The role of photography as a colonial tool for documenting and labelling Indigenous peoples is subverted in Tell. Our prior understanding of the medium and its potentiality in contemporary art practice is challenged. Photography’s role has shifted in this context. The 17 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists included, harness the medium as a powerful mode of self-expression; taking it up as a communicative device to reframe, redefine and re-present. Here and now, photography tells an alternate story. One that is both personal and collective and at its very heart about survival – transforming photography’s colonial legacy of imposition, into an empowering mode of resistance.
Set against a backdrop of social and political discourse, the exhibition highlights photography as a powerful vehicle to navigate and challenge the external influences that might otherwise define us. Through composition and superimposition Bindi Cole Chocka’s Fertility 1-4 (2017), reveals her Wathaurong Country ‘cut-out’ and collaged into a focal figure. By depicting culture from within, unimpeded by the domesticity that dominates the background, but somewhat displaced, Cole Chocka deploys a personal lens that speaks to the inextricable interconnection and interrelation between Country, community and culture that continues.
This powerful connection, as well as the presence of Indigenous peoples in Australia’s urban landscape, is reaffirmed through the altered imagery of Kent Morris and the Pitcha Makin Fellas. Photography in these works is a powerful mode of cultural and self-affirmation that conveys Indigenous Australia’s continued presence in the landscape despite colonisation. Morris’s Cultural Reflections - Up Above #3 (2017) series, captures the beauty of native birds and their engagement with and adaption to the now built environment; reconstructing avian interactions into a social commentary that reflects on the cultural continuity and survival of Indigenous peoples post-colonisation. With a similar focus on photography’s malleability and symbolic underpinnings, the Pitcha Makin Fellas’ series Looking at 2 Cultures (2017), speaks of ‘vanished’ becoming visible. Like Morris, the Pitcha Makin Fellas highlight presence, continuation and connection as a common thread by translating the groups combined histories into stamp patterning that is applied to the photographic surface to regulate what can and can’t be seen – poignant now in considering Australia’s socio-political landscape.
Photography’s past fixation on the ‘colonised subject’ is destabilised in Tell with a number of artists re-directing the gaze toward the re-presentation of social and historical narratives on their terms. Artists such as Brenda L. Croft, Ricky Maynard, Dianne Jones and James Tylor, critique the ongoing legacy of colonisation in ways that rouse a reconsideration of our notions of our own truth. Croft’s Self-Portraits on Country (2014) assembles thirteen brutally honest ‘selfies’ that depict the artist on her people’s traditional homelands, in control and looking straight ahead. Grounded in sovereignty, these portraits reflect on personal and public archives to explore notions of dislocation and displacement – a reality common for many Indigenous peoples. Like Croft, Maynard focusses his practice toward the complexities of Indigenous experience – delineated by hardship, perseverance and burden, and the trans-generational trauma that stems from this displacement. Both Croft’s Self-Portraits on Country (2014) and Maynard’s works featured in the Returning to places that name us (2000) series, highlight the enduring spirit of Aboriginal peoples, attest the cultural stories of community, place and space, and affirms the importance and need for these stories being told and understood.
Jones brings to light the sway of the imaginary or fictional in historical ‘truths’, in Darlarinj (Hunting), Boodjar (Country) and Yonga Koorndi (Kangaroo Club) (2014) photography is employed to research, critique and reconstruct a cold-case narrative from the past – displaying her research through images repeated and arranged in a gridded storyboard that gradually blurs the image until it is completely unidentifiable. In doing this, Jones uses photography as a means of highlighting the misconceptions and misrepresentations of Aboriginal people that have historically fuelled Australia’s history of frontier violence. Tylor’s collaborative project with South Australian artist Laura Wills, tilted The Forgotten Wars (2017) also explores photography’s ability to redefine historical ‘truth’. Elements of the past and present are melded as Tylor’s depictions of Australia’s rural landscape are overlaid with Wills’ colourful and intricate map markings that have been derived from colonial war, survey, town and mining maps from the British Parliamentary Papers and Commission Reports that documented the colonisation of Australia. Through their interdisciplinary approach to photography both Jones and Tylor reinvestigate the past, translating and re-communicating histories in new ways that reveal the untold truths that lie beneath and beyond the historical records that remain in the mainstream.
The works of Destiny Deacon, Warwick Thornton and Steven Rhall drive these provocations further, calling into question what is known and unknown through their focus on performativity. In Daisy and Heather Discuss Race (2016), Ebony and Ivy Face Race (2016), and The Listeners (2017), Deacon stages her dollies, presenting them in photo and video productions that engage in a discourse of race relations that defies the one-dimensionality of Aboriginal identity often imposed by the media. In a similar vein, Thornton cinematically interrogates Australia’s history of representing Aboriginal people, deconstructing colonial notions of authority in Untitled 1 and 2 (2013) by adorning his subjects in settler uniforms of ‘power’ and depicting them levitating above a blood-red country landscape. Rhall removes the figure entirely, in Avert (2017), conceptualising photography as an expanded field through his clever essentialist and existentialist explorations that act as an ‘antidote’ to the effects of prescription. Avert transcends the spatial and temporal boundaries of photographic practice, conceptualising a new way to re-examine Aboriginal people’s representation in the public realm and challenging the discourse that plagues the politics of representation from, what Rhall terms, ‘a post-modernist positionality’.
The varying accounts of Aboriginal life, history and culture showcased in the story so far, make explicit the multiplicity of Indigeneity and the complexities that comes with this in a contemporary context. Through an introspective lens, Hayley Millar-Baker, Jody Haines and Moorina Bonini, attempt to unhinge the dominant ideologies that attempt to prescribe Indigeneity as a ‘one size fits all’ entity, that is definable and fixed. Millar-Baker’s carefully constructed digital collages, Even if the race is fated to disappear 1 (Peeneeyt Meerreeng/Before, Now, Tomorrow) (2017) and Untitled 1 (Peeneeyt Murapangi, Peeneeyt Toongkateeyt), (2017), meld imagery of colonial buildings with elements of both her birth and ancestral Country (Wathaurong and Gunditjmara respectively) – telling of an identity that is at once multiple, displaced and negotiated between culture and Country. Haines’ evocative self-portraits from the series This is not resolved (2016) and her holographic projection, And yet, after so long, I still hear you (2017), both materially and conceptually reflect the influences that shape us – highlighting the psychological marks made present by the concessions of place Millar-Baker emphasises. Haines illustrates the complexities that stem from these negotiations of self, presenting a series of self-portraits that depict the artist as multiple and in a mind-numbing state of torment and exasperation. Also featuring images of self, and with a similar pursuit in mind, is Bonini’s photographic installation, You’ve had your turn, now it’s MINE (2017). Like Haines, Bonini places herself and her story in front of the camera; producing an empowering work that defies social and political ideologies through visual affirmations of her strength and resilience; a reclamation of culture and cultural identity, despite the everyday racist remarks and questions she is forced to filter on a daily basis.
The dialogue of Tell continues its exploration of identity and belonging, through the profoundly personal works of Maree Clarke and Deanne Gilson that invoke a cathartic relationship with the lens. Both Clarke and Gilson reaffirm and connect with their cultural heritage through contemporary approaches to reviving traditional ceremony and cultural practice (Clarke, 2017; Gilson, 2017). Clarke’s Portrait (woman wearing black crow feather necklace) (2017) and Mourning Necklace (2017) embrace tradition as well as a curiosity for new technologies – depicting the artist adorned with her traditional marks of mourning – painted-up with white ochre and wearing a lengthy black river reed and crow feather necklace. The large-scale digital portrait paired with the beautifully crafted mourning necklace beckons a tender reminder of love and loss, and the significance of the healing process. These works inspire an eloquent dialogue in proximity to Gilson’ series Cook, Murnong and Me (2017), that acts as visual resolution and reflection motivated by familial and ancestral healing. Embedded with current and cultural artefacts, adornments and images of Country, Gilson’s heart-felt narratives highlight the revived practice of ceremony and its cultural importance in a contemporary context. At an individual and collective level, Clarke and Gilson’s works operate as cultural repositories of memory, story and experience that both celebrate and serve as witness in aim of guiding and enabling healing to take place.
Another dynamic perspective of personal and collective healing is realised through the work of Damien Shen and Robert Fielding. Shen’s aluminium prints and tintypes that comprise the series Still Life After Penn (2017), unpack his recent role as an Aboriginal artist working with museological collections that house the remains and secret sacred objects of his Ngarrindjeri ancestors. Utilising his contemporary practice to investigate and interrupt, Shen draws focus to the cultural significance of repatriation and its spiritual essentiality in raising awareness to promote healing and reconciliation. In considering the cultural negotiations and implications of the past, Fielding provides a poetic account of self and community through a contemporary approach to art making fuelled by the concept of reconciliation and forward-thinking. Included in Tell are two works by Fielding; Ngapartji-Ngapartji (2017), a modified photograph that references the Anangu concept of reciprocation and cooperation, and Milkali Kutju (2015) a self-portrait in the form of a diptych, its title embedded in the work and translated to read ‘one blood’. Through language, materiality and composition Fielding conveys a celebration of culture and togetherness, applying photographic technologies with creative techniques that draw attention to our similarities as opposed to our differences.
The artists of Tell collectively mediate the past, critique the present, and aspire to a decolonised future, blending the role of artist and activist through their wide-ranging approaches to contemporary photographic practice. Through a variety of aesthetic and material strategies, the artists place themselves and their stories at centre – sharing vision, and voice, and in doing so transforming photography into a liberating device by which to explore, express self and culture. The multi-modal dispersion of photographic works within the exhibition generate a sensorial celebration of Indigeneity and Indigenous perspectives, simultaneously focussing both outwardly and inwardly in a cyclic reflection to emphasise the integral role of the visual in the communication and preservation of culture. Together the artists personal as well as collective experiences expose a culturally dynamic dialogue that provokes a deeper understanding of the multiplicity of Indigeneity in Contemporary Australia and the complexities that come with this.