Artists: Damiano Bertoli, Erik Bünger, Catherine or Kate, Michael Cook, Fayen d'Evie and Bryan Phillips, Léuli Eshraghi, Alicia Frankovich, Susan Hiller, Alex Martinis Roe, Angelica Mesiti, Clinton Nain, Rose Nolan, Erik Bünger, Sean Dockray, Hannah Donnelly, Rosie Isaacs, Wrong Solo.
Curators: Hannah Mathews, Helen Hughes and Frances E Parker.
Cultural geography, language, power
Anyone familiar with Cairns in Far North Queensland will no doubt have witnessed all 14 metres of awkwardness that is the gigantic concrete statue of Captain Cook giving his best ‘Heil Hitler’ to all in passing. This stark reminder of Australia’s love affair with colonisation (regardless of its impact) makes Cairns a perfect location for the Seeing Voices regional touring exhibition.
Seeing Voices skillfully pitches the idea that 'the voice might act as a metaphor for collective action, for speaking out against injustice and coming together in gestures of solidarity. It can be a marker of cultural and geographic specificity or the trace of disappearing language'.1
Cairns is home to one of the country’s largest Aboriginal, Torres Strait and South Sea Island communities. The intoxicating combination of sunny tropical weather, markets full of cheap and plentiful tropical fruits, fresh-water swimming holes and the echoing of island drums on steamy nights is what makes Cairns the tropical paradise of the North.
And yet, beneath the beautiful veneer of paradise, amongst the oldest living culture in the world (at a staggering 65,000 to 80,000 years old) race relations in the recently settled Cairns and Far North Queensland are both confronting and complex.
Queensland’s blackbirding of over 60,000 South Sea Islanders and the Aboriginal Protection and Sale of Opium Act is our regions’ shared history, now made contemporary through a booming Indigenous Affairs industry (of which I have been employed) and everyday, casual racism in the commercial media space, which barely causes a ripple. Ho hum.
Featuring work from Australian and international artists, Seeing Voices is a multi-media touring exhibition from NETS Victoria and Monash University of Art (MUMA). Upon entering Cairns Art Gallery the strength of - Clinton Nain’s a e i o u - they have dispossessed you (2006) immediately draws me in.
Exquisite mark-making sees vowels (the Queen’s English) loosely transcribed beside a multitude of crucifix’s, reminding us of Australia’s mission days whilst simultaneously drawing parallels to the burning white crosses in America’s deep South.
The materials Nain uses are deeply tactile; the warmth of the bitumen is sticky, contrasted with the vibrancy and transparency of white house paint. Like oil and water, Nain expertly shows how language dissipates, fed through the narrow process of colonisation and Western models of education. The work is powerful, uncomfortable and heady.
Just as shadows remember light, silence remembers voices. And art makes sensible the voices that inhabit these silences.
Listening to silences brings us once more to place and its hauntings - where voices reverberates with voices that were once audible and spoken freely. In Australia, artists have attuned us to now ‘silent’ voices, those of torture, massacres, and stolen land and language.2
Susan Hiller’s training as an anthropologist and linguist is evident in The Last Silent Movie (2017). The American-born, English artist uses this training - and her critique of it - to bear witness to a tiny handful of the worlds endangered and extinct languages. It is a strangely intimate work, a symphony of voices and dialects, with some of the recordings spoken by that languages’ last living speakers.
An old man confronts us with some truths about language. The strangeness of his voice merges with the buzzing and humming artefacts of an archaic recording mechanism. A young girl repeats words she is trying to memorise in what sounds like French. Several men exuberantly chant fragments of a creation myth. An elderly woman tells a story of jealousy and murder to an appreciative listener.3
It would be easy to criticise this work, its placement in a well-heeled gallery, its lack of agency, it being a work about Otherness. But it has led me to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, an online collaboration tool. The Atlas is not perfect, but it gives us some scope on how shitty the situation is.
In Australia, linguists and language advocates in community are usually a few individuals doing most of the heavy lifting (primarily voluntarily). Community radio stations - which present news and play music in language - community libraries and media/resource centres are poorly resourced and largely unsustainable. Yet they persist because they are integral to community life and wellbeing. They are wanted and needed by the community.
My reinvestment on thinking about Australian First Nation’s languages - and their critical importance to sovereignty - reminds me of my return to Robe in the South East some years ago. I had relocated to Ramingining, North East Arnhem Land, after a yearlong stint in Northern Thailand and on the Burma border. The tropics had unexpectedly taken hold, and an invisible connection - which only those who love the tropics know - tethered me to this part of the world. The relaxed tropical lifestyle is a perfect antidote to my slightly neurotic and creative temperament.
Attending a family funeral at the local RSL back in Robe, I’m accosted by a landed gentry type, her sherry-soaked breath enquiring as to whether I can now ‘speak Aborigine’. Given that Australia had over 250 languages at time of invasion – and an additional 600+ dialects - the question is ignorant at best, deeply racist at worst. The loss of our first languages has been devastating; I try not to choke on my excellent sausage roll.
The community I live in, and the community she lives in (my old childhood home town) are strikingly similar. In fact, boringly so. Both have populations of around 600 people (although Robe has since boomed), both have tight-knit family groups, both have a community school - or some go to city boarding schools – both have strong hierarchies that protect community and cultural values, and both have the enormous privilege of eating fresh fish and meat from the land.
However, the key differences are systemic. In the north I am living amongst poverty that has been driven by repeated governmental policy failures and social experiments, which have become particularly pronounced post-intervention. Given the remoteness, I am pleased to say, that the traditional language Yolngu Matha remains strong and to the frustration of weary government workers, English is known but rarely spoken.
Indigenous Sāmoan artist, Léuli Eshrāghi has a different spin on language, one that ‘addresses the way Indigenous voices are typically treated by the academy and how they manifest in archives and research culture more broadly’.4
Absences reminds me of my mum’s Letraset. The text is clean and functional. Prose, beautifully written, is printed on a three-metre length of silk suspended from the ceiling. It has a has a softness and rawness that invites you in and much like Nain’s a e i o u – I will disposes you it artfully shows the vulnerability of Indigenous language when in the hands of colonial cultures.
Absences ‘invites the viewer to imagine Wurundjeri Country and waterways along the Merri Creek and Yarra prior to colonialisation, and to consider how colonialisation has impacted First Nations people both in Australia and across the Pacific.’5
Eshrāghi positions his inclusion in the exhibition as an opportunity, an invited guest so he can use his work to ‘amplify local voices’. This understanding posits Seeing Voices as a space for collective action on language revitalisation and renewal.
Where Eshraghi’s contribution to Seeing Voices is one of enacting change, Brisbane-based, Bidjara artist Michael Cook uses satirical historical revisionism to highlight the ongoing violence perpetrated against Australia’s First Nations peoples. Cook’s Majority Rule (2014) is eerily familiar to me, resonant with the protest aesthetic of my 1970s and 1980s childhood. It is no coincidence that the artist was also growing up in that same era, with the Aboriginal Rights movement.
Majority Rule is set in the Senate and every parliamentarian is ahem. Black. Looking closer, it is the same male actor, repeated across the frame. A blur of familiar faces (much like the present albeit without the coalitions strategically placed women dotted at the front) is comfortable, strangely familiar and powerful.
The wide lapels of the suit, and wire-framed glasses, are reminiscent of first-time Queensland Liberal Senator Neville Bonner – again pulling me back into the vortex of the late 1970s protest era, a time where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders had only recently been given the right to vote. And here we are again, over fifty years later, with a parliament lacking in diversity, across gender and race. The artist asks:
What if Indigenous people were 96 percent of the Australian population and non-Indigenous people defined as the four percent?
Cook’s work, and his questioning, is seemingly polite, but underneath the rawness of asking what would it look like if Australia’s First Nations people prospered, we are left with the burning knowledge of why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people only make up four percent of the population. We are witnessing not just the erasure of languages and culture but the hundreds of years of a quiet genocide.
Bianca has lived and worked across Northern Australia, in North East Arnhem Land, the Torres Strait Islands and in Northern Thailand on the Thai-Burma Border. Working across the community, arts and government sectors Bianca brings specialist knowledge in cross-cultural communications and engagement. Bianca is co-founder of We Are Malo, an Indigenous-owned social enterprise delivering media, arts and community projects. We Are Malo launches July 2O18.
A NETS Victoria and Monash University Museum of Art touring exhibition
14 October – 10 December 2017
Horsham Regional Art Gallery
Live performance artist: Wrong Solo (early December)
1 March – 2 April 2018
Mildura Arts Centre
Live performance artist: Rosie Isaacs
28 April – 23 June 2018
Cairns Regional Art Gallery
Live performance artist: Erik Bunger
13 July – 16 September 2018
Riddoch Art Gallery, Mt Gambier
Live performance artist: Sean Dockray
15 February – 7 April 2019
Bathurst Regional Gallery
Live performance artist: Hannah Donnelly