Review: Robert Andrew's Mutable Histories

Robert Andrew, Mutable Histories, The Museum of Brisbane, March 3 - July 16, 2017

Brisbane might not have quite the same cultural capital as Sydney and Melbourne, but its art sector’s efforts to support local talent are increasingly noticeable. With local institutions opening their programs to a greater number of early- to mid-career artists from around Australia, Brisbane is becoming more hospitable to those establishing a career in the arts. Expanding upon the city’s burgeoning artist run initiative (ARI) scene, this development will surely provide Brisbane with a more robust cultural infrastructure.

One institution embracing this shift towards the local is the Museum of Brisbane (MoB). A modest museum located at the top of Brisbane’s City Hall, MoB has been committed to delivering exhibitions that share stories of the multifaceted city for over a decade. While the museum has been on Brisbane’s cultural map for years, its latest exhibition, Robert Andrew: Our Mutable Histories, suggests a desire to situate itself more firmly as one of Brisbane’s key institutions for contemporary art.

In an ambitious and exquisitely executed show, Brisbane-based artist Robert Andrew uses contemporary technology to explore the disjuncture between Anglo-European and Australian Indigenous culture. Andrew, a descendant of the Yawuru people of the Rubibi (Broome) area, grew up navigating the space between these two cultures and his place within it. Commissioned by MoB, the show is Andrew’s first solo exhibition at a public museum, a significant achievement considering the early stage of his career.

Exploring themes of erasure, loss and resilience, Robert Andrew: Our Mutable Histories highlights the ways in which the introduction of written text during colonisation impacted, and continues to impact, the language and identity of Indigenous Australia. Pointing to a loss that will ever define this country, Andrew’s work seeks to further reveal the truth of this history and the future with which it has left us. Comprised of three works, the show has been specifically designed to evolve and change throughout the duration of the exhibition (March-July).

Starting with the most ambitious work of the show, and of Andrew’s career thus far, Data Stratification (2017) is a beautiful feat of engineering. Comprised of three elements, the work remains in constant motion, a meditative act of remembering. On the left hand side of the work a screen displaying an Aboriginal word and English translation is mounted to the wall. To the right of this screen the other two components, a machine and collection of objects, work together, tracing the Aboriginal word pictured on the screen. Producing mechanical-sounding melodies as it moves, the machine, based on a Cartesian system, moves around a restricted plane tracing one letter at a time. Suspended on a complex system of pulleys, the objects to the right shift up and down dependent on the machine’s movements. At the time of viewing, the Yawuru word, Ngaligarra, meaning ‘You Listen!’ was displayed. As the objects—suspended rows of pearl, sticks dipped in ochre, etched sandstone and bluestone—passed by one another, expanding and contracting with the edge of each letter, the work appeared to be alive, literally breathing life back into the traditional Yawuru language.  

To the right of Data Stratification sits another time-based work, Ground Up (2017). An installation comprised of four panels and a kind of ‘palimpsest machine’, the work has been programmed to wash away the surface of the panels to reveal a hidden image. The ‘palimpsest machine’ has been a reoccurring component in Andrew’s practice since his Honours year in 2013. The machine works like a reductive printer. As it darts across the panels squirting water, fragile surfaces made up of oxides, pigments and ochre bleed down below the work. As the residue falls to the ground, it forms new and continuously evolving landscapes. Symbolic of the hope change offers, these richly textured surfaces grow both mountainous and fragile. The image that is revealed as the surface crumbles and bleeds is the Yawuru word, ‘BURU’. Boldly stamped across the panels, ‘BURU’ appears to be rising from a mess of almost indecipherable English text scattered across the panels. An act of both remembering and resilience, Ground Up literally removes the white surface on the panels to uncover language that has long been hidden to many.

The final work in the show is modest, a set of burnt boards. A series of 21 pieces, Whitewash Over the Burn (2017) speaks of the Australian history of burning documents to deny truth. Sourced from the artist’s current house, the timber used in this work dates back to 1865, likely milled from trees that existed pre-colonisation. To create the pieces, Andrew has deeply burnt the timber, applied ochres and oxides, covered them with a chalk whitewash, and then carved back into the surface with a CNC router. The carved text, sometimes barely visible in the surface, is from official government documents dating 1900-1950. These documents contain correspondence between the artist’s grandmother and great-grandmother in regards to numerous citizenship applications, rejections and denials.

Repeatedly, the friction between the old and the new, the organic and the inorganic, rises to the surface of Andrew’s dialogue. Through his use of materials, he juxtaposes control, order and restrictiveness against the earthy and organic, presumably referencing dichotomous cultural modes. Employing processes of washing, scraping, burning, writing, removing, remembering and revealing, Andrew reworks his materials in search of a better sense of his place between these two cultures and their histories.

While colonisation sought to eradicate Australian Aboriginal culture through the removal of their languages and other cultural practices, Andrew’s work suggests that culture is more than just language, but rather a complex ‘knowing’ that runs deep within us. A reminder of Australia’s hidden histories and malleable future, Our Mutable Histories is a rich and rewarding exhibition.



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Robert Andrew, Data Stratification, 2017. Photo courtesy The Museum of Brisbane and the artist.

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Robert Andrew, Data Stratification, 2017. Photo courtesy The Museum of Brisbane and the artist.

Data Stratification.jpg

Robert Andrew, Data Stratification, 2017. Photo courtesy The Museum of Brisbane and the artist.

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Robert Andrew, White Wash Over the Burn, 2017. Photograph courtesy Museum of Brisbane and the artist.

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Robert Andrew, White Wash Over the Burn, (detail), 2017. Photograph courtesy Museum of Brisbane and the artist.

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Robert Andrew, Ground Up, 2017. Photograph courtesy Museum of Brisbane and the artist.

 Jenna Green is an artist, writer and producer. With a background in art and architecture, her focus is on how art in the public realm can reflect, challenge and celebrate society. Jenna is the Co-Director of people+artist+place, a new arts initiative that seeks to stimulate and support the production of socially engaged and participatory art practice in Brisbane.

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