Russian Constructivist theorist, Boris Arvatov, promoted the potential of ‘things’ to act as dynamic agents for social and political change. Does such a model of objects have relevance to the work that you do?
Boris Arvatov’s notion of ‘co-worker’ and the potential of ‘things’ to act as dynamic agents for social and political change does have some relevance to the work that I do. Like Russian Constructivism, which promulgated the notion that art, design and architecture had a function in everyday life, art in its visual, oral and performative forms has always been integral to Indigenous culture and identity.
In terms of the function of cultural objects, historically, objects have been collected from Indigenous people for anthropological purposes. Collected objects included weapons, ceremonial objects and body adornment. As Indigenous artists and cultural workers, we use these objects to learn about our people and our culture. We are reinterpreting and recontextualising their stories, re-examining and addressing colonial histories, which in itself is a political act. When an audience experiences Indigenous art, they are listening to Indigenous stories — our stories — and just a small encounter can in some way change the way they think about Indigenous people, which positively contributes towards a discourse of enacting social and political change.
Although still in the early stages of your career, you have worked in a number of cultural institutions, as both a Gallery Educator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and an Indigenous Art Consultant at the University of Technology’s Sydney Gallery. What are your views on the role that cultural institutions and art more broadly can or should play in the cultural and political empowerment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?
Cultural institutions are contexts of state and national significance for presenting various canons of Australian and international art that are of art historical, cultural and social importance, however, they often lack diversity in terms of gender and non-Western representation. Indigenous art and culture should indeed be celebrated and given pride of place in cultural institutions, and we, as Indigenous people, have a right to tell our stories through exhibitions of our art and cultural material.
Further empowerment of Indigenous people, art and culture within these spaces could be improved by having greater representation of Indigenous curators, and Indigenous people in public programs, and all aspects of cultural institutions throughout Australia. Cultural institutions could be engaging more meaningfully with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities by establishing more collaborative approaches with Indigenous artists and arts professionals outside of those working within the institutions. Also, as publically-funded institutions that hold collections of cultural objects and works of art, cultural institutions should be made more accessible to Indigenous people and communities as well as the general public, so that we, as well as non-Indigenous people, can learn more about our cultural practices and our shared social histories.
While working at AGNSW you have undertaken research into the Gallery’s collection of Torres Strait Islander art and resources. What are the most striking things that you have learnt about the significance of these cultural materials during this research?
Undertaking research into the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ collection of Torres Strait Islander art was a project that spanned over more than three years. It involved travelling to different parts of the country and interviewing Torres Strait Islander artists and researching exhibitions and collections of Torres Strait Islander art and cultural material. Some of the most striking things I learnt were in relation to the lived experiences, stories and perspectives of the artists themselves and the ways in which they contribute to the ongoing discourse of Torres Strait Islander cultural practice. One of the most important things that I learnt was the fact that the personal is inherently political, and the ability of art which is based on lived experiences to tell us about our social, cultural and political contexts.
One of the artists who I interviewed whose lived experiences, stories and perspectives spoke to me was Destiny Deacon. I think it was because she is a person who is of Torres Strait Islander descent who has lived in Melbourne for most of her life, and has made an immense impact within the Indigenous and non-Indigenous arts community. When you are a Torres Strait Islander residing outside of Queensland, chances are you exist as a minority. From my experiences of living in the south-east region of Australia, Torres Strait Islander issues are often forgotten about, and when it comes to people’s understanding of Torres Strait Islander culture, there is very little knowledge outside of areas where larger Torres Strait communities have been established in parts of Queensland.
I appreciate the ways in which Destiny’s images provide an insight into her family life and reference Torres Strait Islander culture against a domestic or suburban backdrop. Much of her artistic output references her personal and cultural identity in a humourous way, that at the same time comments on issues surrounding race relations in Australia. I admire the ways in which she uses elements of her personal life in her practice to draw attention to social and political issues from an ‘urban’ Torres Strait Islander female perspective.
One of the things that you have repeatedly advocated for is the importance of mentoring and intergenerational exchange in developing strong Indigenous communities. What do you think needs to happen to ensure such relationships can be fostered within cultural institutions and society more broadly? What role, if any, do cultural objects and artworks play in such exchanges?
There are a number of things that could be done to ensure that mentoring relationships are fostered within cultural institutions. There could be more strategic planning in terms of recruiting Indigenous professional staff to deliver Indigenous and non-Indigenous content alongside senior Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff, and collection and exhibition-based programming that fosters intergenerational dialogues. In terms of cultural objects, the production of new collaborative projects that respond to works and objects held in collections in cultural institutions are a great way of facilitating intergenerational dialogue.
A recent example is
Shimmer (2015–16), a project that Tess Allas, Director, Indigenous Program at UNSW Art & Design, Darrell Sibosado of Lombadina on the Dampier Peninsula, and I developed for Wollongong Art Gallery. It was an exhibition that explored historical and contemporary notions of shell-based art from key Indigenous regions across Australia, which included a variety of historical objects borrowed from museum collections, and newly commissioned works by artists who work with shells as part of their medium or reference shells in their practice.Tess, Darrell and I worked on the show in a collaborative fashion, bringing knowledge and community connections from the diverse areas in which we have each worked; Darrell has strong connections to shell artists in Lombadina, which is located north of Broome in Western Australia, Tess has connections to artists from La Perouse and along the South Coast, and I have experience researching collections of Torres Strait objects and working with Torres Strait Islander artists. The ways in which we developed
Shimmer strongly revolved around interactions with artists and people with whom we had met, and bringing these voices together to create a show that explored what they all had in common.
The development of
Shimmer was an intergenerational dialogue, as I became part of the project when I was a student at university and while I was undertaking training at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in an industry introduction program. I had completed Tess’ course at UNSW Art & Design (then known as the College of Fine Arts, or cofa), and since then Tess has become a mentor of mine. When researching works to include in
Shimmer, we were visiting a number of institutions, looking at collections and meeting visiting artists, while discussing ideas. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn from someone who has had a long career working with Indigenous artists. For me, personally, it became the difference between working within the insularity of an academic context and being part of a broader conversation.
You were co-curator of
Blak Wave, the keynote initiative of the 2014 Next Wave Festival, which entailed an exhibition program and a collection of writings and images by 28 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, writers and performers. In the introduction to the
Blak Wave publication you and co-curator, Emily Sexton, envisage a future art scene full of powerful Indigenous curators, artists and administrators running their own careers. In such a future how would you hope the general public’s understanding of, and relationship to, Indigenous art and culture would be altered? What impact might this have on how we engage with and conceptualise the world around us more broadly?
From my own experiences, I have observed that people’s understanding of, and relationship to, Indigenous art and culture is changing in that there is a growing acknowledgement of our shared histories and a greater awareness of current social and political issues. A lot of this is due to the internet and social media, where discourses surrounding racism, whether localised or transnational, are being brought to people’s attention.
At large, however, there is still a lot of ignorance in this country and we do have a long way to go in terms of how we deal with racism and the ways in which Australia acknowledges its colonial history, and its past and current policies towards Indigenous Australians and immigrants. I hold a strong opinion that in Australia, multiculturalism is tokenistically bandied about but not fully embraced by all.
In terms of the impact this might this have on how we engage with and conceptualise the world around us more broadly, Indigenous art contains an immense amount of cultural knowledge. It has the potential to teach us about notions of Country, and the ways in which we conceptualise notions of Country in tangible and intangible ways through storytelling and songlines; important local and national shared histories and our national politics. Most importantly, however, it encourages us to conceptualise the world through an Indigenous perspective, and not purely from within the dominant Western paradigm.
Given your experience as a writer and editor, Australia’s shared cultural history, and recent events such as Aboriginal Minister Bess Nungarrayi Price having her request to speak Walpiri in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly denied, how do you think language can act as a co-worker to human practice? What is the potential agency of language and how might this be employed for social and political change?
As Frantz Fanon states in the text
Black Skin, White Masks, ‘to speak a language is to take on a world, a culture’. When we speak a language we are assuming a culture. Our mother tongue almost becomes a lens through which we view the world, as we perceive the world through it.
Language is unique to every culture. The ability to speak your own language is one of the most empowering ways of reclaiming your cultural identity. I think the maintenance and revival of Indigenous Australian languages is one of the most important ways in which we as Indigenous people can reclaim our cultural heritage as well as create a space for political and cultural empowerment.
In regards to its potential agency in contributing to social and political change, I think that the push towards teaching Indigenous Australian languages in some schools is a very important one. Not only does it help in maintaining Indigenous languages, but it also educates students, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, about Indigenous culture, which leads to a better of understanding of our shared cultural histories. More importantly, it gives us as Indigenous people a sense of pride because we are able to speak our own language. With knowledge of your own language comes knowledge of your own cultural heritage, and to be able to own that is a very powerful thing.
Tahjee Moar is an artist, curator and educator. She is a descendant of the Meriam, Barkindji and Malyangapa people.