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A Year in Art Australia 1992 centres around Australia before the place we know today; the land that belonged to the people before their blood was shed and they were cast into the outbacks. This exhibition is as revealing as it is painful to see and witness but one that you must make time for.
Let’s go back in time, specifically to 1770 when the British, under the lead of Lieutenant James Cook took possession of the east coast land belonging to Aborigines under “terra nullius” – land belonging to nobody, where in essence, the British claimed that since Aborigines did not have any political representatives they forfeited any right to sign treaties or claim ownership of the land they had inhabited for thousands of years. In 1835 that same rule was applied by John Batman when he “purchased” Port Phillip Bay from the Aborigines; present day Melbourne, it was later declared that the Aborigines had no right to be on the land therefore they were called trespassers and outlaws on their own land. Further actions by the governor of the time made it illegal for Aboriginals to buy and sell land.
In May of 1982, a challenge was brought to court by a group led by Eddie Koiki Mabo that would make history, history he would not live to see, but the effects of which will be felt for generations to come. The ten year legal battle would span 4,000 pages and evidence that would prove their legal right to inhabit Easter Torres Strait and have done so for hundreds of years. Within that ten-year battle, in 1985 the Torres Strait Islands Coastal Islands Act was passed by the Australian parliament which sought to eliminate any islander claim to their land. In 1986 this act was overruled by the judges who held that this was contravening the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination act of 1975, this meant the high court could proceed with hearing the case brought by Mabo for their Meriam land rights.
On 3 June 1992, six of the seven judges agreed that the Meriam indeed had always had ownership of the lands of Mer. The decision led to the passing of the Native Title Act 1993, providing the framework for all Australian Indigenous people to make claims of native title.
It wasn’t a victory that Mabo would live to see; himself, Sam Passi and Celuia Mapo Salee had died.
The judgements of the High Court of Australia in the Mabo case No. 2 introduced the principle of native title into the Australian legal system. In acknowledging the traditional rights of the Meriam people to their land, the court also held that native title existed for all Indigenous people. This decision altered the foundation of land law in Australia and rendered terra nullius a legal fiction. In recognising that Indigenous people in Australia had a prior title to land taken by the Crown since Cook’s declaration of possession in 1770, the court held that this title exists today in any portion of land where it has not legally been extinguished. This ruling did not take away from the fact that the government recognised the connection between land and identity and how it fosters a continuity for generations of Aboriginal and Torre Strait Island people. These connections run deep hence my belief that sometimes the atrocities of the past is what hounds the west today such acts of terror and violence that shed blood onto the earth are not easily forgotten, even by the dead.
The significance of this case can be understood through the spectrum of this exhibition that elucidates us on Australia, the stolen land and one in which the true inhabitants were in danger of being erased from society as if they were never there. You know, I get so tired of seeing exhibitions like these and hearing stories told as such but sometimes, one comes along that completely confounds your belief systems in history and hurts so viscerally, but demands your full attention. This is that exhibition.
In her seminal work, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, an elder from Alhalkere shows us the elements and promise of the landscape using colours of the earth, to show us the power of her stories and their history. Elements of Endunga grass is evoked with cream and khaki and orange. It is a history that cannot be fully understood from the outsiders eye; how could it? For the indigenous people there is a deeper level of understanding that can never be afforded to those not of their land or of their world. And I get it; I honestly do. A lot of our traditions have been eroded and codified and redressed to soothe Western palettes but not those of the original land dwellers whose entire identity is put to jeopardy. There is a deep connection to the land they claim no ownership of, but were willing to share, land that has provided for them and will provide for their future generations, blessed by the sky above an unending vista that would outlast them; it is intrinsic in their belief and evoked in these works of art. Much like the work of John Mawurndjul; Buluwana; Female ancestor depicting within it the story of a men woman and children who lived and died through the draught season.
Tracy Moffat’s work paints a twisted and harrowing tale all together in Black and White quite literally. From 1910 to the 1970 Australia government agencies would forcibly remove children from their Aboriginal and Torre strait Islander families, and place them with catholic missions, with White families, in a bid to get them to assimilate with the sole aim of cleansing their blood line. Black babies with white nuns, young black girls dressed in white dresses, indigenous children in towns of all white folk… In the film by Peter Kennedy and John Hughes, Indigineous children are being made to march like British solders, with missionaries giving them pointless training. Dark skin children in white frocks. The Stolen Generation indeed.
In Judy Watson’s work there is an exploration of institutional racism present in Australia’s records. A PREPONDERANCE OF ABORIGINAL BLOOD; 2005, Watson uses blood coloured ink on a series of reproduced official documents from Queensland archives to tell a story of the violence and prejudice of these laws that stripped the aborigines of their entire identity. These documents include electoral papers that exclude Aboriginal people from the right to vote unless they had a white parent. It refers to them by breed and caste; half caste, quarter caste, octoroon- the whiter your blood is the more chance it is you have a right to vote. Referring to them in the most derogatory term; legally, this practice went on to the 60s but the effects of which are still being suffered today. The right to vote in Queensland was not granted to Indigenous Australians until 1965. For context, 1965 was not that long ago it was literally less than sixty years ago.
Helen Johnson’s paintings lays bare the facts of what the British brought to Australia; diseases and ecological disturbance that wrecked havoc to the indigenous populate and the biosphere in 1788. The painting depicts the lay out of Australia’s capital city Canberra but the city planners disregarded the Nguuunawal and Ngambari tribe whose land the city occupies. In the seat of power on closer inspection is a depiction that mirrors the house of commons indeed the chair that is the current Australian parliament was gifted to the Australian government by the British in 1926.
And so there you have it, a tale of a land and her people before time, a story of a civilisation at the risk of being erased from world history, of people being cast out from the homes they built and the land they cultivated… it really must be seen to be believed and hopefully we can be better.
YAYOI KUSAMA- TATE MODERN
First things first, the Yayoi Kusama exhibition is brilliant; short stays but when you are in you can go into the room as much as you want to. I think the genius of this woman is that besides her story she can carry us into these most immersive moments, as if we are right in her brain. The infinity Mirror rooms are an immersive installation the immediately give a sense of endlessness and wander; to the social media uninitiated. For those who couldn’t care less about social media, it is an immediate endless sense of wander, for the insta posse, it is a chance for an awesome selfie. Either way, yes that means queuing up for hours online to get there but you will hold fast you will.
The critics might be lukewarm on these installations, this may not entirely be earth shattering as an exhibition of stills the drawn on a deeper more meaningful narrative, at the very extreme, it may feel like a gimmick but silence your inner cynic some, there is relief in suspending one’s inhibitions and immersing yourself in this room, getting lost for the 120 seconds you are in there and wondering just how one woman came to this bring it all to fruition. If you do have the option to book lunch with this exhibition, do. If only for the stupendous views of St Pauls, but the food is more than passable, its really good but as for the cocktails, I make better. That’s simply a fact.