11 July, 2018 in Reviews
standing still; looking back, looking forward is a confronting commentary of Aboriginal identity set to spark heartfelt joy, colonised confusion, and thoughtful consideration. Held at Incinerator Gallery’s main exhibition space, the show is curated by Jessica Clark and features new works by Dean Cross, Brad Darkson, Amala Groom and Nicole Monks, Ashley Perry and Katie West. Together the works present the diversity of our cultural experience, arts practice, and (dis)connection to tradition. As a cyclic story, Aboriginality is affirmed through traditional practice, storytelling, and the living and breathing of country.
Standing still, looking down at Katie West’s video Body remembering—grinding Stone (ongoing work) (2018), there is a desert red rock sitting on sand while young brown hands work to smooth a stone against it. By taking hold of the rock and the stone, West is taking ownership of her ancestry. The colours are warm and the back and forth of the stone against rock is loud and mesmerising, machine-like in its repetition. Drifting into the back and forth motion of the hand massaging the stone into the rock, the scale of time dissolves like the variants of scale in the rock, the stone and the sand. A tiny ant scurries through the scene without consequence—the loud back and forth scraping a perpetual motion like day before night before day. In this variation of an Industrial Age, where the human footprint dissolves into sands, West’s work-in-progress offers purity, productivity and a steady persistence that instils caretaker responsibilities. Inspired by Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, the sense is that this piece will evolve into a lifetime work, and we are left to ponder the next instalment.
Ashley Perry’s Boo-rroo–rra Kun-ji:-yil Ba:-bun (Full Moon Corroboree) (2018) is breathtaking as both a cultural exchange and contemporary art expression. A Quandamooka man, Perry has re-imagined a ‘moon prop’ from mission stories told by his Great Grandmother. In the place of bound branches and cloth, clear glass shards are mounted into a wall-sized full moon shape. Sitting off the wall, the essence is grand and graceful with dusty wormlike markings shadowed back to the wall. The intangible becomes tangible as the contemporary artist scars the gallery tree to take his place as one of the family. Dreams live here.
Perry’s other work Ka-rra-boo Gu – nya–ba-rra (One for holding) (2017—2018) is a series of beautifully crafted rock pools with curves of clear glass as the water and jagged lines of Tasmanian Oak as the rock. Also forming child-sized coffee tables, we can imagine Perry playing quietly as he listened to the stories of his Grandmother. Together, Perry’s works of country, storytelling, and life lived give us a memorable opportunity to celebrate this year’s NAIDOC theme: Because of her, we can!
In antithesis to Perry’s detail-focused work, Brad Darkson offers us the playful consumerism of Tremendously very very very beautiful (2018). There’s a youtube tutorial about dot painting on a television screen with a gilt-framed artwork next to it. I put the headphones on expecting to be amused by Darkson’s instruction on how to use the earbuds to create my own tremendous Aboriginal art but the heavy Indian accent immediately quashes my enthusiasm. A cacophony of colonisation: virtual, instructor and pupil. I look at the artist-in-training’s outcome inside the expensive gilt frame, with the cheap paper and, if following the tutorial, kid’s quality paint. As a child of the Stolen Generations and passionate art lover, I don’t know how to respond to this. But Darkson’s career of political visual and audio activism including a wonderful series of used toothbrush heads laid in clear resin from 2016, tells me that he doesn’t really care for an ocker culture that believes authentic Aboriginal art is ‘confined to a single motif or medium’ such as dots and ochre. He just wants to make sure we see the judgment for what it is.
Dean Cross’ Dropping the Bullshit (we look like this too) (2018) is a series of three large black and white portraits. Until I realise the work is a re-performance of Chinese living legend Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), I’m drawn into my own version of the three-panel story: in the first photo, I see an erect figure concealing his identity with a serving platter depicting the face of a proud elderly tribesman. I think of my own longing for connection to my family tribe and believe the artist is taking ownership of his traditions, saying ‘this is me, I am a proud black man’. Looking to the sandstone wall behind him, I wonder if the stones were stolen from pre-colonisation Aboriginal homes. When the plate falls in image two, to reveal the light-skinned Cross, it blurs at crotch level and my stomach rages for the multitude of Aboriginal women who were raped at the hands of the invaders—poisoning us with their whiteness. By image three, my art lover lust is ravenous with how connected I feel to this piece. The plate has smashed to the ground and my anger brims into sadness that this handsome light-skinned Aboriginal man, with his preppy 80s fashion of white shirt, denim jeans with the cuff turned up, and Nike runners, is standing disconnected from his ancestor warrior. I yearn for MURDER, RAPE and THEFT to be slashed across the image as blood red graffiti that drips with the violence experienced by the warrior and our people. At the least, I would like a red texta on a cord, like at the bank, and I would like to leave a message—maybe list the members of my family who were stolen. Here, my art lover devotion would surely have produced tears from my eyes.
When I learn that the work is just one series of many Ai Weiwei vase dropping re-performances, the concept of artistic and cultural appropriation overrides my reading. With this new viewing: of an Aboriginal man re-performing an Eastern artwork in front of a convict-made stone wall, the artist assures me that his use of the Indigenous kitsch trope is a message of self-determination against racism and the privilege of the Western canon. The pictures are a grand and handsome series to consider within the broader construct of this exhibition as indeed, they aptly mirror: standing still; looking back, looking forward. That said, I believe Weiwei would appreciate a tag of acknowledgement: made in China, and I hope for a return of the mindful splendour of Cross’ Best We Forget (2017) narrative.
Entering the room where Amala Groom and Nicole Monks’ Momentous (2018) is screening, the stillness is immersive. Along with the naked artists, we’re drawn to look forward to the welcoming sight of a ghost gum forest on a blue sky day. The image expands and contracts like a heartbeat which is further instilled through an audio poem where Groom, reciting in Wiradjuri, takes turns with Monk reciting in Yamatji: ‘hearts beat//to the volume of the bush//leaves breathe//to the rhythm of the footprints//wind blows//to the sunshine of warm air…’ While I am resentful that my cultural bleaching has left me linguistically deficient, this layering of image with the soft lulling strength of language vanquishes all distractions of the day. Here, standing still looking forward, I’m safe. A blue-sky future awaits.
This article was originally published on Art + Australia Online.
Image: Amala Groom & Nicole Monks, momentous (detail), 2018, single-channel video with audio. Image courtesy of the artist.