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Sovereignty, by Sabra Thorner

An exhibition by southeastern Indigenous artists

The Biggest Aboriginal Artwork in Melbourne Metro (Steven Rhall, 2014–­­2016), Silent Witness—A Window to the Past (Jim Berg, 2005) and Born of the Land (Maree Clarke, 2014) are three highlights of the new exhibition Sovereignty, currently on display at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Melbourne. Each anchors the gallery space in which it is placed. The first is a showy, tongue-in-cheek sliver of performance art critiquing—in few words—what art is, where it belongs, and who decides. The second is a photographic meditation on scar trees, inviting viewers’ contemplation of interdependency and responsibility between ancestors, humans and our natural world. The third is a multimedia display, a video installation mounted behind sculptural tree branches, emphasising women’s centrality in all stages of the life cycle—birth and death, emergence and departure—and our embeddedness in the land. Together, they index the diversity, depth and thoughtfulness of a powerful, timely and well-executed exhibition.

Sovereignty is a co-curation between Max Delany (artistic director and CEO of ACCA) and Paola Balla (Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara artist, curator, writer and inaugural Lisa Bellear postgraduate scholarship recipient at Victoria University) with the consultation of an Indigenous advisory group (including Arweet Carolyn Briggs, Daniel Browning, Kimberley Moulton and Steaphan Paton). It is the first exhibition Delany has programmed since taking up his position in February 2016, and it is intended to forge new collaborative practice in the Melbourne art world. Certainly, it is an unprecedented recognition of southeastern Australian Indigenous artists, in a contemporary context and at a national level. Yet ‘recognition’ is itself a fraught term, as Delany points out in his catalogue essay. It is an idiom that continues to subsume Aboriginal peoples in the very colonial system this show works to delegitimise, and it illustrates the limitations of our vocabulary in (re)imagining the possible in the representation(s) of Aboriginal people and their creative expressions. ‘Sovereignty’ is an alternative that declares control and autonomy over peoples and lands, and in the title of the exhibition it implicitly asserts that this can happen via artworks, in the gallery.

The bringing together of politics and aesthetics is not new in Aboriginal art worlds; indeed, visual expressions have long been a way Aboriginal people have communicated the inextricability of rights to land, kinship relations and cosmological order. In the 1960s, Yolngu at Yirrkala joined traditional designs on bark with typewritten English text to petition federal parliament, asserting their communicative forms as equivalent to their encompassing government’s and, in so doing, insisting on acknowledgement of their rights to land and its resources. From the earliest days of the acrylic painting movement in Australia’s Western Desert in the early 1970s, Pintupi artists have creatively used the two-dimensional rendering of ancestral stories to assert their cultural integrity and continuity to outsiders. And in an urban context, ten artist-activists founded Boomalli Aboriginal Artists’ Cooperative in Sydney in 1988 to establish their own forum for display and appreciation of politically charged photography and other media.

Sovereignty emerges from these trajectories and honours them, yet it is also firmly grounded in the specificities of this place and this time. The exhibition begins with the work of Wurundjeri ngurungaeta (clan leader) William Barak (c. 1824–1903) as a model: his paintings, both records of history and acts of defiance, depicting on paper the ceremonies he was forbidden by colonial authorities to practice. His works have become archives of performance, design, attire and adornment, including snapshots of corroborees, participants wearing headdresses and possum-skin cloaks, and clapping boomerangs around ceremonial fires; they are also artefacts of diplomacy (as the Culture Victoria website reports, when a governor’s request to witness a corroboree was refused by the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, Barak was commissioned to paint the governor a picture of a corroboree instead) and evidence of cultures in contact (exploiting the paper and pigments newly available with the arrival of white colonisers). As a boy, Barak witnessed the 1835 signing of the Batman ‘treaty’, the only attempt on the continent of Australia to treat Aboriginal people as equal parties to a legal agreement regarding the use and ownership of land (and later nullified by British authorities). Melbourne is also home to a state government—unique at present in Australia—that has begun its own contemporary treaty process with its Aboriginal residents. This is an exhibition that could not have been mounted elsewhere.

The mandate of Sovereignty is grand and its expressions diverse. Internationally recognised artists Destiny Deacon and Brook Andrew are represented here, as is a group of young leaders who’ve completed digital-storytelling workshops through the Korin Gamadji Institute (part of the Richmond Football Club). Long-time pillars of art and activism in Indigenous Victoria Jim Berg, Maree Clarke and Vicki Couzens have pieces on display. The art is edgy (music videos Sheplife (2012) and Bad Apples (2014) by hip-hop artist Briggs; Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s 2008 biopic on Jack Charles, Bastardy) and emphatically inclusive (collages on queerness and intersectionality by mixed-media artist Peter Waples-Crowe), directly critiquing the apparatuses of colonial/state power (Steaphan Paton’s paper cloaks; Yhonnie Scarce’s glass plums in steel hospital cribs), and subtly insisting on the endurance of family and tradition (Bill Onus’s home movies; Lucy Williams-Connelly’s pokerwork drawings).

Photography, in multiple forms, is central. Jim Berg’s Silent Witness is in large format, wallpapering the central room of the exhibition, enclosing the artworks on the walls and those visitors who behold them within evidence of Koorie symbiosis with the land (‘Koorie’ refers to Aboriginal people whose family/language groups originate in southeastern Australia). Berg’s statement tells us that the scars are:

testimonial to the skills of the People who, through minimal intervention into the bark, are able to produce sophisticated objects and technologies including canoes, coolamons and shields. Each image is emblematic of a respectful and humble use of resources; though a mark is left on the tree, its life is not terminated, exemplifying a reciprocal reverence and connection to Country.

Implicit, too, is a sense that these trees have borne witness to the atrocities of colonial violence and stand as testament to their custodians’ resilience. The photographs are at once documentary and innovative, stunningly beautiful and urging consideration of multiple layers of natural and cultural history.

Maree Clarke’s Born of the Land is a short colour-saturated video on display in a room painted an arresting red. The artist herself emerges dramatically from the earth, face painted white and body cloaked in black, juxtaposing imagery of birth and death, new beginnings and the gravity of final loss. ‘We are all born of the land and we will go back to the land’, she says. Clarke’s art practice has long involved the revivification of traditional art forms—possum-skin cloaks, necklaces and headbands—and this exhibition includes three necklaces made from river reeds, cockatoo and galah feathers, quandong seeds and gumnuts. These must be considered alongside the works of Vicki Couzens (possum-skin cloak, possum-fur pouch) and Bronwyn Razem (two woven eel traps with feathers). Women are the bearers of culture here, producing enduring objects with traditional materials as a strategy of animating and preserving knowledge of the land and its resources.

The exhibition does an unusually good job of incorporating performance as an art form—no small feat for a gallery designed to highlight non-time-based media. To make The Biggest Aboriginal Artwork in Melbourne Metro, artist Steven Rhall repurposed an abandoned billboard (reading ‘The biggest…in Melbourne metro’) on the wall of a former grocery store, the brand name deleted. Compelled by the performance as much as by the work, the curators convinced Rhall to remove it from its original context in Footscray and install it in the gallery. Selected photographs by Lisa Bellear (1985–2006) document the lives of Victorian Koories—activist and everyday, celebrity and not—and suggest that sovereignty is asserted in the myriad micro-actions of a community coming together. And the banners of the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR), a collective of young people established in 2014, assert that there is art in the form of protest.

As a whole, I especially appreciate how self-referential the exhibition is: Bastardy, a film about Jack Charles, is exhibited next to Trevor ‘Turbo’ Brown’s 2009 painting Jackie Charles; Destiny Deacon is featured both through her collaborative work with Virginia Fraser (Something in the Air, 2016) and in multiple photos in Bellear’s oeuvre. Cloaks are displayed in Vicki Couzens’ revitalisation of a traditional craft, Glenda Nicholls’ netted interpretations and Steaphan Paton’s paper forms, all evoking the strength of cultural knowledge and the complexity of colonial relationships. There is no anxiety here to police the boundaries between art and craft, tourist and high art, between remote and/or urban Aboriginal identities, too long the preoccupation(s) of Aboriginal art worlds (and their critics). And rather than just arguing for Indigenous autonomy over a body politic and the lands it claims, Sovereignty enacts community, a cohort of activists aware of the power of their collective action and mobilising the gravitas of the contemporary art venue to stake those claims.