My Country: Contemporary Art from Black Australia. Group Show.
28th March – 11th August. The Auckland Art Gallery.
Aboriginal culture is linguistically and culturally diverse. Originally over 200 Indigenous Australian languages existed, with numerous dialects. Many types of expression were traditionally part of cultural practices, including rock painting, body painting, carving, bark painting and sand drawing.
An alternative world where this was celebrated, rather than subjugated, is the hypothetical situation one is met with upon entrance to My Country. Michael Cook’s ethereal inkjet photographs (Civilised #1, #2, #6, #10, #13 & #14) hopefully imagine a world where the colonists had accepted the Aboriginal people as fellow human beings rather than having them listed as “Flora and Fauna” (which they were, until a referendum in 1967 overturned it). The works are haunting; Aboriginal subjects wearing traditional Victorian garbs, underscore the alienation experienced thanks to The Crown. This notion is further explored in this first room (of particular note is Alick Tipoti’s large-scale 2007 print Kuyku Garpathamai, examining the arrival of Christianity in The Torres Islands).
This dehumanisation is evidenced further upon progression through the exhibition. Dale Harding’s, Unnamed, 2012, remembers when Aboriginal people were forced into manufactured communities and identified by codes. “W38” is inscribed on a neck plate, heartbreakingly confronting Harding’s grandmother’s identity theft. Warwick Thornton’s 2011 video work “Stranded” further reflects on the disparity between the “civilisation” that colonists claimed to bring and the uncivilised manner in which the Aboriginal people were treated, and continue to be treated to this day.
Frustrations aren’t only historical – in 2004, Mulrunji, died in custody on Palm Island, the result of an attack by Senior Sargent Chris Hurley. This case is explored in Judy Watson’s 2007 Memory Bones, hung in a room dominated by Tony Albert’s 2008 Sorry. Kevin Rudd’s now infamous apology, “YRROS”, spans the length of the gallery, decorated in stomach-churning souvenirs, talking of the commodification of Aboriginal culture, and the paltry apology.
Through the exploration of modern offences on Aboriginal culture, we feel pain that is inherited from generation to generation. Gordon Hookey’s 1999 King Hit (for Queen & Country), and Richard Bell’s video, Scratch an Aussie, are hard pills to swallow, but the truth isn’t always pleasant.
Celebration is the theme of Mirdidingkingathii Juwarrnda Sally Gabon’s 2008 large scale painting, Dibirdibi Country, revelling in her late husband’s rich relationship with the land, while Banumbirr (Morning Star Poles) celebrate the spiritual connection that the Aboriginal people maintain with our surrounding universe (word economy prevents me from listing the artists of this work – go see it for yourself!)
I Forgive You (2012) and Seventy Times Seven (2011), both by Bindi Cole, speak of forgiveness, and left me wondering how such an incredible depth of character can be summoned when your culture has been so impoverished by a government that has done so very little to atone for past atrocities. The works surrounding it employ traditional Aboriginal painting techniques and a sense of community and mapping a way forward is fostered.
The final room is the children’s area – Gordon Hookey’s 2013 picture book, The Sacred Hill, is turned into an interactive exhibition where patrons of all generations can reflect on the loss of one’s spiritual home and attempts to mend relations which seem so broken. This is a poetic and uplifting end to, what I believe, is one of Auckland Art Gallery’s strongest offerings of contemporary art yet.