The 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), Defying Empire, showcases 30 contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from across the country. Emerging, mid-career and established, all brought together defying stereotypes, defying colonisation, defying definitions, defying untold stories, and asserting strength and resistance on a national platform.
Exhibition curator, Tina Baum, a proud Larrakia/Wadaman/Karajarri woman, has interlaced the narrative around the 1967 Referendum that recognised Australia’s First Nations peoples in the Census.
“When this opportunity came up I really wanted to look at what we [Australian art industry] say as ‘urban’ based artists, how they are represented, misunderstood, and not represented … So looking at how the conversation about this country in relation to the visual arts is beyond dot paintings and bark paintings. It was really important for me to be able to look at that and explore that," Baum told NITV.
'It was important for me to be able to look and explore how the conversation about visual arts in this country is beyond dot paintings and bark paintings.'
"I selected the artists first, and anything they would have made would be relevant to the theme of 'Defying Empire'. Talking with the artists about the theme, they have all either directly or indirectly addressed the 1967 Referendum.”
Defying Empire explores the ongoing resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists since first contact with the British Empire, through the fight for recognition in the 1967 Referendum and the continuing activism today and into the future. The exhibition shows a diverse range of artists and materials including painting on bark and canvas, film, photography, printmaking, weaving, sculpture, glass, textiles and large scale installation. The artworks highlight a number of Australia’s issues of racism, colonialism and ignored histories and policies from a number of angles including humour, anger, pain and sorrow.
Entering the foyer of the NGA, we enter the colourful world of Gomeroi artist, Reko Rennie with a spray painted Rolls Royce; a gold “1967” dominating NGA play and his defiant banner ‘Always Here’, each addressing the relationship of power and royalty with the dispossession, dislocation, trauma and injustice of Indigenous peoples, culture, and identity in Australia.
Kokatha and Nukunu glass artist, Yhonnie Scarce, shares the dark, untold history of the Maralinga bomb testing on her grandfather’s country and the numerous issues that are a direct result of these tests on Aboriginal people.
“The Aboriginal people in this area weren’t even considered…easily dismissed. It’s something I felt was going to be a long term research project for me,” Scarce told NITV.
Yhonnie shares this untold story and the ongoing effects in across three pieces in the exhibition. 'Thunder Raining Poison', a spectacular installation of over 2000 glass blown yams, illustrates the direct environmental effects on Maralinga in a looming chandelier like form and 'whileBeFall out Babies' addresses the health issues that continue today in the embryos and infants that were affected by radioactive poisoning.
Emerging Yawuru artist, Sebastian Arrow, has been given custodianship of the continuing practice of riji pearl-shell engraving. Mentored by the late Aubrey Tigan, senior lawman and artist, Sebastian can now produce and pass on the continuing knowledge and extraordinary design and practice of riji carving. “The crosshatching gives a shimmering, sparkling effect, associated with ancestral powers across the Saltwater tribes,” Arrow says.
Quanamooka artist, Megan Cope, and member of proppaNOW, works with a different medium for each of her three works on display. Cope is decolonising the military maps and reclaiming her country by making her language the most visible in her painting. “It’s really about challenging concepts of ownership and reaffirming our place in this country as First Peoples and sovereign people,” Cope says.
"I’d never thought about having to be a certified Aboriginal woman before. I was affronted by who this certificate is for and how policies have affected, eroded and erased our identities. This work talks about the psychological effects of these policies and processes"
Using a dark humour, Cope addresses the absurdity of needing to prove your identity, a process that non-Indigenous Australians do not have to do in her video work titled, Blaktism.
“I’d never thought about having to be a certified Aboriginal woman before. I was affronted by who this certificate is for and how policies have affected, eroded and erased our identities. This work talks about the psychological effects of these policies and processes…it reimagines an absurd anointing of authenticity, defined by non-Aboriginal people,” Cope told NITV.
Defying Empire is a must see exhibition that illustrates the diversity of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and the power of the visual arts as a tool for conversation, communication and change.
The 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial: 'Defying Empire' is on display at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 26 May - 10 September 2017.