Sovereignty is the current exhibition at the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Melbourne, and centres on the contemporary art of the First Nations Peoples of South East Australia. Curated by Paola Bella, a Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman, and ACCA’s Max Deveny – (his first as Artistic Director at the gallery), the exhibition brings together over 30 artists celebrating the continuing vitality of First Nations’ communities, and the resilience and ingenuity of Indigenous cultures. It features historical and contemporary pieces as well as newly commissioned works.
The exhibition opens with a number of pieces by William Barak (1824 – 1903), an Elder of the Wurundjeri-william clan, who was an artist, and activist and a leader. Barak and his work has been used as a model for the creation of the exhibition. His art largely focuses on ceremonial life, and the painting on display, along with a shield and club, illustrates dancing figures in possum-skin cloaks, with headdresses and clapping boomerangs.
The viewer is also met by a large video screen showing films by William Townsend (Bill) Onus (1906 – 1968), a Yorta-Yorta man who was a political activist, an entrepreneur, an orator, and a filmmaker. Onus was instrumental in the founding of the Aborigines Advancement League in the 1940s and 50s, and played a leading role in the successful campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote in the 1967 referendum.
Juxtaposed against these two artists are two contemporary pieces by Marlene Gibson, who was born in 1944 and began painting only nine years ago. The two intricate paintings on display illustrate some of the changes brought about by the First Europeans arrival in Australia, as told to Gibson by her grandmother. ‘Land lost, land stolen, treaty’, painted in 2016, is a response to the 1835 Batman ‘Treaty’
The Batman Treaty was an agreement between John Batman, a non-Aboriginal Australian grazier, businessman and explorer, and Elders of the Wurundjeri peoples to purchase land around Port Phillip, near the present site of Melbourne.
It is the only time the Europeans negotiated their occupation of land with the traditional owners. The piece shows the two cultures living side by side, both peacefully inhabiting the land. The treaty was, however, declared void by the Governor of New South Wales.
The exhibition then moves to focus on more recent issues for a time, but the prominent themes are ever-present, including the celebration and assertion of cultural identity and resistance; the significance and interconnectedness of Land, Country, People and Place, and the renewal and re-inscription of cultural languages and practices. Works by prominent artists and individuals intermingle with art produced by the upcoming generation.
Jim Berg (born 1938) is a respected Gunditjmara Elder, author and educator, and a former chief executive of the Koorie Heritage Trust, based in Melbourne. Berg’s ‘Silent witness – a window to the past’ (2005) is a series of photographs of scar trees on Wotjobaluk Country (in north western Victoria) depicting places of cultural significance and the literal trace of past presences.
The marks have been left on the trees through the respectful removal of bark in the past for use in the creation of canoes, shelters and shields. This removal has taken place without the loss of the tree’s life, indication of a ‘reciprocal reverence and a connection to Country’. Berg’s work is a further reciprocal interaction, of his heart and eye, as well as a collaboration with those who originally removed the bark.
These images work alone and together, representing the past and the present, and an indication of the fusing of the land and the people. The wallpaper on display is also created utilising Berg’s images, a representation of the Australian bush, the land of the First Nation Peoples.
A personal favourite is the work of Glenda Nicholls (born 1954), who emphasizes the importance of cultural traditions, and re-telling the stories of her ancestors through beautiful and skillful pieces.
Four of her creations are on display in Sovereignty – including three cloaks, ‘A woman’s right of passage’, created in 2015. These fine-looking cloaks are for use by women during Welcome to Country ceremonies, and are to be worn at different times in her life.
A Welcome to Country ceremony is carried out at the beginning of meetings and events in Australia to show respect for the traditional custodians of a particular region, and involves an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Elder from the region welcoming people to their land. The three cloaks on display are exquisite, produced with jute string and an array of symbolic objects including possum skin, velvet, mussel shells, seeds and glass beads.
Behind them is Nicholls’ forth artwork, ‘Milloo (Blue net)’, also created with jute string, and reflecting the lovely patterns in the cloaks.
The Milloo indicates the importance of the fishing net and fishing in lives of the First Nations peoples along the Murray River (Milloo) on Waddi Waddi and Yorta Yorta country.
Another favourite is the artwork of Kent Morris (born 1964). ‘Cultural Reflections – Up Above #2’ is a series illustrating the continued presence and patterns of Aboriginal history and culture in the contemporary Australian landscape.
The series includes an abundance of birds, which the artist notes ‘have adapted to the built environment, to technology and colonialism’, and denotes ways in which Indigenous cultures have survived and adapted.
This series is stunning, with the symmetry and reflections drawing in the viewer to investigate further, only to discover the details of the architectural features and birds, simultaneously abstract and graphic, solid and lifelike.
Sovereignty is at times extremely hard-hitting, and is in places enormously distressing. I experienced great anger when discovering the meaning of Yhonnie Scarce’s (born 1973) ‘Fall Out Baby II’, ‘Fall Out Baby IV’ and ‘Fall Out Baby V’ (2016).
The delicate sandblasted glass sculptures sitting in hospital cribs represent a strong response to the nuclear testing at Maralinga in South Australia in the 1950s. It resulted in hundreds of deaths, particularly infants, when by-products from the testing entered the food chain near the site.
The protest signs on display in the final room are further indications of the extreme difficulties Indigenous Australians continue to face, and other works are clear responses to the atrocities inflicted upon Indigenous Australians since the coming of the First Europeans.
The aim of the exhibition has, however, truly been successful, to demonstrate that, as Curator Paola Bella states, ‘the sovereignty of First Nations peoples is embodied culturally, historically and politically, and has never been ceded.’
This thought-provoking exhibition is a must for those in Melbourne during the summer months.
Note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audiences are warned the exhibition may contain images and voices of people who have since passed away.
Belinda McDowall, Deputy Editor & Special Features, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017
17 December 2016 – 26 March 2017
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art,