Rewriting the labels

How long can the majority wait for their story to unfold

They took their life and liberty friend but

they could not buy their soul

Kev Carmody


Indigenous music is flying high, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is on the cover of the April 2011 Rolling Stone, the recent Byron Bay Blues Festival included him, Saltwater Band, the Stiff Gins AND Bob Dylan. At the last BAFF (BigPond Adelaide Film Festival) Indigenous art and film were quietly but spectacularly on the front page with premiers of features Mad Bastards and Here I am, documentaries The Tall Man and murundak: Songs of Freedom, a retrospective program of Indigenous representation in Australian cinema, forums and three major visual arts exhibitions (Stop (the) Gap: Indigenous Art in Motion at the Samstag Museum, Tracey Moffat: Narratives at the Art Gallery of South Australia and tall man by Vernon Ah Kee at the Australian Experimental Art Foundation.

Stop(the)Gap included Warwick Thornton’s first venture into gallery space with Stranded a 3-D moving image of himself on an illuminated glass crucifix turning in the air above a remote Australian landscape, this image was also reproduced on free limited edition boxes of popcorn. Based on Thornton’s memories and drawing of his wish to be like Jesus when he was six years old as well as evoking Noel Counihan’s linocut portrait of a crucified Albert Namatjira, it is a hard work to interpret. It seems to embrace a kitsch cliché image of Aboriginal suffering as well as showing it to be a somehow endless spectacle. Thornton’s Samson and Delilah, a film full of the authority of a gifted filmmaker as well as the grim reality of some Aboriginal lives won the Camera d’ Or at Cannes in 2009 for best first film.

More and more Indigenous stories are being told by Indigenous people with Indigenous voices as well as in collaboration with non-Indigenous peoples. Stories of trouble? Yes. Stories of triumph? Yes.

Indigenous culture is moving out of dedicated spaces and into the mainstream. Ultimately all Indigenous culture is claiming the space for experiences that have not been widely told and this broadens the space for the stories of everyone whose stories are untold. Powerful Indigenous art often comes from places and people that appear to be powerless. This is one reason it is strong, it has a necessity, an urgency about it. For all the irony in some work there is an authenticity factor that is incontrovertible and that may well be the high moral ground asserted by Thornton’s Stranded. Many years ago it was Papunya painter Tim Leura Tjapaltjarri who made the telling remark “the money belongs to the ancestors”, that is to say the wealth of the culture provides for its people.

The art in this Artlink ranges from art made many years ago in the Torres Strait, in Tasmania, in Arnhem Land, in Queensland, in Western Australia to art being made today in Mackay, in Cairns, in Arnhem Land, in Elcho Island, in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and other places. The articles from writers all over Australia and the world deal with how to talk about the wide range of work, how to place it in history and in many cases how to rewrite history to incorporate different perspectives and diverse qualities both in Australia and increasingly in Europe.

Art as education, art as bearer of information, wisdom and stories, of belonging, as statement of longevity in that place, art as celebration of home, of land, of courage, of tragedy, of connection, of stories that acknowledge the complexities and difficulties of life as well as its wonders and gifts. Art by trained and untrained artists, by iconoclasts, by people with passion and agendas.

Ernst Gombrich wrote in his book The Story of Art (1950), which features a photo of an Aboriginal artist painting a Possum Dreaming on a rock that we must always remember that images precede writing, and thus implicitly that images are a kind of writing. Art is about politics and history but also empathy and communication. Art materials and art methods like painting, drawing and printmaking find new life in the hands of Indigenous artists with stories to tell.

Many articles in this Artlink speak of a dichotomy between art galleries and museums, between aesthetics and ethnography, between an idea of art as something disinterested and disengaged, and the study of culture as meaning one culture’s examination of other cultures. Yet all stuff in museums has always had aesthetic dimensions and all stuff in galleries has always had ethnographic dimensions. You just have to rewrite the labels.

Real art is never disinterested and disengaged, living cultures always exceed and overwhelm the boundaries placed around them. And this is what we are seeing in Australia and in this Artlink, a living culture.

At the last Cairns Indigenous Art Fair Richard Bell spoke about his experience of New York and said that he noticed there that it was not the black man who was at the bottom of the pecking order but women. Bell was going to create A Blackfella’s Guide to New York City for Artlink but it didn’t happen. Maybe next time.

Last year Artlink celebrated its thirtieth birthday as a unique magazine covering contemporary art in Australia as a forum of ideas, acts of courage and commitment. This June 2011 issue Beauty and Terror is the fourth time Artlink has focused an entire issue on Australian Indigenous art but the first of a new series called Artlink Indigenous to be published each June as a bumper issue – more pages, more art, more words, more debates – focusing on a multifaceted art that is ever-evolving and has a deep history.

Stephanie Radok

Editorial for Artlink Indigenous, Beauty and Terror, 2011

South of my days

South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country…
I know it dark against the stars, the high lean country
full of old stories that still go walking in my sleep.

Judith Wright (1915 – 2000)

While strongly connecting to the Southern Hemisphere the idea of South goes beyond geography and includes all who seek to extend the intellectual, social and geographic boundaries of contemporary art through dialogue, collaboration and exchange.

The first time I remember thinking about South as an encompassing term was when I read the 1980 Brandt Report by the Independent Commission on International Development Issues, the report was also called North South: A Program for Survival. In the report South is synonymous with poverty. The Commission advocated a large scale transfer of resources from the wealthy North to the South and a restructuring of the global economy.

The film Bamako (2006) by Abderrahmane Sissako (France/Mali) shown at the 2007 Adelaide Film Festival took up these issues in an allegory in which the North in the form of the IMF and the World Bank is on trial by the South. Bamako is the capital of Mali, one of the poorest countries in the world. The film counterposes the courtroom with daily life. Both take place in the open-air courtyard of a house, a place also used for eating, washing and dying great skeins of cloth. The bringing together of daily life and work with the court has the effect of both humanising and humorising the message of the film and the serious issues of inhumanity it addresses.

My subsequent early thinking about South was connected to Bernard Smith’s great book European Vision and the South Pacific and its descriptions of cultural dialogues between north and south, old worlds and new worlds. In preparing the South Issue of Artlink I interviewed the ninety-year old Smith in Melbourne and found out how he came to write the book, the title of which I like so much because, in my interpretation anyway, vision means both what we see and what we dream. Over a cup of tea and a Spanish biscuit the spry Smith pronounced, in reference to the names of the influential art publishers Thames & Hudson, that there are other rivers in the world, and that we are all the other.

The South Project, initially devised as an alternative to a Melbourne International Biennale, has been managed by Craft Victoria as a four year journey; it organizes forums, residencies, exhibitions and acts as a catalyst for bringing people together. One recurrent feature of the South Project is paying attention to Indigenous peoples’ cultures, their ideas and ways of being. One of the incentives for me to attend the first South Project Forum in Melbourne in 2004 was because there were people attending from one of the strangest and most faraway places in the world Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and speaking in their own language! The question of translation is another recurring feature of the South Project, not simply translation to understand what someone is saying but to multiply ideas and to widen the potential range of possible meanings. That first forum was followed by the 2005 South Project Forum in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. In 2006 I went to Santiago in Chile for the third South Project Forum; the fourth is to be in October 2007 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Many of the people I met or heard about in Santiago are present in this Artlink in articles and images. Some were not able to be included. Like artist Francisco Brugnoli the lively director of the Museo Art Contemporaneo in Santiago, a building he brought back from ruin to the magnificent contemporary art museum it is today. He spoke eloquently about being in exile at home. Then there was artist Jesus Macarena, a co-founder in 1996 of POLVO an artist-run space in Chicago working with the Immigrant Rights Movement. While the South Forum was on in Santiago new legislation came through in Paraguay protecting the cultural rights of indigenous people there. Ticio Escobar who has been working with those people for thirty years spoke about the Museo del Barro (Museum of Mud) which includes Indigenous art, contemporary art and popular art. He spoke about culture as a tool for survival for each of us.

And then there were those people I never met but have found on the internet like Australian filmmaker Tiger Brown in New York who sent me his DVD Los Chamacocos Bravos, a film about Paraguayan Indigenous people that he made with Aristide Escobar, brother of Ticio. One of the most inspiring art projects that I came across and was not able to include is New York-based artist Pablo Helguera’s School of Panamerican Unrest, a 2006 public art project in which he took a large installation in the form of a schoolhouse to thirty cities from one end of America to the other, Anchorage in Alaska to Ushuiaia in Patagonia, meeting people and talking about what connects nationality and culture. He wrote:
‘Art has an enormous potential to be relevant outside the art world, but for that to happen, we need to use the tools of art to create understanding instead of simply promoting the understanding of art.’

Another significant film shown at the Adelaide Film Festival this year was Darratt (Dry Season) by Mahamat Saleh Haroun (Chad), one of Peter Sellars’ commissioned New Crowned Hope films. The complexity of revenge and of justice is brought home in the film and as with viewing Bamako it is seeing the most ordinary aspects of daily life in another country which bring home the humanity of those sometimes called the ‘others’.

While the great art markets, the fairs and the gatekeepers, the power to write history and to determine still tend to be based in the Northern Hemisphere, there are many other rivers, purposes, histories and agendas of and for art and there is success that is not measured in money.

Stephanie Radok, Editorial, THE SOUTH ISSUE: NEW HORIZONS, Artlink, June 2007.

Knowing the place for the first time

As Australians become more aware of the micro-environments in which they live as well as more integrated into a world economy and culture their concern with place falls between the extremes of absolute specificity and total placelessness. Each of us is familiar with places such the internet, airports, chain restaurants and shops, that make it possible for us to move around the world yet seem to stay in the same place, or to stay in one place and seem to move around the world.

At the same time as these non-specific places become more available to us, increased understanding of ecology, indigeneity and a self-preserving instinct for home assert the value of intimate knowledge of place built up over decades and generations if not centuries. Yet longevity in a place is not a choice available to a lot of people, whether through migration, dispossession, the diasporas brought about by the events of world history, or personal quests for prosperity, in the pursuit of careers, dreams or even love.

Environmental historian Peter Read, in his two recent books Returning to Nothing: lost places (1996) and Belonging: Australians, Place and Aboriginal Ownership (2000) seeks, in his own words, to shape an imprecise but certain knowledge. His research emphasizes in particular the historical moment at which Australia and Australians have arrived, a time for the telling, affirming and elaboration in a new way of the belonging to Australia of non-Indigenous Australians.

General knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prior ownership and culture is now irrevocably widespread and entrenched both legally and conceptually in Australian history. This can be clearly seen in the stories that museums are now telling and in educational material for schools. Black armband/white blindfold – the truth surely lies somewhere in-between but it is certain that many Indigenous concepts such as ‘dreaming’, ‘country’, ‘sacred site’, ‘women’s business’ have firmly entered the Australian vernacular. This is evident even in the title of the recent volume Words for country: landscape and language in Australia (2002) edited by Tim Bonyhady and Tom Griffiths, a series of essays by different authors on specific places, many of which concern mingled Indigenous and non-Indigenous histories.

Closer understanding of Australia’s human past goes hand in hand with an awareness of its unique flora, fauna, landforms, climate and so on. Yet much of the current energy and vitality of understanding Australia right now lies in the fresh valuing and recognition of the hybridity of non-Indigenous peoples and their stories, both those originating here and those brought here from scores of other places. No cultural group has a monopoly on the notion of attachment to place. The cross-cultural links, the translations of languages and meanings that can be drawn across such common feelings are useful for acknowledging similarities between different peoples.

Could it be that a unique type of polyculture is possible in Australia, where recognition of the Indigenous need not be used to cause non-Indigenes to cringe because of their relatively recent arrival on this soil but the Indigenous can be seen as a proud predecessor and exemplar of the rich possibilities of endemic or highly adapted development to place, alongside a usefully increased awareness and taking into account of the global as well as of the local? We are certainly all indigenous to the earth.

Local understanding of climate, vernacular and geography, the beauty and depth of an intimate knowledge of a place is something that Aboriginal art expresses effortlessly. Art that is made by non-Aboriginal artists whether they are from European, Asian, Middle Eastern, South or North American backgrounds also relates to Australia as a place as well as connecting to complex global issues. Local knowledge of the land cannot be acquired quickly. It involves duration, it takes account of the seasons of the earth, the passage of the sun across the sky, the angle of light, the passing of time, cycles and rhythms both circadian and annual.

Yet place is not only about land, it is also about habitation (living) and habitations (homes), about cities and suburbs, cultures and civilizations, thoughts, ideas and philosophies, objects, scents, dreams, memories, words. The taste of a certain food may call up associations that evoke another place and another time. You can be reading a book and return to where you are sitting and know that you have been to another place.

Taking a broad view of the idea of place enables this issue of Artlink to reflect the multiplicity of places now present in Australia. Place evokes common ground rather than difference even as it marks that common ground by its valuing of the validity and significance of individual experience. Place transcends such terms as regionalism and provincialism as it emphasizes the universality of the need to belong. Connecting threads tug and pull across the work of the writers and artists. in this issue of Artlink. Many articles are linked to websites that expand the material present in the magazine. Each piece of work here alerts us to place as something both familiar and strange, as something within us as much as it is outside us.

There are about 150 different ethnic groups in Australia, there are around 8,000 world-wide. In the face of the current intermingling of cultures around the world it has been claimed that it is no longer possible to understand each other culture we may encounter and to thus base civic behaviour and rules on rationality. Rather it has been suggested that the new civic values should be tolerance, love, trust and mildness which, at this moment of ongoing world crises, is definitely worth taking to heart in order that we enter the future with a sense of possibility and awakening.

Stephanie Radok, Editorial for PLACE issue of Artlink