exhibition review for "The others" - curated by Jeny Fraser
"Geographers say there are two types of islands. This is valuable information for the imagination because it confirms what the imagination already knew. Nor is it the only case where science makes mythology more concrete, and mythology makes science more vivid.
Continental islands are accidental, derived islands. They are separated from a continent, born of disarticulation, erosion, fracture; they survive the absorption of what once contained them. Oceanic islands are originary, essential islands. Some are formed from coral reefs and display a genuine organism. Others emerge from underwater eruptions, bringing to the light of day a movement from the lowest depths. Some rise slowly; some disappear and then return, leaving us no time to annex them.
These two kinds of islands, continental and originary, reveal a profound opposition between ocean and land. Continental islands serve as a reminder that the sea is on top of the earth, taking advantage of the slightest sagging in the highest structures: oceanic islands, that the earth is still there, under the sea, gathering its strength to push through the surface"1
The region known as Oceania encompasses over 25 000 islands, ranging from tiny coral outcrops to the continent of Australia. This fascinating and diverse region of the southern hemisphere is home to many cultures and the history and the representations of these cultures gives rise to the enourmous task of presenting regional surveys such as the asia pacific triennielle and the recent numerous biennalles of the asia pacific region.
“The others” began as an Indigenous initiated critical response to the curatorial project of the Asia Pacific Triennials that have been held in Brisbane since 1993. The triennial excels at surveying the dominant artistic avante garde of the Asia Pacific region however the representation of Indigenous practicing artists was often a footnote to the curatorial premises of the programming. Indigenous artists are often talked about, but as usual all across Australia sometimes are not listened too or are quickly dismissed as not relevant when their opinions challenge the unifying themes of national representation. Since its initial exhibition in Brisbane in 2005, the others is a touring exhibition and online arts project that has intensified interest in new ways of exploring cultural Identity among artists from this region.
The artwork of artist and exhibition curator Jenny Fraser is a great starting point to understand the philosophy of the exhibition. Native All Stars is an installation using the medium of collectable cards featuring portrait photographs of people from the International Aboriginal art world. This medium in a commercial sense can sometimes be associated with macho sports identities and a voyeur like fascination with the statistics of celebrities that permeate our media. Popularly they are associated with American baseball cards or geeky tweenage marketing phenomenon’s like “Pokemon”. Jenny has subverted this by creating her own series of “all stars” from the Indigenous art world and presenting them as real people rather than the mystical/spiritual figure that is sometimes associated with being an Aboriginal artist. This work also wryly acknowledges the “collectability” of Indigenous art and brings to our attention the real people whose art is bridging the divide between respectfully referencing their traditional aboriginal cultural traditions while also participating in the modern industry of the contemporary art market.
Christine Christopherson and Delphine Morrises documentary clearly articulates the Aboriginal connection to land in the Arnhem Land or Top End region of Australia. Christine mother's country is located in Kakadu National Park, Christine being amember of the Murran Clan, northwest Arnhem Land and the Iwatja language group. While this area is often pictured as a “remote” area of Australia the political landscape of the area is mired in international geopolitics in relation to the mining industry and the presence of large deposits of uranium that exist on the lands. Her involvement in local and national Aboriginal concerns led to her first campaign against ERA (Energy Resources of Australia's) Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu National Park in 1995.
The collaboration between Delphine Morris and Christine Christophersen also highlights the shared interest in this region and the sometimes contradictory viewpoints that Australia presents as representing our engagement with the Pacific region. In recent years Australia has protested vocally against issues including nuclear testing in the pacific and the “scientific“ whaling undertaken by other nations, yet our own engagement with the people of this region at a governmental level is paternalistic to say the least.
In a similar way Paul Bongs traditional Yidinji Art from the Far North Queensland region refers to the Yidinji young warriors ceremonial tradition of being given a blank Shield as a part of their initiation process. After initiation they had to paint their totems on the surface of the shield and this design would have the significance of a modern day signature. Keeping this tradition of storytelling through the sign/object of the Totems is a crucial strategy of keeping culture alive among Aboriginal people in Australia.
Pauls use of materials can also be read in an ecological context as well as a cultural one. The use of bark, found wood and ochres in the production of these artworks would have to be one of the most carbon neutral artistic practices existing in the world today. It is literally using nature to represent culture and the fact that the artworks are created for use as a part of everyday life highlights their importance as an ongoing cultural tradition.
Ritchie Ares Doña breaks out of the old “turning trash into tresure” mentality that seems to be a parallel to the gold rush mentality that exists among some artists. He intelligently re uses or repurposes materials in a way that acknowledges our shared involvement in the consumption and discarding of materials that we are told is a “fact of life” if we want to live with the modern conveniences of the industrialized world. The work in this exhibition “repetitive recycling” uses recycled soda cans into a form that resembles a feather duster or bottle brush – a cleaning tool. Like many objects that are sold to us as essential, how does someone make up their own mind about the avalanche of meanings produced in relation to corporate greening and the carbon trading and the idea that we need to clean the world of pollution?
Jason Davidson’s DVD installation is an example of the importance of Indigenous perspectives in storytelling. What at first seems a cultural clash of Aboriginal people practicing martial arts is a sincere gesture of acknowledging the importance of a much respected teacher in the community. This work is a tribute to the importance of the international influences and relationships that take place all the time outside of our urban centers yet are rarely acknowledged. The dominant history that was taught in Australian schools from 1900 – 1988 glosses over the history of Asian influence and participation in many areas of the history of Australia. These relationships that undeniably existed on the fringes of the goldfields and the many other industries that have seen over a million Asian people spend significant parts if not all of their lives in Australia since federation.
Tableaux vivant - French for "living picture is apt description for the installation created for this exhibition by Chantal Fraser and Polytoxic. The artists’ exploration of Pacific Islander identity is performed through the relationship of actor/object that gives us an understanding of the constraints, contradictions and embedded memory of identity that is a part of the cultural interactions between the pacific island nations and Australia. This living picture involves a domestic space that is inhabited by participants who explore the human condition and are only represented when they are glimpsed through the frames scattered throughout the space. The location of the artwork in the street front window of the gallery space adds to the notion of identity being performed as part of cultural practice – putting your self on show – for the tourists perhaps?
The recent news of a possible re introduction of a scheme to assist Pacific Island nations to participate in the Australian labor market under a guest worker scheme is a stark reminder of the many untold histories that compete for recognition in mainstream Australia. Australia’s own participation in the Slave trading of labor - the "blackbirds" - thousands of Melanesians brought to the Queensland cane fields as indentured labor between 1863 and 1904 is a glaring indicator of the importance in the curatorial and academic fields of allowing the victim to speak and to speak freely on their own terms.
Ann Fuata uses performance to deconstruct the notion of a Pacific Identity by holding it against the prism of the fairy tales that serve as a de facto mythology for western cultures. With hair type being one of the tools used by ethnologists to differentiate between the diversity of Indigenous cultures across the world Ann explores her personal history of a hair accessory and creates her own narrative of their significance. The utilitarian nature of these personal objects means their associations can be almost anything as the artists statement explains
“It is through these experiences of a man-made medium that motivated me to reflect on the edifices of post-colonialism, how it has shaped our ideologies and the people that we have become. These experiences we create can be seen as the ephemeral trail of the aftermath of change and inadvertently the beginnings of restoration”
The artists identification with the pins and the witch in the Grimm’s fairy tale Hansel and Gretel is a personal re interpretation of the dominant meanings of everyday objects and challenges us to consider our own meanings that we attach to them.
Mayu Kanamori & Lucy Dann has also included work in the exhibition that deals with the complexity of identity that is faced by many people exploring their heritage. Prior to World War II, the Japanese were the largest ethnic group in areas such as Broome, and their involvement in the pearling industry of Broome led to many families having to deny their connections to Japanese to avoid persecution. This creates many difficulties for people in finding accurate records and accounts of their family’s existence. Lucy’s determination to make a connection with, and to better understand this aspect of her past is common among many Indigenous people.
The reinterpretation of the optometry chart by Robb Kelly & Joseph Slade is poignant take on the dehumanizing aspects of race classification that are still widely used when describing people as mixed race today. The purity of race is a flawed concept on a par with creationism and this playful work that mocks the seriousness of the whole “testing” process.
Documentary and portraiture become interchangeable terms when exploring the context of identity throughout this exhibition. The power of portraiture is the basis for the photographic project undertaken by Gary Lee since 1993, his aim is to explore the idea of masculinity among different cultures. Gary has almost 500 portraits of men in locations between India and Australia. The separated continents as we know them today were once all part of Gondwanaland and the genetic connections that exist between south east Asia, Australia and the pacific are indicators of the migrations and populations of thousands of cultures.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people look like so many other nationalities yet this diversity is not yet widely understood let alone celebrated. I hope to do just that in the ‘Nimgololo’ series.”
Gary creates his portraits in collaboration with his subjects and while some are portraits of personal friends and acquaintances the majority involves a negotiation and a dialogue with his subjects involving them in the purpose of the project – an example of Indigenous consultation in practice and as an artistic project.
Torres Strait Islander art is often curated as a sub category of Australian Aboriginal art. The islands between Australia and Papua New Guinea - The Torres Strait, are the remnants of the land bridge that once existed between Papua New Guinea and Australia and this region is only being regarded recently as an artistic culture in its own right. Eddie Nona‘s painting is a welcome inclusion that is based on his knowledge of the people and connections to this area. The historic Mabo decision “handed down” by the high court of Australia acknowledged that the concept of Terra Nullius could not apply to this particular region of Australia, is based on the irrefutable evidence of Eddie Mabo’s oral history and the cultural practices that were demonstrated as existing prior to the colonization of Australia.
The concept of Aboriginal people intervening into the established doctrines of supposed national identity is further shown through the work of Archie Moore, : E is a video installation in which the artist represents himself as the stereotypical figure of a traditional Aboriginal person, this is digitally superimposed into a detail of ST Gill's "Flinder's Range, North of Mount Brown" c. 1846-50. The colonial landscape painting tradition in Australia art is fraught with inaccuracies that blatantly ignore the presence of Aboriginal people in these romanticized landscapes and works Like : E are playful acts of questioning the real value of the “national treasures” that are held by our state and national institutions
The use of media by Aboriginal artists allows an artistic freedom to further explore ideas of representation and cultural identity in a contemporary visual context another art work in this exhibition “Eden” by Philippine artist Maia is another example of a re-interpretation of how ideas associated with traditional symbolism can be transformed into a new visual style through the use of media.
A regular concern that arose among many Indigenous peoples across the globe is the passing on of culture between generations and the sometimes lack of respect among the younger generations regarding the importance of properly understanding the cultural protocol of participating in community leadership. This is even more so in relation to the visual arts where an artist or curator might be presumed to be speaking on behalf of their community or people in a way that that community would not agree with.
Haro the Crazy Prins presents a traditional Maori artistic technique of wood carving in a contemporary context by creating three dimensional artworks that resemble the stylistic techniques of aerosol art often seen in urban centers. The unfortunate association of aerosol art to graffiti often diminishes this right of passage for young artists, and for many, is their only participation in the “art world” during their lives. Their practice is a criticism of “what is art” and good aerosol artists can act like critics of our bland social spaces. The perception of illegality in this underground art form resembles a tribal bonding among disaffected communities of youth in our cities. In this sense “graffiti” art is a language in itself and, as shown in the work of Haro the Crazy Prins this intergenerational divide is a part of understanding the art work. This is referenced in his statement
’’I know I'm taking it out of context when I apply that to my art I think that Maori people would understand that more than non Maori. I am carving a language, a language understood by the youth but alien to older people unless they are the parents of graffiti artists.’’
1. Gilles Deleuze
Desert Islands and other texts 1953 - 1974.
© 2004 Semiotext(e) ISBN 1 - 58435-018-0