Ali Gumillya Baker, Nungas Occupying and Enjoying, 2014, textile banner, Fontanelle Gallery, 2014

Bound and Unbound: Sovereign Acts (Act 1)

Ali Gumillya Baker with Faye Rosas Blanch, Natalie Harkin and Simone Ulalka Tur on decolonising methodologies of the lived and spoken

This event, as a series of performances and an exhibition, is articulated sung, spoken, rapped, written, woven, shared and enacted – in  response to the practices, pracitioners, acolytes pf physcial antthropology that have besieged First Nations peoples. Thirty-six metres of shelf space in the South Australian Museum reverberates for thousands of Aboriginal families from the "project outcomes” of the national exploits of Tindale and Birdsell in the 1930s and 1950s.
Julie Gough, opening address, Fontanelle Gallery, 24 August 2014

Faye Rosas Blanche and Ali Gumillya Baker
Faye Rosas Blanch and Ali Gumillya Baker, Camp, 2014, photographs of the artist's families. Photo: Denys Finney

In 2014 a group of four Aboriginal women, Ali Gumillya Baker, Faye Rosas Blanch, Natalie Harkin and Simone Ulalka Tur, formed the Unbound collective based around our shared ideas of performing/ projecting/ singing/ installing and transforming understandings of sovereignty, ethics, decolonisation, storytelling, institutionalisation, history and representation. We have all worked together as academics at Yunggorendi First Nations Centre, Flinders University, and have taught mainly non-Indigenous students topics in Indigenous Histories and Cultural Studies for over ten years. We also are actively engaged as artists in our communities in the areas of performance, writing, poetry, singing, filmmaking and politics. Our work shares some ongoing questions about the capacity of ideas to both bind us and set us free.

Who speaks? Who listens?
I was left here for dead. But instead I lived.
Chaos descended upon my beautiful grandmother's mother and now we are here together.

Ali Gumillya Baker, Faye Rosas Blanch, opening performance, Fontanelle Gallery, 24 August 2014
 

Uncle Lewis O'Brien and Faye Rosas Blanch. opening performance
Uncle Lewis O'Brien and Faye Rosas Blanch, Opening peformance for Act 1: Bound and Unbound: Sovereign Acts, Fontanelle Gallery, Adelaide, 2014. Photo: Fernando M. Goncalves

Interrogating the colonial archive
In her 1989 novel The Temple of My Familiar[1] Alice Walker describes a woman who is living out the remainder of her life within the walls of the British Museum. She is the “last of her people” and she has been captured and placed as a solitary living display in a recreated village reconstructed from the one where she once lived on her mother’s country. Her world reduced to a small stage within the walls of the colonial institution. This woman represents a global experience of capture within museums that continues to be true for Indigenous people, the living descendants of those who came before, in a place where we remain cast in the gaze of oppressive abjection. We have been constructed as the “abject”, those who the subjects of power are taught to look down upon.[2]

Natalie Harkin, ATTENTION, 2104
Natalie Harkin, ATTENTION, 2014, paper paste-up. Photo: Denys Finney

We live in the shadow of the racist text
How do you live in the shadow of the racist text? The pile of writing that stretched from floor to ceiling. When my mother was a child she looked for herself in books and there was nothing but hatred written by the coloniser for her to find. Now these are the books the librarians want to throw away and take off the shelves, those racist texts are now discarded and can be found in charity shops.

There are moments when the racism takes your breath away. These moments wait just outside of your peripheral vision. The unexpectedness of the hatred. At first I thought it was something flying through the air: a projectile that had been hurled by a human hand. It’s the past rushing to meet us from behind. But it’s also the fact that you never expect to see birds flying inside. Like the gift of the performance, it pushes and pulls. You never expect to see an Indigenous man pretending to be dead inside a museum display case.[3] You never expect to hear that they have kept a cast of your late great-grandmother's body in a storage shed.

Museums as institutions of collection do much more than accumulate and display objects. The objects are only as valuable as the meaning that is given to them. Institutional spaces can either generate and maintain ideas of violent authority, or repatriate our ancestors into living stories of hope and transformation. We contest these colonial institutions and their performance of culture and performance of order.

Ali Gunillya Baker, Racist Texts, 2014. Photo: Denys Finney
Ali Gumillya Baker, Racist Texts, 2014. Photo: Denys Finney

Our relationships to our ancestors
As Aboriginal women, there is continual struggle with what has been imposed and overlaid on our grandmothers and children’s country. We are required to untangle and extract ourselves from the ideas that attempt to suffocate us. We are seen as strangers here and the sense of deep sadness at the surrounding horizon of collective ignorance, amnesia and insensitivity is overwhelming. Our agency as Aboriginal people is rarely understood by the broader Australian community as living and continuing layered cultural narrative. It is often that we are requested to perform versions of our identity that fit within what the coloniser think they already know about us.

She’s not your hybrid – “between-world” – wonder nor your noble-wretched-girl or your savage Australian nigger waiting to die, she was never “destitute” from Mother-love and she won’t let you see her cry – you will never know her fully. Tilt her chin up-slightly to the right and shoot her body once again down the barrel of your camera drag her image through your lens – you will never know her fully. Make her draw fish on a chalk-board test her reading and her sums and teach her time with the clanging-mission-bell, and you think she’s making progress clawing back from native-hell – but you will never know her fully. Teach her to scrub and mop and sew remove her three times from her lands document her features and bleed-her till she bends and then examine her brown-body through your microscopic lens – but you will never know her fully. You can frame her you can name her through your science stake your claim but you will never stop her thinking for her mind you cannot tame, her sacred truth her choices we’ll recover I’ll reclaim – no you will never know her fully, never know us – never know, you will never know her fully never know.[4]

It is in stories told to us by our grandmothers that we find our continuity. It’s by tearing through and between the lines of the colonial archive that we read our histories.

I remember ... the level of surveillance was overwhelming. Claustrophobic. We needed air and tea. We opened the office door and tried to breathe. Shaken by the sheer volume of material, thick and weighty, solely about Nanna, I read the words: Committed to Institution till 18 years, Charged ‘Destitute,’ I shook my head in disbelief, thinking …. but she belonged with her family and community who mourned her … she was taken against her will, it’s not what her mother or grandparents wanted[4]

As Aboriginal communities, through collectivity and on country, we continue to hold open spaces for each other. We must honour occasions when we find time within the chaos to keep our own records. Our histories and our rights to speak, to remember, to forget or to be forgotten are denied as we find our bodies hatefully collected, described and kept in the bowels of the dominant institutions of culture.

They out there can’t love you, you must love you.
Love your skin, love your neck that have held chains, unshackle yourselves, don’t let your neck be their tool for death, straighten up your neck, face them.
Love your hands raise them up, kiss them, touch others with them, stroke your face.
Love your face because they have tried to change us.
Love your mouth hear what comes forth.
Most of all, Love your beating heart take in air, for each time you breathe is a political statement, for we have survived, occupy and enjoy.

Faye Rosas Blanch, opening performance, citing from Toni Morrison, Beloved, 1998, Fontanelle Gallery, 24 August 2014

Faye Rosas Blanch, performance photo, Fontanelle Gallery, 2014
Faye Rosas Blanch, video still from My Pen Is My Weapon (directed and produced by Ali Gumillya Baker), 2014. Photo: Denys Finney

We all tell parts of our story, we can’t tell our story on our own. We do not need to become the object of ourselves. We trust in the process of making and performing. Our performance can be the most honest and immediate expressions of our memories, love letters, our resistance, our activism. We remember the sharpness and the horror. We also have roundness and groundedness. Performance allows the teller/singer/projector to change its nature in each telling.

The black women artists who came before talk about these horrific sticking moments in history. The moments in the big narrative where we as communities cannot remain silent, the moments we cannot forget. We must honour our breath. We must act in ways that are both inspirational and transformative, as in the following discussion of Gone With Wind by Kara Walker:

Now, I guess a lot of what I was wanting to do in my work, and what I have been doing, has been about the unexpected. You know, that unexpected situation of kind, of wanting to be the heroine and yet wanting to kill the heroine, at the same time. And that kind of dilemma, that push and pull, is sort of the basis, the underlying turbulence that I bring to each of the pieces that I make, including the specifics: the mammy characters and the pickaninies and the weird sorts of descriptions.

At one point, Scarlett, in her desperation, is digging up dried-up roots and tubers down by the slaves’ quarters, and she’s overcome by a “niggery“ scent and vomits. [LAUGHS] And it’s scenes like that – that might go washed over by the sort of vast, epic structure of the story – but that is an epic moment for me. What does that mean? And why is there an assumption that I should know what that means? And where does this idea come from, you know: why is this smell so overpowering?[5]

The Unbound collective is also informed by the long histories of activism and resistance of First Nations peoples within our own families and across the globe. We belong within communities that are actively engaged in Protest. Our critique of colonial aesthetics, language and formations of discourse are both informed and form parts of larger cultural landscapes of Aboriginal activism. We honour our Nanas, Grandfathers, Mothers, Fathers, our Aunties and Uncles, Brothers, Sisters, Cousins, and those who stand in solidarity with us. This project is also not bound to one country, time or community, it embraces Indigenous critical responses to the discourses of racialisation that are used as tools of oppression in movements of Imperialism, Colonialism, Modernity and Globalisation.

There is a gift of the moment, of the present, an honouring, a future teaching, a hope. To move between the artwork, the still object, the video, artefact and the live performance allows for the layering to occur. This process has taken time, “silences wait for shared voices“ to unfold and come to be.

In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.[6]

We would like them returned
We would like them returned.

Faye Rosas Blanch and Ali Gumillya Baker, opening performance, Fontanelle Gallery, 24 August 2014

Footnotes

  1. ^ Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar, Penguin Books in association with the Women’s Press, 1989, p. 251.
  2. ^ Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Stanford University Press, 1997, p. 136. 
  3. ^ James Luna, The Artifact Piece, 1987–90, San Diego Museum of Man, in Jennifer A. González, Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art, 2008, p. 39. 
  4. a, b Natalie Harkin, 'The Poetics of (Re)Mapping Archives: Memory in the Blood’, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, vol. 14, no. 3, 2014. 
  5. ^ From an nterview with Kara Walker, ‘The Melodrama of “Gone with the Wind“’, Art21, 9 March2003: www.art21.org/texts/kara-walker/interview-kara-walker-the-melodrama-of-gone-with-the-wind. 
  6. ^ Quoted Ben Okri, The Famished Road, 1991, p. 3. 

Act 1, Bound and Unbound Sovereign Acts: Decolonising Methodologies of the Lived and Spoken, was presented as an exhibition and series of events and forums curated by Ali Gumillya Baker with curatorial guidance from Julie Gough and Brigid Noone and project management by Jackie Wurm for the Fontanelle Gallery, Adelaide, 24 August – 21 September 2014.

The next performances of the Unbound collective – Ali Gumillya Baker, Faye Rosas Blanch, Natalie Harkin and Simone Ulalka Tur – will be presented as part of Tarnanthi, Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art in Adelaide. www.tarnanthi.com.au | www.flinders.edu.au/yunggorendi/unbound