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Tag Archives: NAIDOC Week

Indigenous Culture on the streets

On Friday 5 July I met the NAIDOC Week march as I was walking to Fitzroy. The march was coming the opposite way walking from Fitzroy to Federation Square. I felt inspired by the march – I want a treaty and truth (like South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission). Australia needs a treaty with its Indigenous population; Australia is the only Commonwealth country not to have a treaty with its indigenous people.

I considered my options joining the march or continuing my walk into Fitzroy. I decided to continue on looking at public art, street art and art exhibitions but with a focus on indigenous history. My methodology for these walks is asystematic, random, and often without preconceived objectives. This is because I want to take unfamiliar routes and find new things.

This is No Fantasy, the Dianne Tanzer and Nicola Stien’s gallery on Gertrude Street was showing Vincent Namatjira’s exhibition Coming To America. Vincent is a Western Arrernte man from Ntaria (Hermannsburg) and the grandson of Albert Namatjira.It was Vincent Namatjira’s fifth solo presentation at this prominent Melbourne commercial gallery. Black dots beside the works showed that every painting had sold.

Vincent Namatjira’s crude but effective style has an absurd sense of humour. The exhibition has a series of paintings depicting his trip to America, including his time in Hollywood, the White House and relaxing on beach chair at the Miami Beach Art Basel. On one wall was a grid of black and white portraits of alternating black and white people. Namatjira seems to be saying: why so serious when this is fun?

Gertrude Street was named after the daughter of Captain Brunswick Smythe who acquired the land in 1839 in colonial exploitation; in spite of it colonial origins Gertrude Street has many reminders of Melbourne’s Indigenous history. There are several plaques by the City of Yarra Aboriginal Cultural Signage Reference Group and the Aboriginal Advisory Group: The Koori Club, the Aboriginal Housing Board and the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service. (As well as public art I am now looking at plaques — how dull can I get?).

At the corner of Lt. Napier Street, there is the recent ‘Sovereignty’ mural by Robert Young, Heesco and Makatron. They are all Melbourne-based artists but only Young is a Gunnai/Gunditjmarra/Yorta Yorta/Wiradjuri man – Heesco is from Mongolia and Makatron is probably from outer space, or Adelaide.

A bit further along Gertrude Street, at the corner of Gertrude and George Streets stand three “Delkuk Spirits”, 2002, by Kelly Koumalatsos, a Wergaia/Wamba Wamba woman from the northwest of Victoria.  The yarn bombed dress on one of thin bronze figures has been there for years, it implies that it a woman and makes the group more inclusive.

Kelly Koumalatsos, Delkuk Spirits, 2002, bronze

On the same corner is Maysar, the Melbourne Youth Sport and Recreation Co-Operative with glass design in the windows and glass doors by Mandy Nicholson, a member of the Wurundjeri-willam clan of the Kulin Nation. Nicholson’s work is familiar to me as she designed Gayip, the stainless steal spiral headed figure with wings perched on a rock on the South bank and the petroglyphs at Birrarung Wilam.

I turned left onto to Smith Street, named after Melbourne’s Mayor Smith 1855-64 a publican turned politician. At first there was much less reminders of Indigenous history on Smith Street, just on plaque for the Victorian Aboriginal Co-operative Limited at 108 Smith Street, one guy in an Aboriginal flag t-shirt getting lunch and a small flag painted on a house in one of the streets off Smith.

That was until I reached the corner of Stanley and Smith Street where the Glenn Romanis has designed the combination of a micro-park, seating, public art and a map. Glenn Romanis is from the Wurundjeri/woi wurrung and Boonwerrung people of the Kulin Nation, and like Nicholson, Romanis’s public work was familiar from his carving at Birrarung Wilam. The sites are mapped in fossilised wood with granite streets cutting across the sedimentary rock that flows like rivers. Carved in the rock “Wominjeka Wurundjeri Bik” (Welcome to Wurundjeri Country). It was a good place to continue an exploration of Melbourne’s indigenous culture.

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Mute Relics & Bedevilled Creatures

Mute Relics & Bedevilled Creatures, at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick is a response to ‘Reconcilation Week’ or NAIDOC Week.  It is a fun and thought-provoking exhibition. It is a strange kind of fun, like laughter, even if the laughter is bit bitter and crazy, it is still a laugh in the post-colonial wake of genocide.

It is important that aboriginal and non-aboriginal artists are part of this exhibition. There is an exchange in the references, appropriation and subversion of European or Australian images and materials. As in, Julie Gough’s “Ransom” where antlers are hung with giant beads of Tasmanian coal, or the inclusion of brown glass by John Duggan in his display of stone tools. Everyone owns the history.

Sam Leech’s future fauna are beautiful paintings of strange hybrid creatures, speculating on the future evolution of Australian fauna, like an albino kangaroos with antlers. Sharon West and Gary Smith have also created strange hybrid creatures; Smith’s “Flabbit”, a flying rabbit, is a wonder of taxidermy. In a reference to Duchamp the shadow of the flabbit in its cage is projected across the red surface of Smith’s triptych of paintings.

There are no shortage of spectacular works in this exhibition amongst them Kate Rohde’s 3 neo-rocco cabinets on gold tables, complete with exquisite levels of kitsch details, displaying fake displays of animal, vegetable and mineral specimens.  The highlight of the exhibition for me was seeing more paintings and dioramas by Sharon West. West is also one of the curators of the exhibition and has written an extensive essay on the exhibition for the catalogue. Her paintings especially the richly detailed interior of the Australian museum of megafauna summed up the exhibition and included Smith’s flabbit amongst the exhibits depicted.

Lurking behind this exhibition appears to be a strawman argument, a bogeyman of museums, a conservative dragon with a hoard. It is very different from the current museums and exhibition practice. It is also ironic for art that refers to and partially relies on the gallery institution for its viability. The installation and display of collections is played with through out the exhibition. Like, Denise Higgins “What Remains” that employs the aesthetics of clinical scientific minimalism, storage and labelling. And, especially, in Lyndon Ormond-Parker’s exhibition of historic texts in a vitrine.

Ralph Appelbaum, head of the world’s largest museum and exhibit design firm, said in the Guardian Weekly (01/6/09): “Museums are essentially ethical constructs.”  Taxonomies, categories and collections are all ethical constructs that prescribe values to the order that they create. (Read: Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger) Even what we cannot classify, the “bedevilled creatures” of the exhibition, is itself classified. This may be for the purpose of exclusion and taboo or, in the case of this exhibition, a celebration of unique qualities.


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