Just Not Australian

Just Not Australian, Presented by Artspace and Sydney Festival, Artspace, Sydney, 18 January – 28 April 2019

Presented by Artspace and Sydney Festival, Just Not Australian is an ambitious and conceptually rich thematic group show that offers a critical inquiry into the limiting and clichéd imaginings of what it means to be Australian, or ‘unAustralian’. Featuring 19 multidisciplinary artists from a wide generational and cultural cross-section of Australian society, it deals broadly with the complexities of contemporary Australian nationhood, looking into our fragmented national identity and the ways it is manipulated to exclude and disparage ‘the other’.

Rising out of the political rhetoric of authoritarian nationalism that re-emerged under the conservative government of former Prime Minister John Howard during the mid 90s, ‘unAustralian’ has become a pejorative term used to stigmatise those whom are not perceived to align with particular conservative values or accepted Australian cultural ‘norms’ – such as striking workers, anti-war protestors, migrants and asylum seekers, popularly demonised as ‘illegal immigrants’. [1]

Taking place the year before the official 250th anniversary celebrations of Cook’s arrival and opening the week prior to Australia day, Just Not Australian reactively engages with timely themes that are resurgent in Australian politics and cultural society. In response to a significant moment in Australia’s colonial history, the exhibition is projected as an opportunity to publicly discuss the meaning of ‘arrival’, which is identified by curator Tania Linz as a continuum within this country that has seen ongoing immigration historically and continuing today. [2] As such, it strongly resonates with the debate on national border policy, a recent re-emergent point of contention with the Coalition government’s announcement of its plans to reopen the Christmas Island detention centre, and their deliberate political dehumanisation of refugees. Through an exploration of what art historian Anthony Gardner describes as the ‘complex triadic relations and highly entangled histories between Aboriginal people, European settlers, and more recent immigrants’, [3] the exhibition draws attention to the close relationship between aesthetics and politics, and is typical of a wave of identity politics trending within the contemporary art world.

The boldness of the curatorial vision is immediately recognisable in the urgent, ‘in-your-face’, visual impact of the collective of works featured, which overwhelms you upon entering the gallery space. Positioned in front of the doorway Tony Schwensen’s Border Protection Assistance Proposed Monument for the Torres Strait (Am I ever going to see your face again?) (2002) acts as a physical barrier and a symbol of xenophobic territorialism and exclusivity. Produced in response to the ‘Tampa Affair’ and ‘Pacific Solution’, it remains just as pertinent now as it did then. Composed of a triangular arrangement of temporary roadblocks wrapped in Floaties and sitting in buckets of water, it is emblazoned with the words ‘No Way/ Get Fucked/ Fuck Off’, from The Angels’ iconic 1976 song, a sentiment that is mirrored in Abdul Abdullah’s light box installation Fuck off we’re full (2011), a blurred rendering of an Australian map overlaid with the titular phrase. As a seventh generation Muslim Australian in a post September 11 world Abdullah has had his identity unwillingly politicised, [4] and describes having ‘never been allowed to feel like an Aussie.’ [5]

Housed in the historic Gunnery Building in Woollomolloo, Artspace’s location offers a provocative context that evokes ideas of military and border protection, and by association, who fits in and who doesn’t. The original heritage structural columns punctuate the renovated space, interrupting one’s view and movement through the gallery and acting as a constant presence and reminder of the building’s past. The dark timber of the columns and ceiling beams starkly contrasts against the new whitewashed walls, typical of canonical gallery practice and modes of exhibition display.

Among the riot of colour and colloquial slurs of the works that fill the entrance gallery, Gordon Hookey’s painting Murriland! #1 (2015-ongoing) has a monumental presence. Darkly humorous and laden with political potency, it is composed of figurative representations of iconic people, places and events from white Australian history. Layers of text interwoven into the pictorial space remove the potential for ambiguity and explicitly re-write the metanarratives of pre-colonisation and Cook’s arrival to the present day from a contemporary Indigenous perspective, highlighting the oppressive and exploitative operations of colonisation. [6] A key scene illustrates a 1771 meeting in which the ‘intelligentsia braintrust of the almighty British Empire’, headed by King George III and witnessed by Death, deliberate over and measure Cook’s findings on an abacus, declaring, ‘the great south land is empty. There are no human beings there.’ An overt critical commentary on the pomposity of the British, Hookey employs history as a weapon to subvert the colonising myth of Terra Nullius, or ‘Nobody’s Land’, which imagined Australia to be a clean slate upon which a new white home could be planned. [7]

The unflinching aesthetic and tone established in the opening space is carried consistently throughout the exhibition, for example, the scale and use of text and symbolic motifs is repeated in Tony Albert’s exotic OTHER (2009), visible in the adjacent gallery. Rather than attempting a re-envisioning of history, Albert scrutinises the racial othering, commodification and fetishisation of Aboriginality, a process through which he enables a reclaiming of Indigenous identification from the ‘ideological shackles of colonialism’. [9] Representational of his creative practice, exotic OTHER is an expansive wall installation of text upon which appropriated imagery gathered from art history and popular culture has been collaged and reworked. This material largely consists of grotesque Aboriginalia, kitsch objects and souvenirs including 20th century paintings, ashtrays, implements and other domestic detritus that feature naïve depictions of Aboriginality and are an insidious heritage of colonialism. Albert’s collective presentation of these items exposes the conception of ‘Aboriginality’ that is projected by them as a problematic classification that reduces Indigenous peoples to a static homogenous and pre-colonial state, or ‘exotic other’.

In an exhibition that provides a space for engaging with provocative conversations on sensitive topics, it seems only appropriate for it to feature what was publicly described as a ‘very controversial piece of art’, and subsequently disowned by its primary sponsor, the Ian Potter Cultural Trust, only the day prior to its premiere. Screened at an hourly interval, SODA JERK’s Terror Nullius (2018) is a 54-minute long experimental pastiche of iconoclastic Australian cinema, television and other media. A dystopian and satirical un-writing of Australian national mythology, it re-contextualises characters such as Russell Crowe’s skinhead from Romper Stomper (1992) and Olivia Newton-John’s Sandy Olsson from Grease (1978), with politicians like One Nation party founder Pauline Hanson, visuals from Mad Max 2 (1981) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), and superimposed audio including Gough Whitlam’s famous 1975 post dismissal speech. Revealing the disparities, hypocrisies and active stereotypes within cinema fictions and historical ‘facts’, it allows for Australian ‘Others’—women, immigrants and refugees, people of colour, and those who self-define across LGBQTI+ identities— to speak through the archive in ways beyond those which they have been traditionally allowed.

Just Not Australian is dense and demanding of its audience, there is much to take in both visually and conceptually, yet it is by no means exhaustive. Rather than imposing a new authority and presenting solutions to the concerns it raises, it reveals that there can be no single ‘true’ representation of Australianness. It thereby avoids succumbing to another form of conceptual imperialism by countering one hegemonic or canonical approach to history with another. As expressed by SODA JERK in retaliation to the controversial public critique of their work, ‘surely the function of political art is not to reinforce consensus but to deliver an open invitation to further conversation.’ [10] Through a curatorial lens, the exhibition makes visible the ways in which power and interest are intrinsically connected to the control and circulation of narratives and images. In doing so Just Not Australian encourages viewers to consider our history of racial stereotyping and cultural misrepresentation and to thereby create a path for reinterpretation.

 

The full list of participating artists include Gordon Hookey, Tony Schwensen, Jon Campbell, Vincent Namatjira, Hoda Afshar, Cigdem Aydemir, Karla Dickens, Tony Albert, Raquel Ormella, Joan Ross, Eric Bridgeman, Fiona Foley, Liam Benson, Ryan Presley, Richard Lewer, Nell, Abdul Abdullah, Archie Moore and Soda Jerk.

 

The exhibition will be touring nationally with Museums & Galleries of NSW.

[1] Anthony Gardner ‘Whither the Postcolonial?,’ in Hans Belting, Jacob Birken, Andrea Buddensieg and Peter Weibel eds. Global Studies: Mapping Contemporary Art and Culture, Hatje Cantz: Ostfildern, 2011, p.147.

[2] Artspace, Just Not Australian: Exhibition Overview, https://www.artspace.org.au/program/exhibitions/2019/just-not-australian/

[3] Gardner, p. 200.

[4] Melissa Loughman, Australiana to Zeitgeist, Port Melbourne: Thames & Hudson, 2017, p. 184.

[5] Abdul Abdullah, quoted in Beckett Mufson, ‘Abdull Abdullah Photographs the Isolation of Australian Islam [Exclusive Interview]’, Vice, 10 September 2015, https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/qkwwyw/abdul-abdullah-photographs-the...

[6] Wall text for Just Not Australian, Artspace, Sydney.

[7] Ian McLean, ‘Towards an Australian Postcolonial Art’, in Ian McLean and Gordon Bennett eds.The Art of Gordon Bennett, Roseville East, NSW: Craftsman House, 1996, p. 186.

[8] Wall text for Just Not Australian, Artspace, Sydney.

[9] McLean, p.191.

[10] SODA JERK, Facebook post, 18 March 2018, https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=911429659034245&id=100...

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Just Not Australian, installation view, Artspace, Sydney, 2019.

From left to right: Abdul Abdullah, FUCK OFF WE’RE FULL, 2011/2019; Nell, Fly on the Robe (from Chanting to Amps), 2012; AC/DC Altar Cloth (from Chanting to Amps), 2012; Who Made Who (from Chanting to Amps), 2012; Richard Lewer, I must learn to like myself, 2017.

Zan Wimberley

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Just Not Australian, installation view, Artspace, Sydney, 2019.

Foreground: Tony Schwensen, Border Protection Assistance Proposed Monument for the Torres Strait (Am I ever going to see your face again?), 2002. Background from left to right: Karla Dickens, Never Forget, 2019; Jon Campbell, I’m not racist, but..., 2013.

Zan Wimberley

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Eric Bridgeman, Road Büng (Highway Junction), Revisited, 2019, installation view, Just Not Australian, Artspace, Sydney, 2019, courtesy the artist and Gallerysmith, Melbourne.

Zan Wimberley

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Gordon Hookey, MURRILAND! #1, 2015–ongoing, detail, oil on canvas, 2.1 x 10 m, courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. 

Zan Wimberley

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Tony Albert, exotic OTHER, 2009, installation view, Just Not Australian, Artspace, Sydney, 2019. Private collection, Sydney.

Zan Wimberley

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Soda_Jerk, TERROR NULLIUS, 2018, installation view, Just Not Australian, Artspace, Sydney, 2019. Commissioned by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne. Courtesy the artists.

Zan Wimberley

Chloe Jones is an aspiring curator and arts writer with a passion for Modernist and contemporary visual arts and art history. She is currently a volunteer at Heide Museum of Modern Art, where she completed a curatorial internship assisting with the planning and development of HESTER, a survey of drawings by Joy Hester, in 2017. She holds a Masters of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne with First Class Honours (2016) and has a fine arts background.

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