Hetti Perkins, Jonathan Jones & Stephen Gilchrist

Loss and Resilience: a Conversation about Contemporary Indigenous Cultural Space

For the 32nd Kaldor Public Art Project in 2016, Wiradjuri/ Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones presented barrangal dyara (skin and bones), a vast sculptural installation stretching across 20,000 square metres of the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney. Almost 90,000 people visited the installation, which comprised thousands of bleached white shields echoing the footprint of the imperial Garden Palace, a colonial building destroyed in a fire in 1882, causing the loss of a wealth of Aboriginal cultural material that was housed inside.

Curator Emma Pike wrote, ‘barrangal dyara allows for profound dialogues to develop between forgotten histories embedded in the landscape and contemporary experiences. The project speaks to relationships between fire and country, allowing visitors to acknowledge the heavy losses accompanying the demise of the Palace, but also to feel the potential of the new growth that has followed... For Jones the Garden Palace is a forgotten ancestor to the modern city of Sydney and a number of intrinsic connections between the building and the city have revealed themselves. In barrangal dyara (skin and bones) he raises the building into Australia’s consciousness, forgotten in a societal amnesia for the last century. Both the building and the International Exhibition of 1879–80 represent an incredible time for Sydney, a moment when the colony was attempting to define its identity not just within the empire, but also internationally.’ 1

In a symposium to accompany the project, Jonathan led a discussion with Hetti Perkins and Stephen Gilchrist about what a contemporary Indigenous cultural space might look like. Hetti is Australia’s premier Indigenous curator and a member of the Eastern Arrernte and Kalkadoon peoples. Stephen, from the Yamatji people of Western Australia, is currently an Associate Lecturer of Indigenous Art at the University of Sydney.

The following is an edited excerpt of their discussion.

JONATHAN JONES: A lot of today’s conversation has been about how we have tried to reshape museum and gallery spaces, but if we could wipe the slate clean, start afresh, what form might it take and what might it mean for our people? It’s a difficult place to start the conversation, but an important one, nonetheless: what does it say about the health of our cultural landscape when a number of senior curatorial practitioners have left the mainstream industry to work independently?

HETTI PERKINS: One of the reasons that I left the Art Gallery of New South Wales where I had worked for many years, was I felt that Indigenous art was not being represented to the extent that it should be within that gallery, although there was a lot of talking about it and negotiating to try and change that position. 2 I felt I was not able to do that. I knew the collection quite well, and had done a lot of work there, but it was time for Cara 3 to have her turn.

STEPHEN GILCHRIST: If you do look at the broader landscape, you will see that there has been this locational regression of the spaces that have been afforded to Indigenous art in many of these institutions and because of that, there has been a numerical regression of Indigenous staff in these spaces. I think those two things need to be seen in tandem.

JJ: Stephen, you have worked overseas for the past few years, curating some amazing exhibitions. You recently returned from curating the exhibition Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia for the Harvard Art Museums in the US. How has that process, removed from the Australian context, informed your practice and how have you been working in that space?

SG: I have always thought it is important as a curator to be as promiscuous as you can, to work with different collections, different people, different artists and different spaces. I think it is important to go where the work is and to explore new ideas. For me the opportunity to go overseas is to also see Indigenous art within, and as part of, an international discourse. The internationalisation of Indigenous art is really interesting because it is not as polarized as it is in Australia. By virtue of being in the international sphere, the potential for expansionary movement in our discussions around Indigenous art is quite significant. It is a way of seeing Australia differently, but also a way of seeing the definitional regimes in which we position Indigenous art differently too.

JJ: When talking to one of our First Nations friends from the Postcommodity Art Collective, when they visited for the 18th Sydney Biennale in 2012, about this notion of a dedicated Indigenous space, they said something that has always remained in the back of my mind, ‘be careful what you wish for’. They felt that having the National Museum of the American Indian impeded them as contemporary artists; that a dedicated Indigenous space limited their scope within the mainstream. Do you think this was a pervasive feeling within the First Nations community?

SG: Situating Indigenous art within the institutional armature of a place like Harvard sends a message that is really productive. That particular collection is not Indigenous only; it is an encyclopaedic collection, which is the reason a lot of us work in these spaces—they are not just separatist spaces. Presented alongside some of the great art traditions of the world, it gives, on some level, an equivalent value to it. As curators of Indigenous art, we like to have separatist spaces that present the right cultural contexts, but also, to use a problematic word, integrated spaces which do not discount the history of forced assimilation, but say that this is equal and as good as any other artform.

Kaldor Public Art Project 32: Jonathan Jones barrangal dyara (skin and bones, Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, 2016. Photo: Peter Greig

HP: It is about being everywhere, like your exhibition title, Everywhen. Our artists should have the choice to exhibit wherever they want, whether it is in a museum context or a more contemporary art space. It is not one or the other, it is both. That is the opportunity that our artists should have. It is frustrating to come here and ask, do we need a cultural centre? Why don’t we have one? What would it look like? For God’s sake we’re well into the 21st century. And we’re here talking about some of the practices of the south-east that people haven’t twigged onto. Those cultural traditions are here! It is like a bloody wake up call, ‘Hello, people, this is the oldest tradition in the world’. What else do you have to do to get a guernsey 4 to get recognition, is that not enough?

Things like Bill Leak 5 putting that cartoon in The Australian yesterday and defending himself with a following one. It is an absolute scandal, really, the way Aboriginal people are treated. There are people who are doing such great work in the communities, getting our kids to go to school, to take charge of their lives and be proud of who they are. It is obviously fantastic that we can help our kids and have great educational programs. But no good will come of it, if you get your Year 12 certificate and then you rock up to a shop and try and get a job and someone will boot you to the door because they subscribe certain views. So until that culture changes, those sorts of things are not going to change. The way you change culture is you support culture, you support the arts.

Do we really need another football stadium in this city? It is like saying to the rugby league people, ‘No, you have a field, you can all play there, that is good enough for you’. I support sport, it is fantastic and for many of our people it is the only way out of this vicious cycle, but if you are going to compare apples and oranges, what is it that makes Australia unique? The thing that makes us different is the culture. I am talking about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, but also this new Australian culture that has grown up with who I call ‘real’ Australians—people who embrace cultural diversity. The scandal is that we are not celebrating what makes us unique and different in the world.

SG: We like to think that institutions do not represent the same systemic issues that are outside those institutions. We want them to be radical, progressive institutions, but often they are not, so we have to work from the inside to address this question about why we are excluded and why our histories are not recognised. We also have to consider why we are part of these institutions to begin with. They come out of a history of empire and this imperialist register continues, so we just have to keep poking and interrogating.

JJ: I definitely think we can do both; we need to be working from the inside out and from the outside in. Is the space we are looking for within four walls? Is the institution an institution? What are we talking about here? I’m interested in those promised spaces because they are often preconceived spaces, whether it is the mineral museum, which had been earmarked in the past for Tullagulla, or the proposed Barangaroo Cultural Centre. To me those colonial spaces already set the tone of the outcome.

HP: My first thought would be to turn it over to artists. To make a space that appropriately represents our people and culture but also engages contemporary Australia with other ethnicities. A director of a contemporary art space told me recently that it is not her job as a director to tell the powers that be to fuck off—she just makes the space for the artist to do that. You can create an opportunity, but then leave it to the artist; they are the ones who take us on the journey and make sure that our cultural legacy survives.

JJ: Years ago, I was lucky enough to go to some of the African–American museums in New York. In one, when you entered, there was a glass room and on the other side of the foyer, a kitchen and a whole bunch of black fellas just making cups of tea and yarning. It was a community space, right from the front door. When they saw me come in, they came over and guided me through the space. What was meant to be a half hour trip was a whole day. Creating that space for elders to come and make a cup of tea, tell the stories and guide you through these spaces, is something I believe we need. Have you come across any other examples that you think might work for us?

SG: Hetti and I have talked about a physical space, because a physical space makes legible the issues that we are talking about. But perhaps it does not need to have a collection. But it does need to be a space for Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people. There needs to be a responsiveness between what happens in the community and what happens intheinstitution.Thatisreally the ideal; and that people feel the space is for them and not just a spectator exercise in looking at Indigenous peoples.

HP: One of the main things, I think, is that it has to have four walls and a roof. For most of the people I speak to—like some of the old Aunties—their main priority is a café! For instance, Boomalli is a place where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people feel comfortable just walking in 6 . You can sit down and not get looked at. When you are a stranger in your own country that is what you want; you want a place where you feel comfortable. Artist HJ Wedge, who passed away a while ago, once said to me, ‘I’d never walk into that white man’s gallery’—referring to the Art Gallery of NSW—whereas he could go into Boomalli. It is important that cultural centres create an interface between the Indigenous community and the mainstream, as art centres do in remote area communities. Without it, we lack the opportunity that a cultural centre provides, that opportunity for networking so we can talk and support each other and come together.

SG: We are talking about a cultural centre, so culture has to be at the core of it. That will mean lots of different things to different people, but it has to be about language, art, culture, not a separation of art versus culture. When people see stretched linen paintings, they often forget that there are important cultural aspects that are underpinning these works. So the institution has to be ambitious, whatever it looks like, but it has to be about culture and teaching people about their political, cultural and social rights and responsibilities.

JJ: This conversation is building exactly on what we have discussed in previous sessions: that a collection without connections is not a collection, it is just an amassing of objects. As Aboriginal people we don’t just need to maintain connections to each other but connections to our objects, to keep them real.

HP: For instance, the artist Pedro Wonaeamirri came to Sydney from the Tiwi Islands and he was amazed to see the Pukumani poles that were collected in the late 50’s. He hadn’t seen them like that: pristine. Our people take special objects and try and preserve them, so there is that idea that in ceremony an object is brought out for a brief moment and then put away again. That’s kind of what exhibitions in galleries are. And it makes sense, we’ve been doing that for 60,000 plus years! There is a real opportunity to equate what happens in community life and what happens in this contemporary museum life, and to broker those connections and find common ground. As we know, most people come to Australia and say they want to see or experience Aboriginal culture—the world’s oldest continual tradition. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the obvious thing to do.

  1. Kaldor Public Art Projects, 2016, barrangal dyara (skin and bones), edited by Genevieve O’Callaghan.

  2. Perkins’ resignation was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald on 26 September 2011. The Gallery’s recently announced Sydney Modern Project—an initiative of Michael Brand who replaced Edmund Capon as Director in 2012—includes a proposed 1200 square metre gallery for showcasing and expanding the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art collection.

  3. Cara Pinchbeck is Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

  4. Informal Australian saying meaning to receive recognition from to ‘get (or be given) a guernsey’ refers to being selected for a football team.

  5. In August 2016 Bill Leak, cartoonist for The Australian newspaper, drew a controversial cartoon depicting an Aboriginal man with a can of beer in his hand and not able to remember his son’s name. Both Leak and The Australian were investigated by the Human Rights Commission.

  6. Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative is one of Australia's longest running Aboriginal owned and operated art galleries. Established in Chippendale Sydney in 1987, Boomalli, a word derived from three different NSW language groups, means ‘to strike; to make a mark’.