News, Reviews, Visual arts

Body language speaks on many levels

Various Artists, ‘I See You, I hear You’ ·
Gallery Central, North Metro TAFE ·
Review: Stephen Bevis ·

A Noongar man, his body painted for ceremony, adopts a formal stance as if posing for a Neo-classical artist besotted by the exotic “noble savage”.

His otherness is confirmed by the accompanying flora and fauna in the painting, species examined, classified and indexed by the artist-naturalists who accompanied the 18th and 19th century voyages of “discovery” and colonisation.

Except here also are rabbits, foxes and sheep, true exotic fauna introduced to Australia by the Europeans. And the artist is not a Neo-classical English or French painter but Minang/Noongar contemporary artist Christopher Pease.

Pease embeds his body of work in the western figurative tradition, turning its techniques against itself to question, undermine and recalibrate its assumptions from the indigenous perspective. Here, his subjects reflect the widespread treatment of indigenous people as akin to native fauna, not counted in the population census until as recently as 1967.

Two works from Pease’s 2014 Flora & Fauna series feature in ‘I See You, I hear You’, a group exhibition of emerging and established artists which opened at Central Gallery as part of NAIDOC Week. The NAIDOC theme this year is “Voice Treaty Truth” and this show, running until the end of July, takes the idea of storytelling and communication without using or even having a voice at all.

The body and its non-verbal expressiveness through dance, adornment and gesture is foregrounded in just about all the works, which range across video, photography, painting and fashion and design. Visual arts, of course, is another non-verbal articulation of our humanity, giving a simple, clear curatorial thread for Gallery Central curator Thelma Johns to plot the flow of the exhibition.

Entering the gallery, the viewer is confronted with three photographic prints by Brenda L Croft. A black and white 1960s childhood image of Croft with her father outside the Perth GPO is reproduced twice as negatives. All three pictures are then overlaid by racist text taken from regulations restricting Aboriginal life in Perth at the time. Relatively fair-skinned and holding the hand of her darker Guringji father, Croft inverts their skin tones through the effect of the negative images  and upends assumed stereotypes being reinforced by the negative racial descriptions.

Dennis Golding, a TAFE and PICA artist-in-residence for 2019 Hatched, also uses photography to examine identity, power and confidence in Beings I and Beings II. The Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay artist gives us an enigmatic self-portrait, wearing a superhero cape emblazoned with a target and standing back-to-camera looking out to sea on a cliff at Sydney’s Little Bay.

Dennis Golding’s Beings I uses pop culture and place to examine identity.

Among other works by Kylie Graham, Debra Miller, Pantjiti Mary Mclean, Darren Stockwell and Katie West are two stunning archival images from the State Library. These two photographs from around 1900-10, taken by an unknown photographer, show Wadjuk elder Joobaitch and several other Noongar men in ceremonial dress and body paint in Kalamunda bushland.

Contemporary artists, including Christopher Pease, have used these historical images as important reference material for their own work and they are compelling and powerful inclusions in this show. The photographs of Joobaitch, born in the early days of the Swan River Colony, also inspired the body-painting designs used in a collaborative video work of animation and filmed dance involving, among others, Darryl Bellotti, Nigel Wilkes, Kirk Garlett and dancers from the Northam Clontarf Academy for the Bilya Koort Boodja Centre for Nyoongar Culture and Environmental Knowledge in Northam.

Another video, by director-performer Karla Hart and the Yokayi girls from Girrawheen Senior High School, also celebrates the ongoing strength of traditional Noongar culture. Because of Her, We Can was made for NAIDOC 2018 and is a joyous expression of identity, community and culture told primarily through dance.

Though compromised by the lack of a darkened space to highlight their qualities, these two videos of the students of Clontarf and Girrawheen, affirm the exhibition’s commitment to telling a story of standing strong and proud, sharing and celebrating indigenous heritage and culture.

I See You, I Hear You is at Central Gallery, Aberdeen Street, Northbridge, until July 27.

Pictured above: Christopher Pease’s Flora & Fauna I and III, oil on linen paintings, 2014. Photo courtesy courtesy of Gallerysmith, Melbourne.

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