The National Gallery of Australia’s National Triennial of Indigenous Art centers the ongoing ceremonial process in Aboriginal art

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When curator Hetti Perkins talks about ‘ceremony’, she invokes the image of an iceberg: the public part we live in is the tip, floating above the water – but beneath that surface there are stories. of immense depth and breadth known only to our ancestors and elders. people.

“I think that’s what [Indigenous] artists do. They really lean into that mother load of culture and history that influences all of our lives,” says Perkins.

The Arrente and Kalkadoon woman is the curator of the fourth National Triennial of Indigenous Art, which explores the theme of “ceremony”.

Perkins was a curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales for 14 years and presented the art+soul series for ABC TV.(Supplied: NGA)

“It has been a real privilege for me to be part of this project and to work with the artists and the team here at the National Gallery of Australia,” she says.

“And credit to [the NGA]: they took on the challenge of doing a triennial when all the work is newly commissioned in a few years when COVID has seriously compromised people’s ability to work, to travel, to find work here – even to get supplies.”

In addition to the challenges posed by the pandemic, some of the artists featured were also affected by the 2019-2020 bushfires, or more recently the east coast floods.

Comprised of more than 280 ceramic banksia shapes, the intricate constellation of K/Gamilaroi artist Penny Evans’ gudhuwali BURN installation hangs safely on the walls of the NGA, but just weeks ago its Lismore’s hometown in Bundjalung country was hit by a record flood that devastated the area.

A collection of clay sculptures of burnt banksia shapes hang on a curved white gallery wall
Evans’ work in the Triennale is a recreation of a shooting range in Yuraygir National Park, Yaegl Country, on the New South Wales North Coast, in red terracotta.(Supplied: NGA)

Perkins says she is “incredibly grateful” for the patience and kindness of the 38 artists featured in the exhibit.

Gallery space showing a large photographic work of one eye, with a bungalow reflected in the iris and pupil.
Dylan River (Kaytetye people) took a close-up of a place in Alice Springs that was once a home for Aboriginal children, reflected in his eyes.(Supplied: National Gallery of Australia)

The ceremony as a political act

Meanwhile, the exhibition itself has been postponed and rescheduled several times, with the opening now taking place just two months after the nearby Aboriginal Tent Embassy celebrated its 50th anniversary on January 26 .

The Auspicious Moment brings the exhibit even closer to the idea of ​​demonstrations and protests as a form of ceremony – a ceremony that brings people together for the common purpose of creating something better.

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“If we take that as a starting point, we talk about Canberra or Kamberri as a place that people know as the political capital, where Parliament is, and for a lot of people it’s a remote place where people take decisions that affect the daily lives of our people, and they don’t feel like they have a say in that process.”

This sense of disenfranchisement is evident in the installation Blak Parliament House, located at the entrance to the exhibition.

Created by a collective of Yarrenyty Arltere artists and Tangentyere artists from Mparntwe (Alice Springs), it consists of soft sculptures and animals that participate in meetings, debates and even demonstrations, in front of a reimagined Parliament.

A collection of small light sculptures of creatures, along with signs saying things like: Pay the Rent, placed near a window
Blak Parliament House’s soft sculptures are made from reclaimed woolen blankets and adorned with brightly colored threads and feathers.(Supplied: NGA)

“It’s really interesting to think of Canberra in these terms; about this place and the nation’s capital, and there are places called ‘ceremonial parade’ and ‘ceremonial triangle’ – so there’s this whole ceremonial whitefella , but of course it’s an old place of culture,” says Perkins.

Yawuru artist Robert Andrew’s ‘Typewriter’ is a kinetic sculpture that responds to the cultural history of the Kamberri/Canberra region by gradually revealing a phrase given to him by Dr Matilda House and his son Paul Girrawah House , two traditional guardians of the region, whose work is also featured in Ceremony.

A wall of the gallery is coated with white chalk, red ocher bleeding from the passage of a typewriter.
In Andrew’s kinetic sculpture, an outer layer of white chalk is slowly eroded away to reveal words written in ochre.(Supplied: NGA)

It demonstrates that the ceremony is more than a singular act; it is a process and a learning that takes place, sometimes over a long period of time.

“Even looking at him [his artwork] now it’s just these widely scattered marks, but when it started it almost looked like bullet holes with bleeding. It also evokes rock art. So it takes on all these different meanings, depending on when you look at it.”

Beyond the Gallery’s White Cube

An accomplished curator who has worked on exhibitions at the Venice Biennale and the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, Perkins wanted Ceremony to break free from the white cube format of gallery exhibitions.

SJ Norman’s Bone Library will see him carve animal bones – particularly those of sheep and beef cattle – with words from the South East New South Wales Walgalu language, an Aboriginal language which has been classified in linguistic orthodoxy as “extinct”.

A black and white image of a young man with long hair sitting behind a collection of animal bones arranged in a row on a wooden bench
“I collect bones from these animals and use them as the basis for this work,” Norman told Aidan Hartshorn, assistant curator at the NGA.(Provided: SJ Norman/Jake Terrey)

Perkins said having Norman carve the bones on site meant considering how the bone dust might affect the inner workings of the gallery and its collections.

“Rightly so, there are all these controls on the climate, the dust moving through the building and the way the air circulates – and all these things that we as visitors [to the gallery] don’t really think about it,” she said.

Perkins has also scheduled a number of works that extend beyond the boundaries of the building.

A grizzled aboriginal man squats next to an older aboriginal woman standing next to a tree that has been carved with a design
“[Our work] concerns the reconquest of the Ngambri country, its identity and its provenance,” wrote Paul Girrawah House for the NGA.(Provided: Dr. Matilda House and Paul Girrawah House)

From Nicole Foreshew and Boorljoonngali’s Wir Guwang (rain from the sky) healing mist in Fiona Hall’s fern garden, to Robert Fielding’s Holden On (an abandoned car painted with motifs from his Arrente and Yankunytjatjara cultures) mounted on a pontoon on Lake Burley Griffin, scarred Mulanggari yur-wang (alive and strong) trees by Dr Matilda House and his son Paul Girrawah House, Perkins hopes to make the gallery walls “more porous and less fortress-like”.

“So it’s a lot of saying that there is the skin of the building, but the building is not the thing. It houses the work, it holds the work inside, but the work travels outside.”

An abandoned Holden painted with designs, mounted on a pontoon on a lake, with an overcast sky and a cityscape behind.
Western Arrernte and Yankunytjatjara artist Robert Fielding often worked with abandoned cars, reimagining them with paint and light.(Supplied: National Gallery of Australia)

Paul Girrawah House agrees that expanding the idea of ​​what a gallery space is, particularly through thought-provoking Eurocentric ways of exhibiting art, allows Indigenous peoples to retain control of our stories.

“We all carry with us traditions, a language and respect,” he says.

The National Triennial of Indigenous Art: Ceremony runs from March 26 to July 31.

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