Indigenous artists imagine a radically different Australia: ‘We have to let the country do what it’s going to do’ | indigenous art

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A The woolen queen – ‘the patroness of the mob’ – raises her right hand in salute, as a goanna climbs outside the Australian Parliament. Above the melee of animals gathering to talk, a kangaroo and an emu flank a Commonwealth coat of arms that has been transformed into a vibrant shield of multicolored connections.

“This Parliament is for everyone – white, aboriginal and any other color. It belongs to the community,” explains artist Marlene Rubuntja, one of 11 artists from the Yarrenyty Arltere art center in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) who produced the “soft sculpture” component of this work, titled Blak Parliament House. . These sculptures were created with blankets dyed with pigments from local plants, tea and corroded metal, as well as wool, cotton and feathers. Of Australian parliamentarians, she says: “They just sit in their offices and talk. Do not listen.”

“This Parliament is for everyone – white, aboriginal and any other colour”… Marlene Rubuntja in Mparntwe/Alice Springs. Photography: Artists Yarrenyty Arltere

Atop Blak Parliament House, which was unveiled during the 4th National Triennial of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Australia, the Australian flag has been replaced by one showing a mountain landscape likened to the ancestral creative caterpillar or yeperenye . Seven artists from Tangentyere Arts Center, also in Mparntwe, added protest placards placed to the left and right of the sculptures, some of which read: ‘Clean water for all’, ‘Land rights’ and “Our children belong at home, not in jail”.

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Blak Parliament House celebrates the role of culture in the history of Aboriginal activism and is unveiled 50 years after the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of the Old Parliament in Kamberri or Canberra. It is also five years since the publication of the Heart of Uluru Declaration, which called for a constitutionally enshrined First Nations voice in Parliament and a Makarrata Commission “to oversee a process of reaching agreements between governments and First Nations and tell the truth about our history”.

Yarrenyty Arltere Artists and Tangentyere Artists, Blak Parliament House, 2021, installation view, commissioned by the National Gallery of Australia, Kamberri/Canberra for the 4th National Triennial of Indigenous Art: Ceremony, image courtesy and © the artists
Blak Parliament House, 2021, Yarrenyty Arltere Artists and Tangentyere Artists. Photography: National Gallery of Australia

Sixty-year-old Rubuntja comes from a family that likes to speak with meaning. She says her father, the late Arrernte watercolourist and lawyer Wenten Rubuntja, “spoke up because they really wanted things to be better for their people. Not just words, but also feelings.

Sitting next to Rubuntja is triennial curator Hetti Perkins, whose father was the late Arrernte-Kalkadoon, Indigenous rights activist Charles Perkins. “Like your father, my father, we have always protested,” she tells Rubuntja.

Rubuntja puts a wonderful twist on the animals in front of us: “This crowd here talking, tonight they’re going to talk because they saw us all sitting on the chair,” she says. “They help us, that’s what I think.”

“Is it like we’re watching them, but we don’t realize they’re watching us too?” Perkins asks.

“Yeah, mmm hmm,” confirms Rubuntja.

Detail of work by Penny Evans gudhuwali BURN, 2022.
Detail of work by Penny Evans gudhuwali BURN, 2022. Photography: Penny Evans

Speaking at the opening of the triennial, titled Ceremony, Perkins told the audience that Canberra is ‘in the heart of what is a kind of hallowed ground for the whitefella, and our people, our family, our men and country women, whose country it is, have been too often neglected”. Each of the works, by 16 artists and the two aforementioned collectives, has a ‘performative element or purpose’, and ‘the idea of ​​’active’ is central: works that are active; militant works; active works”.

Across a vast curved wall, artist Kamilaroi Penny Evans placed 280 glazed terracotta and black clay sculptures modeled on pieces of bankia trees. His work, gudhuwali BURN, anthropomorphizes the bankia with its “seductive” human forms.

Penny Evans, K/Gamilaroi people, work in progress, Widjabal Wia-bal Country/Lismore, New South Wales, 2021, image courtesy and © the artist
Penny Evans at work in her studio in Widjabul Wia-bal Country/Lismore, NSW. Photography: Penny Evans

Evans found the 2015 bushfire in Yuraygir National Park in Yaegl Country in northern New South Wales deeply affecting. Reflecting on the impact of the climate crisis, she laments Australia’s disregard for indigenous knowledge in the face of natural disasters, such as the selective clearing of vegetation and low-temperature fires ahead of bushfires.

Evans lives and works in Lismore, Wijabul Wia-bal country, which is again facing flooding after the devastating events of last month. She says the town is “like a zombie apocalypse” – although the military, “once they finally arrived”, did a good job clearing up the trash.

“I’m lucky compared to a lot of people I know, they’re always there cleaning up,” she says. “The federal government is giving CSIRO $10 million to do another study on flood mitigation and engineering solutions: levies, dams. We don’t need all that. We have to take care of the country and let it do what it needs to do: restore the streams.There are cemented creeks with parking lots.

Meanwhile, photo artist Hayley Millar Baker, based in Naarm (Melbourne), has made her first short film. Titled Nyctinasty, a word meaning the opening and closing of plants in response to darkness or temperature changes, the eight-minute black-and-white film explores “that act of survival to close at night for protection”. .

Nyctinasty (still image), Hayley Millar Baker, 2021.
Nyctinasty (still image), Hayley Millar Baker, 2021. Photography: Hayley Millar Baker/Galerie Vivien Anderson

Nyctinasty looks like a horror movie and plays with “shape-shifting stories within my crowd”, the Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung peoples (Millar Baker also has Indian and Brazilian ancestry). Settled in the home or “safe space” of an Indigenous woman, Baker is shown in a meditative state, crushing charcoal, when two pairs of mysterious hands suddenly appear on her shoulders.

Some people will identify with the horror element, but Millar Baker believes women are more likely to identify with the spiritual part of the storyline. “I think for women, our intuition is much faster,” she says. “Maybe it’s genetics and motherhood.”

Millar Baker has only recently acquired the “courage to tell her own stories”, such as the fact that she has inherited a “magical” line in her family. “I can’t heal, but I can astral project myself,” she says. His first experience of spirits occurred at the age of three and was seen by several cousins ​​at a sleepover: a shadow outside broke into the bedroom and Millar Baker was pushed of a bunk bed on the floor.

Such unexplained experiences are “easier when it comes to more pleasant things, like ancestors; it’s more boring when it’s sinister things”. And Nyctinasty isn’t all grim: it celebrates not just self-reliance, but survival.

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