standing still; looking back, looking forward
standing still; looking back, looking forward is a celebration of First Nations identities today, yesterday and tomorrow. Featuring new works by Dean Cross, Brad Darkson, Ashley Perry, Katie West, and a collaborative work by Amala Groom & Nicole Monks, the exhibition acts as a testimony to the non-prescription of the Aboriginal experience. Together, the artists offer wide-ranging perspectives on Aboriginality that intersect non-linear concepts of time, the continuing practice of culture, and self-determination – collectively highlighting the plurality of life across and between the multiples in cultures, and provoking deeper knowledges and understandings of the diaspora of Aboriginality as a contemporary experience.
The cyclic and circular view of time expressed within Aboriginal stories and philosophies tells of ‘active’ encounters with both the ancestral and natural worlds. Amala Groom & Nicole Monks’ momentous (2018) engages these ideas and explores the concept of non-linear time – evoking the space between the physical and spiritual worlds through an immersive installation that highlights the importance of being present and listening deeply. Bringing into focus ideas of place-making, cultural knowledge transfer, and living in the moment, the single-channel video features Groom & Monks with their backs turned, standing still together in the surrounding bushland, their body language suggestive of a surrender to place that invites a contemplative space. The viewer subconsciously assumes the artists' position at one with and within the projected environment as the image of Groom & Monks pulsates on the wall, expanding and contracting like a heartbeat – blurring the space between, and through this, imparting a greater awareness of self and place on the viewer. The accompanying audio that layers the experience of momentous loops a dialogue of Wiradjuri and Yamatji Wajarri (Groom and Monks’ respective language groups), reinforcing the notion of synchronicity in time and the links connecting self, other and land; simultaneously situating the tenses as one to evoke a meditative landscape where past, present and future coalesce.
This interconnection between self, others and land and the concept of non-linear time also materialises in Katie West’s multidisciplinary installation, Body remembering – grinding stone (ongoing work) (2018). The work is centred around two grinding stones that West has activated, and exists as an outcome of her investigations of, selfhood, cultural reclamation and ancestral connection; foreshadowing a deeper understanding of First Nations identities in Australia. For West, Body remembering – grinding stone is a work in continual development. A library that intersects time and tradition, change and adaption through her active engagement with sovereign knowledge and its reclamation. The work grows as an outcome and response to her reconnection with cultural knowledges, and the learnings and experiences that stem from this creative practice. Traditionally used to grind ochre and seeds, the grinding stones are projected within a multi-sensory and tactile landscape that enacts the ‘embodied knowledge’ of West. The installation combines a soundscape and video projection of the two stones grinding together – activating them in the exhibition space as a symbol for the continual expansion of West’s knowledge library. The projected image of the stones in action, acts as a record West’s collective cultural knowledges – echoing her focus on process, and in doing so highlighting the importance of cultural reclamation, the transfer of that knowledge, and the personal, social and cultural responsibilities that come with it.
Each artist has a unique perspective to share, influenced by intergenerational experiences of Aboriginality and the complexities of life across and between multiple cultures; a reality of Aboriginal life in a contemporary urban context. Ashley Perry is a Quandamooka man with an interdisciplinary practice that celebrates cultural continuation through oral and archived histories and practices. The Kun-ji:-yil Ba:-bun (Moon Corroboree) is a Quandamooka ceremony – a story imparted on him by his great-grandmother – that involved song, dance and the creation of a ‘moon prop' made from bound branches and cloth that would be risen during the ceremony which coincided with specific moments during the lunar cycle. Boo-rroo-rra Kun-ji:-yil Ba:-bun (Full Moon Corroboree) (2018), is a contemporary recreation of the ‘moon prop’, reinvigorated in the context of Perry’s practice. As a physical representation of cultural continuation, this new ‘moon prop’ is drawn together in a mosaic-like formation, its glass shards supported by the solidity of the steel rod that each piece is secured by. In its form and materiality the work raises the important circular moon motif of Kun-ji:-yil Ba:-bun, high on the gallery wall in a contemporary homage to the ceremony and its continuation – the artist reconnecting self with fragments of culture through research and an interdisciplinary practice that celebrates the meeting of old and new knowledges and the learnings that stem from this.
This cyclic exchange of cultural knowledges and practices the artists engage with reveal unique identities that occupy an urban reality operating within a pressure cooker of ideas, legacies, tensions, expectations and responsibilities. Brad Darkson’s multi-media work, Tremendously very very very beautiful (2018) emphasises the non-prescription of the Aboriginal experience through a critique of the expectation ‘to create work that is identifiably ‘Aboriginal’. With the intention to address the preconceptions of Aboriginal Art that have infiltrated the broader Australian culture, Tremendously very very very beautiful presents an educational video that is a step-by-step guide for how to create ‘Australian Folk Art’ - an ‘Aboriginal’ dot painting, and opens with the words: “Today we gone learn How to draw and paint ABORIGINAL ART”. In re-presenting this misleading ‘educational’ content from an online arts education company based overseas, Darkson encourages a reflection on how Aboriginal art and culture is generalised and interpreted, both nationally and internationally. The video’s accompanying painting, ornately framed and hanging adjacent, leaves the work open to multiple questions as the viewer attempts to determine whether or not the art is suggestive of Darkson’s cultural background or simply a cultural appropriation. Utilising both irony and humour, Darkson casts a spotlight on how popularised Aboriginal motifs like dot painting do not reflect his cultural affiliation, and in doing so, highlights how diverse and complex the experience of Aboriginality is – engaging the viewer with a phenomenon they may unwittingly be participants in.
In response to this expectation to create ‘traditional-looking’ work, Dropping the Bullshit (We Look Like This Too) (2018) by Dean Cross incites a power shift through the material and physical destruction of established preconceptions of Aboriginality. The large-scale triptych depicts a life-size Cross re-enacting the performative action of Ai Wei Wei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) – employing screen-printing techniques and an easily identifiable appropriation as a direct reference to both Pop Art and Warhol. In each of the three panels, Cross is shown in the process of destroying a ceramic plate that has been ‘decorated’ with the grossly-exaggerated face of an Aboriginal man that positions the work as a blatant critique of the image-obsessed world in which we live and the commodification of culture. Through its visual and aesthetic references to popular culture and the wider canon of contemporary art, Cross challenges common preconceptions of Aboriginality and presents a new account that attests Aboriginal experience as a unique entity within - one that runs much deeper than what you can see at surface. Cross critiques the viewer’s questions, expectations and presumptions of Aboriginality – a conscious act of self and cultural determination that is signified as the ceramic plate falls through each picture plane to its timely demise. The performative act captured within each frame, emphasises and refutes this expectation to create work that is identifiably ‘Aboriginal’ and in doing so, functions as a mnemonic device, powerfully reflecting on ideas and narratives about what it is to be Aboriginal today and negating the expectations enforced by our socio-cultural sphere – we look like this too.
Through contemporary investigations of memory, lived experience, sovereign knowledge reclamation and the artists’ own unique experiences navigating these things, standing still; looking back, looking forward reveals the culturally complex reality of First Nations identities today. The collection of works present an interconnected dialogue of place-making and self-determination through the sharing of stories and experiences that critique present preconceptions of Aboriginal art and Aboriginality that perpetuate our current socio-political, historical and cultural worlds. This critique manifests in the artists’ own unique stories and experiences – offering-up new perspectives on Aboriginality that move across time and tradition, and chart change and adaption. What manifests in the exhibition space is an interdisciplinary cross-pollination of ideas, memories and experiences that are at once distinct and collective, and weave a dynamic reflection of the complexities that exist within First Nations identities in Australia today, yesterday and tomorrow.
Jessica Clark is a curator, teacher and arts manager based in Naarm (Melbourne).
 K. Z. C., Everywhen there is time for Aboriginal art in America: An interview with Stephen Gilchrist, Art Monthly Australia, No. 292, Sep 2016: 18.
 M. Neale, LEARNING TO BE PROPPA, Artlink, Vol. 30:1, March 2010: 36-41. 84.
 A. Perry, email with the artist, 12th March 2018.
 M. Evans, Towards an outward-looking Indigeneity, Artlink, Vol. 35:2, June 2015: 83-87.
 D. Browning, The politics of skin: NOT BLACK ENOUGH, Artlink, Vol. 30:1, June 2015: 24-28.