Reviews/Perth Festival/Visual Art

Stories of survival

2 March 2021

Curated by Glenn Iseger-Pilkington ‘nyinalanginy / the gathering’ is a thoughtful and provocative exhibition of works by First Nations people of the Indo-Pacific region, writes Michelle White.

‘nyinalanginy / the gathering’, various artists curated by Glenn Iseger-Pilkington, Perth Festival ·
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, 20 February, 2021 ·

There’s a lot of truth-telling and intergenerational trauma laid bare in “nyinalanginy / the gathering”, an exhibition at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA). But don’t let that put you off – it’s no guilt trip. Quite the opposite.

While the works by eight artists – including First Nations artists from Australia, Māori artists from Aotearoa New Zealand, and Australian South Sea Islander artists – explore confronting stories about colonisation, dispossession, slavery, even massacres, they do so in ways that evoke our deep reflection, understanding and empathy.

When you enter the gallery’s main space, you’re greeted by a large work, … turned by white men (2021), by Noongar artist Sharyn Egan. The wall-mounted collection of decorative homewares made by turning the core wood of the balga, comments on the destruction of indigenous plants and forests to make decorative homewares.

Egan’s balga-themed work continues in her 2019 work Ngop Ngooni (Blood Brothers), thirteen large paintings created using paint made from balga resin. The rich earthy hues are reminiscent of ochres used in tribal patterns.

But perhaps her most striking work is Kalyakool (Always), (2021), a gathering of dead balga cores that resembles the Pinnacles. When a balga dies, the core remains, a reminder of how old the slow-growing tree must have been. Egan collects cores and reflects on how many Noongars, her old people, would have walked past them during their lifetimes.

A work by fourth-generation Australian South Sea Islander Jasmine Togo-Brisby sits in a back room at PICA. Made from hundreds, perhaps thousands, of interwoven black crows’ feathers, Into Something Else (2021) is a maelstrom, a portal, a whirlpool. In her artist’s notes she explains how a maelstrom is formed by opposing currents. It’s pertinent that the word is also used to describe a state of confused movement and violent turmoil.

Togo-Brisby’s work is about blackbirding, Australia’s late 19th to early 20th century Pacific slave trade. The black crow is often used as a symbol of blackbirding. Stare into the centre of this powerful work and reflect on the fact that the artist’s grandparents were among the 62,000 people abducted from their island homes and forced into slavery in Australia.

A canvas with the hand-painted words: WE HAVE SURVIVED ALL OF THIS BEFORE.
Dean Coss, ’23rd March (1770 – 2020)’, 2020
oilstick and gesso on linen
. Photo: Cole Baxter

In Pas de Deux (2019) Dean Cross, a Canberra-based artist of Worimi descent, takes us back to 1988 – Australia’s bicentenary. Through two films shown side by side we witness the year through a white and a black lens. On the left we see scenes of the celebration of nation building since colonisation. On the right we are shown scenes of grief, anger and uprising, protests on a scale that we would not see again until last year’s global rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Emerging Noongar artist Yabini Kickett explores matriarchy, kinship and survival in Burdiya ka – bosses (2021). Her powerful portraits of the strong women in her life were taken during a trip back to home country for sorry business. A glass case of treasured personal objects, some collected from near the birthing tree where her nanna was born, capture intergenerational memories.

The work of Kununurra-based Peggy Griffith Madij is an example of how to share a horrendous part of our history in a gentle and generous way. She has teamed with animator Bernadette Trench-Thiedeman for At First Sight (2019-2020), bringing to life Madij’s paintings of a story her mother told her about her first encounter with a non-indigenous person when she hid underwater before escaping. The simple story marks the beginning of a series of events, including a massacre, that would change their lives forever.

Curator Glenn Iseger-Pilkington should be congratulated for assembling a stunning exhibition of thoughtful, provocative works from First Nations people of the Indo-Pacific region. Perhaps the piece that sums it all up is Dean Cross’s black marker and gesso work on canvas, bearing the words, “We have survived all this before”.

‘nyinalanginy / the gathering’ is showing at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts until Sunday, 18 April, 2021.

Pictured top: Yabini Kickett, ‘Burdiya-ka (Bosses)’ (Left: Caroline Kickett, right: Helen Picket), 2021

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Author —
Michelle White

Michelle White is a Yamatji storyteller with more than 30 years writing and producing for televison, radio, print and online. She has extensive experience working in the arts and currently serves as Partnerships and Platforming Manager for Community Arts Network. Favourite part of the playground? The flying fox or wherever the food is!

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