I remember the first time I saw conceptual video work by an Aboriginal artist. Sitting in a back row, anxious and close to the exit in case I had to leave, I watched the performance projected through video in a sandstone university lecture hall. The scene was from r e a’s Poles Apart (2009). The premise of r e a’s silent work is to explore both the imagined and lived experiences of female forebears forced into servitude. With its black-edged and sepia-tinted frame, it is a real colonial horror and, every once in a while, I found myself thinking about the domestic figure fleeing through the burnt bushland. In discussions with artist Amala Groom, my thoughts returned to this earlier work and of running through the bush.
Amala Groom is a conceptual artist whose practice and performance is informed by First Peoples methodologies. Groom draws on a lineage of Aboriginal performance in which the artist’s self-image is central to the work, not simply as self-portraiture but as personal and political statements of relationality to country, culture and contemporary society. The artist plays with the form, using both satirical wit and resilient defiance evidenced through first person and extensive archival research. Her latest video work, The Union (2019), explores the body moving in space on country as a physical act of a negotiation between two worlds. In this work, time is invoked by a stretched red cord drawing out moments of spiritual tension and freedom.
The weight is heavy as the protagonist stumbles and drags cosmic wood in the trailing wedding veil. This marks a departure from Groom’s earlier video work where the camera is usually turned on herself. In The Union, we watch from an omniscient view as the artist travels through the ghost gums and ironbark with eyes closed until she is birthed again at what is both the beginning and end of time. Ultimately, we—the viewers—are left jilted with her now ghostly figure running away from us.
The Union (2019) embodies her commitment to Aboriginal ontologies, as Coby Edgar says, “listening intently connects Groom to her DNA, which holds the trauma of colonisation.”In most of Groom’s art, her body is the medium. The Invisibility of Blackness (2014) plays with light, transparency and versions of identity. With the camera positioned on herself, Groom repeats the phrase, “I am Wiradjuri. My mother is Wiradjuri. My grandmother is Wiradjuri …” The screen fades, her utterance moves backwards into the past but time continues to go forwards. The viewer is left with the disembodied voice of a speculative past or imagined future.
Groom is asking us to reflect on what has changed since colonisation. The colonial project made us invisible to affirm terra nullius and we remain marginalised by settler occupation and un-reconciliatory futures. In Every Human Emotion in 2 Minutes (2015) Groom chants through pain, loss, grief, and finally to strength and resilience. Wearing colonial livery, the artist repeats the language words of ancestors, home and country. For Groom, there is an intimacy in moving image. Performers can extend their presence and the life of their work in video, as Djon Mundine notes: “Aboriginal people are everywhere and Aboriginal people do everything.”
In personal memoir style, Does She Know the Revolution is Coming? (2017) is a six-channel video where Groom embraces three personas of a former Prime Minister’s wife, hosting a United Nations soiree, and as three personas of herself, the artist and soiree attendee. In signature Groom style, she has the camera trained on herself, delivering ironic lines and cringeworthy chatter. As the “her 2” persona of the former Prime Ministers wife, Groom expands on the ideas and notions of the “collector” of Aboriginal art, one that hits the mark for a black audience hearing these stereotypes incessantly repeated. But there is a darker undertone to the work perhaps only felt when the “her 3 and me 3” video channel picks up the pace in dialogue in “read between the lines”. Imagine you are attending one of the biggest platforms for Indigenous rights and you are being forced to smile about reductive statements on authenticity and Aboriginal art as status.
Does She Know the Revolution is Coming? (2017) is many things, among them it situates itself as an allegory for the double-sided nature of the rights discourse for Aboriginal activists. Amala Groom uses her own experiences and histories to interrogate and undermine colonialisms. As an iteration of her first video work, The Visibility of Blackness (2018) allows the artist to further assert control over her narrative and sentiments on temporality. As the video fades in and out of blackness, the bodily representation of the artist is wavering between fixed time and timelessness. The dual video collapses time, or linear versions of it, as Groom overlays her words, “My grandmother is Wiradjuri” simultaneously with “My granddaughter is Wiradjuri”.
Articulated across diverse forms, Groom’s work often subverts and unsettles Western iconographies to tell Aboriginal stories. In Lest We … Get Over It … (2016), blending political fictions and historical facts in a work that is part installation and part revisionist documentary. Here Groom uses a scratch-video style mashup technique, as recently championed by Soda Jerk in TERROR NULLIUS, stitching together archival radio and TV grabs to create an Aboriginal historiography.
By copying and editing sequences and pasting them into different compositions, a bewildered Pauline Hanson is represented alongside massacre denialist Keith Windschuttle and former prime ministers giving Anzac Day speeches, as mouthpieces for revisionist histories that acknowledge the impact of the frontier wars. We are taken on a climactic journey through a nationalist imagination, incorporating Bob Hawke’s gaudy Australia jacket and a celebratory game of Two Up before resting in the final scene on the Aboriginal Flag. Every Aboriginal person has heard the refrain, “Why don’t you just get over it?”.
The artist repurposed the Anzac remembrance of “lest we forget” and Australia’s colonial allegiance to the British Empire to instead honour those ancestors lost in a civil war that took place in our own backyard. Frontier wars and massacres defined Australian settlement—and we are still living with their implications and consequences. Lest we get over it indeed. The temporal structures of many of Groom’s video works do not conform to linear time, taking instead a poetic and hybrid form that rewards multiple viewings with layered access points for a diverse audience. Non-Indigenous audiences may interpret unintentional radical feminist ideologies as she delves beneath the surface of identity and politics, hanging on to a spiritual connection that will resonate with Aboriginal audiences, and other cultures who fall outside the settler body.
Amala Groom is a Wiradjuri artist whose practice is the performance of her cultural sovereignty. She is currently working on new commissions for TARNANTHI/Vitalstatistix (with Nicole Monks); Liveworks, Performance Space (with Nicole Monks & Make or Break) and Cementa Contemporary Arts Festival (with Dale Collier).
Hannah Donnelly is a Wiradjuri writer who explores Indigenous futures, speculative fiction and responses to climate trauma. She is currently working as a producer at Carriageworks.