It takes five hours to fly across Australia – it’s a big place with a lot of space. Most of its major cities hug the coastline, so while staring down through the scratched airplane window may reveal never-ending parched desert land, there’s also a lot going on in-between. Indigenous communities have occupied and cared for much of this land for around 40,000 years. While the art establishment has historically overlooked Indigenous art, this has slowly shifted in recent decades: the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne started to collect Indigenous art in the 1980s, for example. Which begs the questions: what role has the country’s art institutions played in visualizing Australia’s black history, and how inclusive has their approach really been?
In 1981, the NGV mounted the exhibition ‘Aboriginal Australia’, which featured 321 artists. In terms of inclusivity, how many were women? Not a single one. So, while progress was being made acknowledging some past forms of oppression, others continued. Such obfuscation of women Indigenous artists resulted from a number of factors, including anthropologists not recognizing women as makers and artists – the age-old, craft-versus-fine-art debate that has relegated numerous women artists, keeping them at the outskirts of the art market. Redressing this imbalance in 2016, the NGV mounted ‘Who’s Afraid of Colour’, drawing on their own collection of work by 118 Indigenous Australian women artists. Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) recently joined rank, mounting ‘Compass: MCA Collection’, which examined how they’re collecting and exhibiting Australia’s Indigenous women artists by placing them in dialogue with non-Aboriginal women artists who examine constructs of gender in contemporary western society. With the former exploring themes as far-ranging as landscape, renewal and remembering, in a bid to expose interlocking oppressions, the exhibition focused on both the cultural specificities of what it means to be a black person and a woman in Australia. So, how are such exhibitions setting the stage for women as well as reshaping our understanding of Australian society today? What stories do they tell about identity and, indeed, ancestral survival by reflecting on the histories of Aboriginal communities?
‘Compass’, which included the work of 13 Australian artists, was a clear metaphor for the institution getting its bearings on what it described as women ‘being’ and ‘doing’ female: both embodying and performing gender. You can almost imagine the curators turning to the artists and saying: ‘You do you.’ And so they did. Nongirrna Marawili’s Lightning (2017) interprets a Baratjula story, which is part of her Madarrpa clan’s custodial tales; the clan’s estate is adjacent to Cape Shield in the Northern Territory. Ostensibly a large-scale abstract painting in white on black enamel, tiny rivulet lines connect different squares, which represent landscape, lightning and waves crashing upon rocks set within deep water. They speak of the sacred power of the Lightning Serpent in Yolngu culture who spits lightning into the sky as an electric curse, explaining the dramatic storms that occur in the Northern Territory’s wet season. Marawili’s work secularizes a sacred oral tradition, honouring her clan’s storytelling by diversifying its dissemination, translating it into a visual language that chimes with another tradition – that of mid-twentieth-century Modernism.
Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s Three rivers country (2010) – a wall-mounted sculpture of corrugated iron, tin and mesh wire – has three segments that graduate in permeability. The top section undulates, its surface mottled with orange and brown rust, thin hairy wires emanating from the top. Each part is lined with ribbed metal oblongs. It is corporeal: a sandwich of insects, centipedes lying atop one another, or a mouth with pebbly teeth, gentle hairs protruding from pursed lips, a void in place of a wet palette, tongue disappeared.
As suggested by its title, this work, like Marawili’s, is also a map. Connelly-Northey’s Indigenous mother is from Waradgerie in New South Wales, and the sculpture depicts the Murrumbidgee, Lachlan and Macquarie rivers that run through her traditional lands. At once micro and macro, the work is both a symbolic mouthpiece and a winding topography. These elements are conflated as a cultural statement connecting the Waradgerie people to the land and waterways that they have maintained for thousands of years. Using found materials from local dumpsites, which are joined together using maternal weaving traditions, Connelly-Northey honours the historicity of place, practice and ritual as passed down from one generation to the next. Reclaimed in this way, body and land become one and the same.
In 2013, Frances Djulibing, of the Yolngu people from the Northern Territory, was commissioned to create a work for the MCA. Included in ‘Compass’, Yukuwa (feather string yam vine) is a complex web of feathered ropes, suspended like a vast dream-catcher, made from yam string vine – a material often compared to the umbilical cord that connects baby to mother, or a soul to the spirit world. A totem of the Yirritja moiety – one of two familial groups in Djulibing’s community – it is a family tree, mapping kinship lines within the clan and symbolizing the renewal of people and land. For both Djulibing and Connelly-Northey, the physicality of sculpture becomes a means through which to denote ‘forgotten’ generations of their ancestors, venerating them in the present.
This interconnectivity, evidenced by the bloodlines and soil shared over centuries, is also inherent to the work of Mabel Anaka-anaburra, Minnie Manarrdjarla and Mary Walatjarra. Their Bamagora (conical pandanus palm mat) weavings (all c.1985) resulted from a long tradition of labour by women at Maningrida – in the Arnhem Land region of the Northern Territory. Hanging as three cone-shaped shades, the rims of two are frayed wildly, while the other is neatly rounded with knots at its edge. Made from the pandanus plant and pigmented with natural dyes, these exquisite objects also have a utilitarian function: for sleep, to cover the body or, as in this instance, to protect babies from the sun and mosquitos. A cross-generational and collaborative experience, the social act of women gathering to make such objects enacts a historical form of networking and support – similar practices were adopted by oppressed African-American communities such as the Gee’s Bend Quilters in Alabama.
How, then, can exhibitions such as ‘Compass’ shape new realities of inclusivity that recognize the impact of Australia’s colonial history? By showing works that reveal the practices, histories and beliefs of people so long subjugated; by insisting that ‘women’s work’ is worthy of the white cube; and by saying that ‘forgotten’ Indigenous people are an intrinsic part of Australia’s ancient landscape, as symbolized and acknowledged in art. As such, they make visible the actuality of Australia’s demographic, past and present. After all, we are a society: not of individuals, but of people who have come from people, born of women, who themselves were born of women. Let’s never ignore that again.
Main image: Frances Djulibing, Yukuwa (feather string yam vine), 2013, banyan tree bard, cockatoo feathers, beeswax. Courtesy: the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
Louisa Elderton is a writer and editor based in Berlin, Germany. She was the Project Editor of Phaidon’s survey books Vitamin T: Threads & Textiles in Contemporary Art and Vitamin C: Clay + Ceramic in Contemporary Art, and is Content Editor of their upcoming publication The Art Book: Women Artists, due for publication Autumn 2019