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The strength of resistance

Review: ‘Revealed: New and Emerging Aboriginal Artists’ and ‘To Be Continued: Photography from Indigenous Australia’ ·
Fremantle Arts Centre ·
Review by Miranda Johnson ·

“Revealed: New and Emerging Aboriginal Artists” and “To Be Continued: Photography from Indigenous Australia”, currently at Fremantle Arts Centre, are two exhibitions that display the breadth of talent of Aboriginal artists in Australia as well as the strength of their active resistance to ongoing colonial practices.

“To Be Continued” is a survey of contemporary photography from remote, rural and metropolitan based Aboriginal artists. In contrast to “Revealed”, the show is quite contained, spanning just two rooms. Within these rooms, however, dreamlike memories and historical narratives are retold and reimagined, examining Australia’s colonial past – and present – to undermine accepted narratives.

“To Be Continued” somehow feels speculative, towards not only the past but the future. Lavene McKenzie’s works draw out pivotal memories from her childhood of discovering and cementing her cultural identity through the relationship to her country. In Grandfather, a tableau beautifully draws out the mundane details of a childhood afternoon – chicken flavoured chips and a bottle of coke – to contrast with the landscape of the Stirling Ranges peeking tantalisingly through the screen door. McKenzie’s grandfather gestures towards their country to reinforce their spiritual and cultural connection to what’s out there.

Fiona Foley, ‘Protector’s Camp’, 2017, Fujiflex digital print, 45 x 80cm.

McKenzie’s dreamlike images speak closely to the centrepiece of the first room, Fiona Foley’s fictionalised retelling of the Aboriginal missions in Queensland, and the power relationships between the men of the clergy and government, and the Badtjala people. Drawing on the historical records of the time, Foley does not turn away from the dark narratives of sexual abuse, slavery and addiction. In her images, Aboriginal people and white colonialists are photographed side-by-side, their deliberate gazes and conscious poses belying the seemingly historical tableaux, conscious of their presence as performers rather than subjects. Looking to a dystopian future – as well as a historical land grab – Michael Cook’s speculative images of native Australian fauna invading 1960s London on spaceships provides a humorous yet pointed consideration on the violence of invasion, inverting narratives of power.

Michael Cook’s speculative images of native Australian fauna invading 1960s London on spaceships
Michael Cook, INVASION (UFO Possums), 2017 digital print on paper 120 x 81cm. Michael Cook, INVASION (Finale), 2017 digital print on paper 120 x 81cm. Photography by Jessica Wyld.

Comprising of an art market, exhibition, artist talks, mentorship programs and curatorial placements, “Revealed” is an annual program that brings together Aboriginal art centres from around Western Australia as well as a number of independent Aboriginal artists, to display the expansiveness of Indigenous art practice.

A corridor of works from Nagula Jarndu.
Various works from Nagula Jarndu. Photography by Jessica Wyld.

The biggest “Revealed” exhibition to date, the 2019 iteration certainly feels expansive, as the corridor lined with block printed linen from the women of the Nagula Jarndu Aboriginal Women’s Art and Resource Centre encloses the viewer in the narrow space, then gives way to the airy galleries of FAC’s South Wing. Here, works by established Aboriginal artists are placed alongside emerging artists, with strong themes of mentorship and generational knowledge providing links between individual works as well as individual art centres.

This year, a focus on experimental use of materials and ways of making shines throughout the exhibition; Amanda Bell’s teabag-stained fabrics alongside a projection of her making process sits next to a vibrant fabric map of Langford. Denim patches with – variously – gum nuts, bird feathers, pebbles, bark and felt, embroidered painstakingly onto the fabric, create a visual map of country that marks the memories, emotions and cultural traditions embedded in the land.

Teapots and cups
Amanda Bell, ‘Yoka yaakiny’, 2018, mixed media (tea bags, natural and vegetable dye, marri gum), dimensions variable. Photography by Jessica Wyld

It’s not only personal relationships to country and culture that are on display here, but a strength of resistance against the commodification and appropriation of said culture. This thread  runs through both ‘Revealed’ and ‘To Be Continued’.

Questions of what culture means, on both a personal and a community level, and how it is abused by settler colonialists, capitalists and big corporations, are everywhere. It’s in asking these questions and telling these stories that the importance of exhibitions such as these – and the role played by Aboriginal art centres in creating and sustaining cultural knowledge, art practices and community – becomes clear.  These are not just local initiatives, but sites of resistance.

‘Revealed’ runs until June 1.

‘To Be Continued’ runs until June 1.

Pictured top: Lavene McKenzie, “Grandfather”, 2017 digital print on paper 116 x 79cm.

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