Review: Sovereignty

Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) 17 December 2016 – 26 March 2017

With a title like Sovereignty—referring to the assertion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty over the Australian continent—ACCA’s latest exhibition is unashamedly political. Politics informs the very first statements about the exhibition, positioned as you enter the space, and is peppered throughout the catalogue essays and the works themselves. However, whereas politics is often associated with a sense of harshness, Sovereignty leaves one with a sense of softness, of tender emotion that stays when you leave and quietly hums throughout the entire exhibition, in and around all the works.

It is the intimate knowledge of South-East Australian Indigenous communities, which can only come by curating from within the community, that leaves us with this sense of softness. Max Delany and ACCA are to be commended for the fact that curator Paola Balla’s hand is felt throughout the entire exhibition, leaving an indelible sense of completeness in its survey of South-East Australian Indigenous art and all the facets of the community within which that the art is produced. As written when you first enter the exhibition, Sovereignty is about the connection of 'art and society, community and family, history and politics'.

This is very clearly seen in the work of the late Bill Onus, whose home video collection is projected on the first gallery wall as you enter the exhibition. Onus was an activist and community organiser, actor, filmmaker and credited with starting the first commercial Aboriginal art business, Aboriginal Enterprise Novelties, in 1952. Onus is also the father of the prolific artist Lin Onus, whose work is not included in Sovereignty, lending a sense of community intimacy to the exhibition through this parallel selection and exclusion. Here we see not the works of the celebrated son, nor artefacts from the historically important Aboriginal Enterprise Novelties; rather we see a home video collection that tells stories of activism, maintenance of culture and of connection across communities.

Steaphan Paton’s Cloaked Combat #2 and Cloaked Combat #3 are among the best works presented in the exhibition. Projected in large format, the sound of the rain and the constant thunk of arrow hitting shield provide a soothing aural backdrop to the juxtaposed vision of Paton, dressed in camouflage, targeting a wooden Aboriginal shield with high-tech bow and arrow. These works are strong in their representation of conflict at the time of invasion/colonisation as well as the ongoing conflict generated by continued resistance to occupation. They are smart in intent and flawless in execution, as are the cloaks in Paton's adjoining works The magistrate, The officer in charge, and Yours faithfully the sheriff. Constructed of green canvas, decorated in the aesthetic tradition of Gunai/Monero design, and lined with letters of demand, fines and infringement notices, the cloaks again represent conflict, this time the conflict between Indigenous sovereignty and government authority. In this way, Paton’s works placed contiguous to each other become one statement on modes of Indigenous resistance throughout time.

It is then jarring to discover the music videos of rapper Briggs playing into the open space of the next gallery. Without headphones, the two videos by Briggs impact on the neighbouring works surrounding it. As you view the paintings of Mandy Nicholson it is difficult to carefully consider the work, although it is still evident that Mindi the devil snake is exceptional with its deep colour.

Away from the noise of Briggs, Kent Morris’ series of prints Cultural Reflections—Up Above #2 is at once both ‘high art’ as well as about the 'rhythms, shapes and designs of our ancestors'. In this way, Morris’ prints are a testimony to all that is contemporary Aboriginal culture: connection to Ancestors and Country, but grounded in the discourse of contemporary art. Similarly, Jim Berg’s photographic series Silent witness—A window to the past represents a similar connection to Country and Ancestors presented through contemporary art. As small windows of photography, the works feature images of scar trees from Wotjobaluk Country and are beautiful and emotive to view.

This narrative of ancestral connection with the contemporary continues with the woven works of Bronwyn Razem. Two raffia eel baskets are placed side by side with one titled Koomakarrak ngarrapan (new eel basket) and the other titled Woolee wooleeyt ngarrapan (old eel basket). Named and placed in this way, the works speak to the idea that Aboriginal culture is living, dynamic and practiced from the ancestral world to today’s contemporary society. In this way, the positioning of digital stories by young Indigenous people on the opposing wall demonstrates the continuance of contemporary culture amongst younger generations.

Vicki Couzens’ collection of works are important to this exhibition, speaking deeply to narratives of life and death in a way that departs not only from what is common in contemporary art, but also what is typical in Couzens’ own oeuvre. The placement of a possum skin cloak, pouches and bags on the ground are presented much as artefacts in a museum might be displayed. This is in direct contrast to Couzens’ practice of community engagement and maintenance of culture, where artefacts are living objects to be used in daily life. That the cloak, pouches and bags are presided over by her work Weereeyta-wan, yoonggama wangan ngootyoong (We resist—bestow respect) creates a connection between life and death as it pertains to living objects and the rituals of death. This highlights the contrast between use of artefacts within the Aboriginal community versus their use within institutions, the sense of life and death accentuated by the traditional and colonial modes of mourning and memorial.

Grouped together, works by Glenda Nicholls, Lucy Williams-Connelly, Maree Clarke and Yhonnie Scarce make a strong statement about the practice of culture by Indigenous women. Maree Clarke’s Born of the Land is moving in its representation of connection to Country. Nearby, long necklaces comprise her works River reed necklace with cockatoo feathers, Seed necklace, and River reed necklace with galah feathers. With a length of 30 to 48 metres each, these pieces are beautiful to behold. Likewise, Yhonnie Scarce’s series of blown glass sculptures are striking in both their beauty and technical mastery. As a statement about the detrimental effects of British nuclear tests at Maralinga during the 1950s and 1960s, the work speaks to how the coloniser’s tests impacted the bush fruits Aboriginal people from the area consumed. Scarce’s work then highlights the disregard of the coloniser as well as the potential of food sovereignty as resistance.

Contemporary politics are explored with Megan Cope’s work Resistance speaking to the continuum of racism that disregards First Peoples as well as newly arrived migrants and refugees. Placement of protest banners by activist collective Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR) alongside Cope’s series of protest placards blurs the lines between art and protest. Cope’s work speaks to the issue of refugees and migrants, something that many Australians continuously protest about, and WAR’s protest banners have been and will continue to be used in real-world protests about Indigenous issues.

A mix of oft-categorised high art and community practice, Sovereignty is an exhibition that demonstrates the kind of depth that can be achieved when institutions engage with Aboriginal communities outside of a deficit model. In this way, it is difficult to refrain from contrasting this exhibition with the National Gallery of Victoria’s Who’s afraid of colour? running simultaneous to Sovereignty. What can be seen in Sovereignty is an engagement and presentation of Aboriginal artists and communities as sovereign peoples in both the contemporary art industry and Australian society. This makes for a significant moment in Aboriginal Art, one which should be modelled in galleries across the country.

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Aunty Bronwyn .jpg

Bronwyn Razem, (Kirrae Wurrong/Gunditjmara), Koomakarrak ngarrapan (new eel basket) 2016. Raffia, 50.0 x 200.0 x 50.0cm. Photo courtesy the artist.

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Steven Rhall (Taungurung), The biggest Aboriginal artwork in Melbourne metro, 2014-16. Synthetic polymer, vinyl, aluminium composite, wood, neon. 361.0 x 386.5 x 100.0cm Courtesy the artist.

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Reko Rennie (Melbourne Kamilaroi), Always here, 2016. Dye sublimation on satin banner 490.0 x 140.0 cm
Courtesy the artist and blackartprojects, Melbourne.

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Background: Jim Berg, (Melbourne Gunditjmara Elder), Silent witness – A window to the past, 2005. Wallpaper. Foreground: Vicki Couzens, (Kirrae Wurrong/Gunditjmara). Moperer gundidj;  Tarnbeere gundidj; Kilcarer gundidj; Gunaward gundidj; Eumeralla war; all 2010, all synthetic polymer paint on plywood and digital print 246.0 x 120.0 x 1.2 cm (cross) 84.0 x 59.5 (photograph). Floor: Vicki Couzens, Prangawan pootpakyooyano yoowa, 2010. Possum skin cloak, 150.0 x 110.0 cm. Photo courtesy ACCA

Jim Berg scar trees with Koran Gamadji works in front.jpg

Background: Jim Berg (Melbourne Gunditjmara Elder), Silent witness – A window to the past, 2005. Wallpaper. Foreground: Korin Gamadji Institute, InDigeneity: Aboriginal young people, storytelling, technology and identity, 2014-16. A selection of short films from igital storytelling video workshops.

Eugenia Flynn is a writer, arts worker and community organiser. She works within her multiple communities (Aboriginal, Asian, Muslim) to create change through art, literature, and community development. With over ten years’ experience in community arts and cultural development, Eugenia has worked with Kurruru Youth Performing Arts, the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development, RISE Refugees Survivors and Ex-Detainees, and Blak Dot Gallery. Currently, Eugenia is Executive Officer of The Social Studio, a social enterprise that uses art, fashion and hospitality as a vehicle to improving the lives of young Australians who come from refugee or migrant backgrounds.

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