Reviews/Perth Festival/Visual Art

Power of language written on the walls

7 March 2023

Artist Robert Andrew takes back control of First Nations languages whilst undermining the words of the oppressors, in an exhibition that Craig McKeough finds compelling and satisfying.

Held Within A Word, Robert Andrew
Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, until 23 April 2023

Robert Andrew combines precision computer technology with tools and mark-making mediums from the world’s oldest living culture in a powerful piece of art that literally takes shape in front of the viewer’s eyes.

Held Within A Word has something important to say about how the voices and language of First Nations people have been overwhelmed by the culture of an invading force.

This is Andrew’s way of wresting back control of language and using it to deliver a withering political statement.

Andrew lives in Meanjin (Brisbane) but is a descendant of the Yawuru people of the Kimberley and Aboriginal languages have long held a central place in his work.

Artist Robert Andrew standing in front of his work Tracing Inscriptions – Moondang Dandjoo Koorliny, which features natural objects on the wall which scrape as they move creating patterns.
Artist Robert Andrew with his work ‘Tracing Inscriptions – Moondang Dandjoo Koorliny’. Photo: Sophie Minissale.

His work gives voice to First Nations people and culture, while taking deliberate aim at those in our history who have sought to take away not only their voices, but their very right to exist.

To produce Tracing Inscriptions – Moondang Dandjoo Koorliny for this exhibition, Andrew worked with Whadjuk Noongar traditional owner Elisha Jacobs-Smith to select words to describe connections to land and the need for healing.

Andrew has tied pieces of burnt and ochre-dipped wood and rocks to wires and cables which are guided by a device using open source computer software to plot the chosen words. As the material bumps and rubs against the walls, the slow, repetitive movement reveals marks, smudges and lines in charcoal and ochre.

There is no obvious link to the original words in the seemingly random marks but somehow meaning is embedded in the images as they grow and evolve – minute by minute, day by day. They suggest landforms and shadowy figures, maybe ghosts peering out and then hiding themselves away again as the machine continues its relentless work.

As impressive as the concept and delivery of this piece is, for me the companion work, Moving Beyond the Line, is the highlight of the show. This consists of an open book, its pages impregnated with red ochre and balanced on yellow ochre rocks. A slow, repetitive drip of water falls from above onto the pages, gradually wearing away the ageing paper and creating a stream of red-tinged liquid.

The exhibition piece ‘Moving Beyond the Line’ undermines the power of the colonisers. Photo: Miles Noel

This flows into a shallow tray like a newly formed river spreading slowly across a parched landscape.

Normally I’d decry anyone destroying a book in the name of art, taking away someone else’s form of expression to create your own. Here, however, the power of the art lies specifically in undermining the power of the book – Australia’s Coloured Minority: Its Place in the Community (1947) by A.O. Neville.

Neville is a giant figure in the history of relations between colonial powers and Aboriginal inhabitants in Western Australia. Holding the ironic title of “Chief Protector of Aborigines” from 1915 – 1936 and then commissioner for native affairs until 1940, he played a leading role in attempts to assimilate First Nations people into the white population – literally to make the original people of the land disappear.

The open pages of the book reveal a sample of the misguided notions and shocking slurs that Neville perpetuated. To watch as these words are slowly but very surely wiped away, leaving an impression of Country in their place, is a profound and quietly satisfying experience.

It seems entirely appropriate that nearly 200 years after European settlement of Whadjuk country, this statement of taking back is happening in a colonial era building that was originally a place of learning for young people of the invading power.

Held Within A Word is an exhibition that needs to be taken in slowly and meditatively as the artwork unfolds in front of you. It is a pertinent and compelling message of resilience and survival – and a reassuring reminder of the healing power of time.

Pictured top: Robert Andrew’s installation ‘Tracing Inscriptions – Moondang Dandjoo Koorliny’ uses burnt and ochre-dipped wood and rocks to mark the wall. Robert Andrew, ‘Held within a word’, installation view, Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA), 2023. Photo: Miles Noel

Held Within A Word continues at PICA until 23 April 2023.

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Author —
Craig McKeough

Craig McKeough is a writer and visual artist, with a lifetime’s experience in journalism, covering everything from the arts to horse racing, politics and agriculture. Craig has always been drawn to the swing; an egalitarian, grounding piece of equipment where you can go as high and wild as you want, but you’ll always return to where you started.

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