be about Indigenous New Media Arts, but it was re-jigged shortly beforehand to include visual arts in general). Titled ‘‘Communion & Other Conversations’’, the residency had 35 participants from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the USA and Mexico, and also included the curatorial symposium ‘‘Making a Noise: Aboriginal Curators and their Environment’’ presented by the Walter Phillips Gallery and the Banff International Curatorial Institute.

I found it weird that there were no exhibitions planned for the residency, so I curated my own as a gift to the group: Turtle Island for the artists from Canada, the USA and Mexico; and, for the artists from Australia and New Zealand, the show Niiksowkowa, a name given by Blackfoot artist Faye Heavyshield, which means ‘‘my blood relative’’. They were two of the best cyberTribe exhibition opening parties ever, DJ’d by Navajo artist Bert Benally.

Aside from trips to other parts of Canada over the years, I also returned to Banff in 2005 to do a self-directed artists residency. Lita Fontaine took me to my first Pow Wow, Alberta style, which was held in a giant indoor rodeo arena. During my time at Banff, I also curated a small group exhibition Feathers Float, which was later featured in the Native online magazine and included some words by you Djon Mundine :).

Jenny Fraser, Take Away, installation detail for Feathers Float, 2005, The Other Gallery. © Jenny Fraser/Licensed by Viscopy, 2015

When did you start cyberTribe, and how did this link the local with global Indigenous networks?

The cyberTribe odyssey was founded in 1999, in residence at an Indigenous New Media gathering held in Darwin. But the first cyberTribe show went live in 2000 at the Alchemy International Masterclass, which was the first gathering held at the newly opened Powerhouse in Brisbane. Titled ‘‘eyesee’’, the online exhibition included the work of Brook Andrew (AUS), Tina Baum (ACT/NT, AUS), Jonathon Bottrell (now Jones) (NSW, AUS), Brenda L Croft (AUS), Jason Davidson (NT, AUS), Nellie Green (WA, AUS), Latuff (Rio De Janeiro), Mwema African Gallery (Uganda, AFRICA), r e a (NSW, AUS), Skawennati Fragnito (CAN/USA), Troy Hunter (British Columbia, CAN) and myself Jenny Fraser (QLD, AUS).

This was a time before social media, so it was amazing to get instant feedback like this from a Filipino artist: ‘‘I have been looking at your gallery section and am especially impressed with Cyber Tribe: Indigenous Art Eyesee. The section on ‘‘kitsch’’ was especially striking. The consciousness of aboriginal representation and the positive action of the arts circle in this issue is truly remarkable and commendable. My dream is to awaken similar sensibilities in art in my country and enable art to become an active agent to some degree of ethnocentricity.’’

The idea for cyberTribe was seeded some years before ... As a student, in the final year of my long undergraduate degree, I remember drafting up my selection criteria for an art teaching job to include a section on how the internet would open up the presentation opportunities for museums and galleries and how that could benefit schools in regional and remote areas.

Then, in the late 1990s, I took a year’s leave from teaching in Cairns to return to study in Brisbane for a postgraduate course in film and media. For an independent study project towards academic credit, English computer artist and academic Paul Brown invited me to work on, an online magazine running out of Brisbane. A lot of the students and academics working in different roles were from all over the world, including the United Kingdom, Ukraine and many Asian countries. It was enjoyable and fulfilling, there was a distinct feeling of working on something that was innovative, had a big picture approach and reach, and a continuous publishing program.

We had inherited from an American university, and one part of the original site was ‘‘Trophies of Honour – Art Chronicles of Indigenous Peoples’’, independently created and maintained by Native American artists and performers. It was set up by Donna and Jeff Lee-Hand in an effort to preserve Native culture and art by presenting museum quality works on the internet for future generations. So it was up to me to think about how to present an Aboriginal version from our country.

A year or so later, when I had finished the course, I was transferred to the Gold Coast to go back to work as an art teacher. But I didn’t last long, as shortly after I officially resigned. My passion for Hobby Curating had started to take over my life :). Fortunately, I have received some in-kind support from people like Sam De Silva, who has provided cyberTribe with server space over the years. To me, this is as valuable as land or prime real estate, and should be populated by Blakfellas. As they say, the internet doubles every 90 days.

In 2002 marked fifteen years, and closed down that year. At that stage, it was the longest-running arts magazine on the internet. This influenced the international approach of cyberTribe, which started out online as a love job ... and it still is. Indigenous people make up 6% of the world’s population, which doesn’t seem much, but it’s actually the largest minority group, and also constitutes representation from 20% of our planet’s land mass, and therefore 80% of the worlds remaining biodiversity. So we are always proud to show alongside our cuzstodian Indigenous brothers and sisters and other artists in the international community.

SOLID Screen welcome at Innot Hot Springs, Queensland, 2014

How many exhibitions have you organised through cyberTribe?

As the founder of cyberTribe, I have been the centrifuge or spearhead for realising over 50 projects, taking on the roles of curator, webmistress, writer, designer, publisher and sometimes producer. This has been a mix of online and white cube exhibitions, live events and screenings, all without annual or triennial funding. This year cyberTribe will be marking fifteen years of presenting exhibitions. It also happens to be a triennial year, so we will be marking the anniversary to coincide with the other APT (Asia Pacific Triennial) in a then-and-now approach at the end of this year in Brisbane and Cairns.

cyberTribe showcases are often innovating ahead of the arts industry. But some of the projects have taken up to a decade to get up, and are usually done without any funding support. Over the years, it has been very difficult to get around the anti-web-specific rules of some funding bodies due to the lack of interest or assessor insight into the field. Insults added to the burden of working without budgets have to be endured, as some institutions have stolen our ideas and run with them, while trying to write us out of history by publicising that their own ventures were a first. It’s ugly, especially when it’s done by our own mob.

On a personal level I know I am lucky because most things that I have wanted to do in my career, have been achieved already. This has not been without sacrifice or struggle, but I have been guided along the way by spirit and my ancestors. Being a modern day custodian of screen culture is what I am meant to be doing.

When we, as Aboriginal artists, go overseas, we are usually respected and hosted really well, and that is a good feeling. I like to go on mystery flights, and have my Art Family wherever I land. Naturally we want to return the favour and show off our beautiful country, but sometimes simple gestures of culture can be problematic in Australia, because Aboriginal people have very little access to public space or funds and we don’t really want our guests to suffer racism while they are here.

SOLID Screen excursion, Watermill, Queensland, 2014

Among others, in 2014 I brought over Lori Blondeau (Tribe), Michelle Derosier (Thunderstone Pictures), Ariel Smith (National Indigenous Media Arts Collective), Hiona Henare (Wairoa Maori Film Festival) and others from around Oz, for the SOLID Screen retreat at Innot Hot Springs. The events over a week in July were the culmination of ten years of chasing funds and planning, and intended to be a consolidation and acknowledgement to the field of Indigenous Women Screen Makers over the past 30 to 40 years.

The screening festival component was also a reciprocal gift to the local Far North Queensland community. As a lead-up to the fifteen anniversary of cyberTribe, SOLID was shaped to showcase and enhance the local, national and international wealth of creative talent in the variety of artforms made by and for the screen.

The art world in Australia is male-dominated, a reflection of Australian society in general, which in 2014 was ranked as 24th in the world for the Gender Gap Report. Even women can be misogynistic, and this is alive and well in the arts, with women curators favouring and constantly pandering to the boys clubs. The arts industry here is also very individualistic, and focused on the art star model of presentation and promotion.

It is very reassuring and good medicine to be able to rise above the misogynistic blanket of oppression and reach out to the SOLID sisterhood, nationally and internationally, also to allow ourselves some time out to realign with the stamina of the warrioress energy that we are a part of. We all need to do our bit to grow the industry, and to seed and nurture our own collaborations. I feel so satisfied that I am doing my bit, and this has already been rewarding in so many ways, including invitations to tour to Indigenous Screen events in Yucatan (Mexico), Saskatoon (Canada) and Nuhaka (Aotearoa/NZ).

With the final Blak Screen Festival happening in Melbourne this year, and with Messagestick Festival in Sydney going multi-artform in recent years, it seems that there is now only one dedicated Indigenous Film and Media Arts Festival currently running in Australia, and that is the Colourise Festival in Brisbane.

How do Indigenous Canadians get on in the general Canadian art scene? How do they see themselves?

Listening to the Native Canadian experience at their gatherings like the Conferences run by the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective, has helped me to make sense of the Australian Aboriginal experience. A term that has stuck with me is ‘‘cultural apartheid’’, acknowledged to have come to us via South Africa, but the magnitude of truth in the expression has made it part of the vernacular in Canada, and should be here as well.

Effective Indigenous activists all around the world are less interested in complaining, and more interested in devising a strategy to deal with the issues at hand. Early on I had been aware of the beginnings and motivations behind imagineNATIVE, that was founded by Cynthia Lickers-Sage and is now held in Toronto every year.

imagineNATIVE is a world-class event that generously includes perspectives from other Indigenous peoples as well, but it was originally born from an identified lack of Native Canadian representation at TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival. This is the spirit and strategic approach that I am trying to evoke in the other APT exhibition and other cyberTribe events and exhibitions, which aim to redress representational imbalances. In the case of the other APT, no amount of complaining or highlighting the cultural apartheid entrenched in the selection process of the Queensland Art Gallery has worked to get more Australian Aboriginal artists represented in the Asia Pacific Triennials, so we just have to show them how it’s done.

Jenny Fraser, Native All Stars, installation view, Centre Culturel Tjibaou, Noumea as part of the other APT, 2008. © Jenny Fraser/Licensed by Viscopy, 2015

For a long time I have believed that if I go with the flow and am true to myself, then my ancestors will smooth the way for me. Cultural integrity in itself is an effective methodology or framework, as explained eloquently by Cree scholar Willie Ermine: ‘‘Mamatowisowin defines the methodology used in a quest for vision, where the seeker / artist begins to explore his / her own existence subjectively. By placing one’s self into a direct stream of consciousness, the seeker / the knower / the artist will begin to unfold a greater, inherent understanding of self, by utilizing the methodologies of Mamatowisowin.’’

As I have explored the potential of my own creative healing and decolonisation techniques to address the associated questions brought up, I have made an effort to involve and encourage others. So, as a seeker, I can try to understand the story of others, because I know and further understand my own story. My direct ancestral line has had to deal with oppression for most levels of survival, including the impact of massacres, the fear of child removal, living under the act and the permit system, stolen wages, broken families and the culture war.

The shared understanding of what has happened to us and our old people during the processes of colonisation in places like Australia and Canada allows us to engage in advanced levels of conversation and creative dialogue. There is no need for us to continuously start at the beginning of the conversation, like there is for some outsiders, and there is a strength, empathy and comradeship gained in the similarity of experience. Native Canadians are our Art Family, and sometimes this means that we take the good with the bad. When someone over there has ripped me off, another cousin will take up the slack to try to make it right. Just like here in Oz.

What are your views on the appointment of a Native Canadian Director of the Biennale of Sydney in 2012?

It’s a problem when the white gatekeepers of culture, being in the majority, make the decisions by and for themselves. I am disappointed, but not surprised that there has not been an Aboriginal curator chosen for the role of Sydney Biennale Director. I expect more from places like Sydney (as opposed to the backwards norm in Queensland), as Sydney is an arts capital, with some progressive Aboriginal initiatives. But, cultural apartheid is rife, as is the low tactical strategy of engaging outsiders from other cultural backgrounds in order to divert issues of ownership and inclusion of First Peoples here.

When there was a public questioning of the Queensland Art Gallery’s selection of a Maori artist for their first international public artwork commission (before there was an Aboriginal commission), a younger Maori Curator commented on social media that it was too big an opportunity and too much money, to turn down.

Given these kind of ethically dubious situations that we can sometimes find ourselves in, I think it might help if we were to ask ourselves questions, such as: if we were offered opportunities in other states, territories or countries, would we take it? Whose position would I be taking? At what cost? Why would they have chosen me, as opposed to others? Do I enjoy being the only one? Will the outcome be about the curator as hero?

Do I believe the hype about myself? What does Indigenous inclusion look like, and how is it different from the mainstream? How can we all move forward together, shoulder to shoulder with our cousins?

Near Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 2005

Read more about cyberTribe and SOLID Screen Festival at

Jenny Fraser is a Murri aesthete. Her fourth instalment of the other APT will showcase alterNATIVE Australian-based Asia Pacific and Indigenous Arts Comuninties at the Cairns institute late 2015. See