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What to SEE: For Our Elders

21 June 2023

Emerging artist and curator Zali Morgan wants to shake up audience expectations of First Nations art. Curating the City of Joondalup’s NAIDOC exhibition For Our Elders is giving her the chance to do just that.

Zali Morgan may be in the final year of a Bachelor of Creative Arts/Fine Arts at Curtin University, but she’s already making her mark on the WA visual arts scene.

Zali Morgan

The young Wilman, Ballardong, Whadjuk Noongar woman is assistant curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Her own art work can currently be seen at Fremantle Arts Centre (Revealed), and in July she’ll have work in the Noongar Country exhibition at Bunbury Regional Art Gallery for NAIDOC Week, and in Human/Nature, a group exhibition by Curtin University Fine Art Graduate Collective 2023 at Kent Street Gallery.

Morgan has also exhibited pieces at the City of South Perth Emerging Artist Award, the City of Bayswater Art Award and the PAWA Contemporary Print Media Award, and her work is held in the City of South Perth Collection.

Plus regular Seesaw Mag readers will know that she joined our team of contributors earlier this year.

Now she’s also guest curating For Our Elders, the City of Joondalup’s NAIDOC Week art exhibition. Taking its title from this year’s NAIDOC theme, For Our Elders celebrates and honours the wisdom, knowledge and culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders. Drawn from the City of Joondalup Collection, the works are created by First Nations artists, including Ben Pushman, Helicopter Tjungurrayi, Julie Dowling, Queenie Mckenzie, Meeyakba Shane Pickett, Vanessa Russ, Tjyllyungoo Lance Chadd and Christopher Pease. Though diverse in style, technique and theme, they are united by a common thread: respect for elders and their knowledge.

Ahead of the opening of For Our Elders, Nina Levy found out more about what drives Zali Morgan, and what we can expect from the exhibition.

Nina Levy: Zali, you grew up on Wadandi Boodjar (Margaret River). Tell me a bit about your childhood. What role did the arts play as you were growing up? When did you know that you would pursue visual art as a career?

Zali Morgan: Growing up I was always a creative kid, my sister and I had what we called “the craft table”, where my mum basically stocked any cheap arty-crafty things for us to make with.

I also danced from the age of four, training in ballet, jazz, tap, acro and contemporary, and I eventually started teaching. In year 11, I completed a Certificate II in Dance at the Australian Performing Arts Network in Perth.

I was also always interested in art at school, especially in high school, where I had teachers who were really supportive and encouraged me to create, really focusing diversifying my skill set into print and sculpture.

I finished school and was awarded a scholarship to the Margaret River TAFE, where I completed a certificate IV in Visual Art. That is when I knew I wanted to pursue visual arts.

NL: You’re the assistant curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at AGWA and you’re also currently completing a Bachelor of Creative Arts/Fine Art at Curtin University, plus you write for Seesaw Magazine, and currently you’re curating For Our Elders, showcasing a selection of the City of Joondalup’s First Nations Art Collection.

How do you fit it all in?!

ZM: A lot of hard work and a key support unit. I am really lucky and privileged to have super supportive people behind me, guiding me and reminding me of the light. In all the spaces I work I know I have people backing me and encouraging me to go for it. Amongst the hard work, I love what I do. I love creating and being surrounded by creatives.

‘ I want audiences to expect the same quality and exploration within artworks from First Nations artists as they would any other artist.’ Pictured is one of the works from ‘For Our Elders’: Vanessa Russ, ‘Muddy Road 5’, 2020. Indian ink on Fabriano paper. City of Joondalup Art Collection.Photo: Acorn Photo.

NL: And how do your various work and study commitments complement one another?

ZM: Through my studies, I have developed an emerging practice in printmaking and working with textiles, and love for materiality. That is also definitely what I am interested in when working in collections.

I have always loved learning new creative skills, and when I see other artists branching out of their usual practices and engaging in risk, my heart sings!

NL: I’ve read that you like to push the boundaries of what audiences can expect of First Nations artists and what the expectation of Aboriginal art is. What are the limits that you want to challenge?

ZM: There can be an expectation from audiences, when there is an exhibition of First Nations artists, that the work will include dots, Aboriginal iconography or a “dreaming story”, which can put First Nations artists into boxes.

I want audiences and the broader community to walk into exhibitions of First Nations artists and expect to see abstract works like Meeyakba Shane Pickett and Vanessa Russ’s works, alongside Christopher Pease’s very figurative portraiture, accompanied by Lea Taylor’s booka (kangaroo skin cloak). I want audiences to expect the same quality and exploration within artworks from First Nations artists as they would any other artist.

NL: You’re curating the exhibition For Our Elders for the City of Joondalup. As the name suggests, the works in the exhibition portray stories about elders, by elders or for elders. What has informed your curatorial decisions for this exhibition?

ZM: The City of Joondalup’s collection includes around 30 artworks by First Nations Australian artists, so curating this exhibition, with the theme For Our Elders in mind, was very intense. I wanted the exhibition to celebrate artists within the WA community who have paved the way for emerging artists through breaking away from expectations, and I wanted to achieve this with utmost respect. Being very young and curating an exhibition that portray stories about elders, by elders or for elders, is a great privilege and definitely had pressure.

‘I wanted the exhibition to celebrate artists within the WA community who have paved the way for emerging artists.’ Pictured is one of the works from ‘For Our Elders’: Sandra Hill, ‘Wautt Paardalaniny (Moving Camp All Together)’, 2008. Oil on board. City of Joondalup Art Collection. Photo Christophe Canato

So, that was my main priority – being respectful.

With my wish to push the boundaries in mind, the variety of mediums and media included within the exhibition was a key point. Featuring a variety of artists at different career stages was also a priority. And featuring Mandy White was extremely important, to celebrate the strong role model she has become for artists with disability.

NL: What can audiences expect to see at For Our Elders? And what do you hope they will take away from the exhibition?

ZM: Visitors can expect a celebration of some of our best artists in Western Australia, in a warm space where they can even curl up with their favourite book (in the Joondalup Library!).

I hope audiences leave the exhibition wanting to walk into another with no expectations, except to see quality work!

For Our Elders opens at Joondalup Library during NAIDOC Week, Monday 26 June, and closes Saturday 29 July 2023.

Pictured top: Tjyllyungoo Lance Chadd, ‘Ngoorlark’, 2020. Acrylic on Belgian linen. City of Joondalup Art Collection. Photo: Christophe Canato

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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