Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial

In the final room of the 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial, held on Ngunnawal-Ngambri Country at the National Gallery of Australia earlier this year, a black dress stands in the corner. At first appearing to be made of coarse black fabric, charred from fire and ragged with holes, it becomes apparent as you approach that the dress is made entirely from kerliggener (bull kelp). Long strips of dried kelp have been sewn together by Trawlwoolway artist Vicki West to form a full skirt reaching to an uneven hemline that reveals the material’s origins in the deep waters surrounding Tasmania and the south-east coast of Australia. Above the tight-fitting bodice and tapered sleeves, an intricate lace-like collar woven from netting twine drapes delicately over the bust of the faceless mannequin. Kerliggener-leewunna (2017) references the black dress that the artist’s great-grandmother wore on her wedding day as a sign of mourning for the death of Queen Victoria in January 1901. Here, West has recreated and reimagined that black dress as a sign of mourning for the devastating impacts of the British Empire on Trawlwoolway culture and Country.(1)

An acknowledgement of deep loss and pain, a tribute to strength and survival, a celebration of cultural knowledge and continuing connection to the lands and waters of Country—this quietly masterful work brings together the powerful threads that run throughout Defying Empire. West is one of 30 mid-career and established Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists included in this third iteration of the National Indigenous Art Triennial. Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the successful 1967 referendum, Larrakia/Wardaman/Karajarri curator Tina Baum has curated an exhibition that ‘marks the ongoing resistance and defiance by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people against colonisation and the British Empire from first contact until today'.(2) With 139 works spanning weaving, sculpture, textile, painting on bark and canvas, photomedia, glasswork and metalwork, Defying Empire was the biggest survey show of contemporary Indigenous art ever held at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA). An empire can be defined as a group of nations or peoples ruled over by an emperor or other powerful government. As such, the scope of the exhibition’s title extends beyond the legacy of the British Empire to encompass historical and ongoing forms of resistance to the attempted imposition of White sovereignty over the many and diverse sovereign nations on this continent.

As Geonpul scholar Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson explains, the British imperial project was ‘predicated on taking possession of other peoples’ lands and resources for the benefit of Empire'.(3) In the Australian colonial imaginary, this driving logic of possessiveness is personified by Captain James Cook, who claimed the east coast of the continent as a British possession in the name of King George III in 1770. Walking around the nation’s capital city, monuments to Captain Cook abound. Inside the gallery, a small canvas by Kudjila/Gangalu painter Daniel Boyd depicts the ghostly form of a monument to Captain Cook standing luminous amidst a shadowy tropical landscape. Far from the celebrated colonial narrative of heroism and discovery, in Untitled (CM) (2016) Captain Cook has become no more than an overgrown and forgotten relic near the site of his death in Hawaii, reduced to points of light. On a larger scale, a neighbouring canvas, Untitled (2013) opens onto a scene from the largely untold history of slavery in Australia, depicting the enforced repatriation of a group of South Sea Islanders (under the White Australia policy, introduced in 1901) after being forced to slave on Queensland’s sugar plantations.  The pixelated, veil-like appearance of his canvases gestures towards ‘a space between knowledge… where we can speak about memory and amnesia'.(4) Echoing the relation of many White Australians to their own complicity in colonial history, Boyd’s pointillist style means that the subject matter of his paintings only comes into focus when viewed at a distance. Neither abstractions nor fictions, Boyd subverts the Eurocentric genre of history painting to contest and reframe the stories that Empire tells about itself.

The indestructible thread of cultural continuity that runs throughout all the artworks is powerfully established at the start of the exhibition with the work of Ngarrindjeri master weaver Yvonne Koolmatrie and senior Pakana artist Lola Greeno. Koolmatrie’s mats and baskets float on the wall above a vitrine of Greeno’s iridescent necklaces made from green and blue maireener shells, black crow shells and cockle shells, with the repeated circular forms and shared technical expertise grounding viewers in a space of cultural authority. For Greeno and Koolmatrie, like so many artists in the exhibition, art practice is a fundamental assertion of cultural sovereignty and a key means of revitalising and passing on cultural knowledge and intergenerational memory. Yet as Madarrpa/Galpu painter Nonggirrnga Marawili candidly explains in her artist statement, in defiance of viewers’ expectations around ‘traditional’ Indigenous art, ‘the paintings I do are not sacred…Water. Rocks. Rocks that stand strong… This is the painting I do’. The works of senior artists like Koolmatrie, Greeno and Marawili are the rocks that stand strong through this exhibition, anchoring the central place of cultural knowledge while disrupting the enforced colonial division between ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ Indigenous art practice. It is not only the juxtaposition of urban and remote artists of all ages that contributes to the success of the exhibition but, crucially, the (often overshadowed) interplay of tradition and innovation embedded within all the works, challenging the conventions of creative practice while continuing and carrying cultural knowledge forward into the future. As the work of Greeno, Koolmatrie and Marawili make clear, this resilience and futurity is grounded in ongoing connection to Country and culture that precedes and exceeds—and outlasts—the historical reference point of Empire.

In their work on the contemporary rise of Empire, political philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri observe that ‘although the practice of Empire is continually bathed in blood, the concept of Empire is always dedicated to peace'.(5) Given the reliance of the imperial mission on the colonial ideology of civilisation and enlightenment, art institutions have always been key institutions of Empire. As Yorta Yorta curator Kimberley Moulton asserts, this ‘history of classifying and representing Indigenous culture continues to influence the discourse and curatorial methodologies in the contemporary space of the museum and art gallery’.(6) As expressed by Wierdi/Birri Gubba curator Bruce McLean, exhibitions like the Triennial create an important ‘space to agitate’ that challenges the conventional boundaries of Eurocentric art institutions, yet all too often ‘the boundaries shift back with the next collection display’.(7) A clear example, the two blockbuster exhibitions at the NGA that effectively bookended the Triennial (Versailles: Treasures from the Palace and Cartier: The Exhibition) serve as a glittering testament to the enduring fascination with the opulence, nostalgia and glory of Empire. This begs the question of how an exhibition like the Triennial can be mobilised by the NGA to figure itself as a progressive institution, helping to elide criticism in its eventual return to cultural conservatism and colonial hegemony. At the same time, it testifies to the significance and relevance of the curatorial theme of the third iteration of the Triennial. Moreover, it is imperative not to position this exhibition in isolation. While still certainly the exception rather than the rule, the impact of the Triennial is amplified alongside similarly important and recent exhibitions—including TARNANTHI at the Art Gallery of South Australia (2017), Sovereignty at ACCA (2016) and With Secrecy and Despatch at Campbelltown Arts Centre (2016)—and as part of a broader ongoing dialogue between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, curators and writers.

In terms of interrogating the broader institutional and political structures in which the exhibition is embedded, it is also important to consider that the curatorial emphasis on the 1967 Referendum echoes the appeal frequently made by politicians in support of the present campaign for constitutional recognition. We have reached the 50th anniversary of the historic campaign, the 90.77% Yes vote to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the census and to allow the Federal government to legislate on behalf of Indigenous people. Although few of the works directly address the Referendum, Baum insists that each of the artists in the exhibition ‘responds to the importance and legacy’ of this ‘pivotal turning point in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’.(8) Given the current backdrop of public debate around constitutional recognition and treaty, it is important to consider the potential political agenda of the exhibition’s timing, particularly given the five-year span between each edition of the Triennial to date (Culture Warriors in 2007 and unDisclosed in 2012). Many Aboriginal writers and activists are much more cynical about the impact of the 1967 Referendum, with Minjerribah poet and key Referendum campaigner Oodgeroo Noonuccal (formerly Kath Walker) reflecting only two years on that the overwhelming Yes vote ‘did not benefit black Australians though it eased the guilty conscience of white Australians’.(9) Later, Noonuccal acknowledged that the real victory was not a change in white attitudes but the ‘spirit of hope and optimism’ the Referendum created for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.(10) These insights suggest a productive parallel with the Triennial itself. While it is necessary to interrogate any exclusively positive alignment between the exhibition and the current political climate, it is equally necessary to acknowledge the impossibility of reducing the exhibition to any singular regime of institutional and political convenience.

Like a referendum, an ambitious national survey at a large public art institution must attract the broad support and engagement of the mainstream public; however, the works don’t seek to make viewers comfortable. In a show that openly declares its investment in the interrelation of art and activism, it is perhaps unsurprising that the more brazen works attract the most attention. Several reviews by white critics in the mainstream press suggested that the exhibition was too activist and didactic,(11) and seemed confronted by the ‘aggressive stance’ and ‘militant edge’ adopted by many of the artists.(12) Dismissing the work as too political is an easy way for white viewers and critics to avoid engaging with our own investment in the legacy and inherited benefits of Empire. Moreover, this accusation of militancy points to the limits of understanding of white viewers; of the refusal to engage with the complexity and ambiguity that is held across the entirety of the exhibition. Surpassing any straightforward commemoration of its debatable successes, the undeniable relevance of the 1967 Referendum lies in the artists’ ability to skillfully navigate and disrupt a colonial politics of recognition. From West’s potent exploration of the space between celebration and mourning to Boyd’s ability to simultaneously make visible and distort the edges of the imperial imaginary, to the assertion of cultural sovereignty in the work of Koolmatrie, Greeno and Marawili that refuses binary Western frameworks of understanding, the artworks define resistance and defiance on their own terms.

After all, if the artworks in Defying Empire are seen as militant, then it is clear that, ‘Militants resist imperial command in a creative way’.(13) Flown in every corner of the nation, the Australian flag is a mundane yet omnipresent reminder of the legacy of the British Empire. This was the Empire on which the sun was said never to set, yet in Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens’ work Taking Back the Stars (2016), a found and faded Australian flag has been repurposed to produce a mapping of the sky that resists this possessive claim of imperialism. Hanging high on the gallery wall, the flag’s existing design is overlaid with small hand stitched black crosses and patches of blue fabric. Larger white stars disrupt the familiar arrangement of the Southern Cross, subverting and enfolding the nationalist symbol back into the night sky. In taking back the stars which have been shining over this continent since time immemorial, Dickens—like all the artists in the 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial—shows that these stars will continue to shine long past the legacy of Empire.


(1) Vicki West, Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Australia, p. 125.

(2) Tina Baum, More than Our Skin, Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Australia, p. 11.

(3) Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty, University of Minnesota Press, 2015, p. 19.

(4) Daniel Boyd, Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Australia, p. 33.

(5) Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2000, 413.

(6) Kimberley Moulton, Collecting My Thoughts—Authenticity, The Museum and Representation, Centre for Indigenous Story,

(7) Bruce McLean, On First Nations agency in our European-based cultural institution, Artlink, March 2016

(8) Tina Baum, More than Our Skin,  Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Australia, p. 11.

(9) Kath Walker, Black-White Coalition Can Work, Origin 1(4), 1969, p. 6.

(10) Kath Walker, Black Australia in the Seventies, Lecture at the Australian National University, 1979, Kath Walker, My People : A Kath Walker Collection Kath Walker , Brisbane : Jacaranda Press , 1981, pp. 42-48

(11) Sasha Grishin, Reflections of resilience, The Age (Melbourne, Australia). (June 21, 2017): Arts and Entertainment: p. 30.

(12) John McDonald, Look back in anger, The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, Australia). (Aug. 12, 2017): Arts and Entertainment: p. 12.

(13) Hardt and Negri, p. 413.




Lola GreenoGreen Maireener Shell Necklace, 2016, Courtesy of the artist and Handmark Gallery.


Yvonne KoolmatrieRiver Dreaming, 2012 , National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2016. This acquisition has been supported by Sue and Steve Dyer in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum.


Nonggirrnga Marawili, Baratjula, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre.

Will Stubbs

Karla Dickins.jpg

Karla Dickens (Wiradjuri people), Taking back the Stars, 2016. City of Sydney Civic Collection. Image courtesy of the artist and the National Gallery of Australia.


Emily Castle is a writer and educator living in Narrm whose work has appeared in un magazine, New Matilda and Overland. Emily co-founded Brainlina collective in 2015 and also works with Undercurrent Community Education Project.