The National successfully unites three cultural institutions in an exhibition interrogating inequality, colonisation and racism. By Andy Butler.
The National 2019
On the first morning of The National, a small procession entered the Art Gallery of New South Wales through its imposing facade. It was led by a funereal violin, and flag-bearers flying the Aboriginal flag. Four women in grass skirts followed, holding pails of billowing smoke. All Aboriginal academics based at Flinders University, Ali Gumillya Baker, Simone Ulalka Tur, Faye Rosas Blanch and Natalie Harkin form the Unbound collective. Slowly, they made their way to the colonial collection of the gallery.
This was the fourth in a series of performances titled Sovereign Acts which, in the spirit of collaboration between cultural institutions that defines The National, was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art.
At AGNSW, the performers circled the reflective statue of Captain Cook that sits in the gallery’s colonial collection. Handheld projectors threw fragments of poetry on the walls, the paintings, the floors: “we are still afloat in the wake of deep colonialisms”, “consigned to the fringes of this ‘cultural’ precinct”, “if these walls could speak”… This is an institution that has played a complex role in colonisation, not least for the extensive collection that once hung in the “Primitive” gallery and is now held in its basement.
The National 2019 – the second of three two-yearly exhibitions of Australian art across the MCA, AGNSW and Carriageworks – presents at an interesting moment in our cultural discourse wherein powerful institutions are beginning to engage in discussions of inequality, colonisation and racism. It is a delicate balance.
I consider this while standing at AGNSW in front of Rushdi Anwar’s Irhal (Expel), Hope and the Sorrow of Displacement – a precarious sculpture of burnt black chairs stacked at angles that seem too fragile, as if they could collapse at any moment. It speaks to displacement and politics, and is informed by Anwar’s experience as a Kurdish refugee. Near the work, a plaque pays homage to benefactors the Belgiorno-Nettis family. Until 2014, brothers Luca and Guido Belgiorno-Nettis had a significant stake in Transfield Services (now Broadspectrum), the company that managed detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru.
If these walls could speak.
Isobel Parker Philip, the curator of AGNSW’s chapter of The National, uses the analogy of the black box recorder to describe her selection of artists. They are “historicising a feeling of precariousness” from within a politically tumultuous period, as the plane is going down. I feel this doesn’t quite capture the currents of what is shifting, though; artists have been making politically resonant work for generations. It is a more telling, and complex, sign of the times that institutions such as AGNSW – entwined as they are with the structures of settler colonialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism – are beginning to support work such as this.
Pilar Mata Dupont’s video work Shuffle is emblematic of how this moment feels from inside a sandstone building such as AGNSW. A dancer figure, wearing a lace mantilla veil studded with pearls – here a symbol of colonisation – destroys crushed earth plinths that house distorted porcelain vessels, until they stand surrounded by what could be a contemporary art installation: mounds of dirt and detritus. The dancer oversees a shift from traditional museum aesthetics to contemporary art. It draws out an acute tension within shifts in public discourse – even as cultural movements come and go, the white colonial gaze persists.
The Tender, an ephemeral performance from First Nations choreographer and dancer Amrita Hepi, will occupy the entrance hall of AGNSW just three times over the course of The National. On the opening weekend, three dancers moved about in a space as if running an obstacle course, or a gauntlet. The piece shifted through feelings of pressure, tenderness, care and release. At different points, the dancers came together to support one another’s weight as they navigated precarious positions – allegorical postures of how bodies move through spaces with deep histories of colonial and racialised power.
The curatorial visions across AGNSW, MCA and Carriageworks all draw on ideas of precarity, power, politics, history, memory, colonisation – and the feeling of this current tumultuous moment. Difficult and confronting discussions require curatorial risk, in order to create a space where audiences and institutions can’t stand back as though they are innocent bystanders. In my view, the chapters of The National at MCA and Carriageworks ask the most critical questions of how the production of culture itself is wrapped up in a complex connection to the structures of power that have led us here.
At the entrance of Carriageworks – curated by Daniel Mudie Cunningham – is Aboriginal artist Tony Albert’s House of Discards, which stands silent and imposing in a dark corner. Albert’s work is a literal house of cards, featuring redacted kitsch “Aboriginalia” imagery from our very recent history that Albert usually works with – Jim Crow-style images but Australian – as if painting over our past is enough for it to no longer haunt us. It seems as though it could all fall over at any moment, much as discussion of race in these spaces.
Albert’s work fights for attention alongside Nat Thomas’s show stopper Postcards from the Edge, a homage to a scene from the 1990 film of the same name, wherein Meryl Streep, as a fictionalised Carrie Fisher, dangles over the edge of a skyscraper. In a wry comment on the Instagram moments that have come to define blockbuster exhibitions, audiences can have their own Meryl moment, hanging on for dear life. It is dangerous without any real danger and I imagine inner-city professionals posting on social media about their visit to an exhibition about precarity.
The offering at Carriageworks unpacks ideas of our dystopic moment through a visual language rooted in popular culture and consumption.
Sean Rafferty’s Cartonography, a monumental wall of fruit cartons collected from far north Queensland, reaches towards the ceiling at the back of the exhibition space. The work skewers the economic and cultural bubble that institutions such as Carriageworks are implicated in creating – it brings FNQ, and its stories of the rise and fall of industry, into conversation with heavily gentrified and whitewashed Redfern, where just outside this gallery on a Saturday morning you can buy “boutique” seasonal produce at the famed farmers’ market.
For the MCA chapter of The National, co-curators Anna Davis and Clothilde Bullen critically consider the power hierarchies that persist in intercultural collaborations. Davis, a white Australian curator, and Bullen, one of the too few Indigenous curators working at a major arts institution, attempt to find a “third space” between cultural positions to facilitate complex and confronting dialogues.
In one particularly strong section that spans three rooms at the MCA, Bullen and Davis use traditional Indigenous cultural frameworks of men’s business and women’s business to structure a dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. It opens a complex dialogue about Australia and its long history, led by First Nations artists.
Using government property – repurposed mailbags – as his canvas, Kunmanara Williams paints the limits of colonial maps and systems, and the expansiveness of ancestral lore and knowledge, in Kamantaku Tjukurpa wiya (The Government doesn’t have Tjukurpa). This sits in dialogue with Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s installation Pretty Beach, a fever of wood-sculpted stingrays swimming beneath a rainfall of crystal chandelier drops – a testament to the currents of natural beauty underneath a storm.
In an adjoining room is Eugenia Lim’s architectural installation and three-channel video The Australian Ugliness featuring Lim, as gold-suited pan-Asian “ambassador”, making her way through some of our most iconic architectural spaces, never quite looking as though she belongs. This is flanked by the work of Daisy Japulija, Sonia Kurarra, Tjigila Nada Rawlins and Ms Uhl, paintings that all provide reflections on the remote landscape and connections to country.
These two rooms are connected by a hallway to James Nguyen’s three-channel video work Portion 53. Nguyen and his family make site-responsive performances at the former site of the East Hills Hostel, where his father first arrived as a refugee from Vietnam, just 34 years after descendants of the traditional Dharawal owners were kicked off the land. The work draws out poetic tensions between displacement and colonisation, contributing an oft-forgotten perspective on the role of non-white migrants in the colonial project. Together, these works provide one of the deepest insights into Australia and its history that I have seen in contemporary art of late.
In its demonstration of how artists contribute to how we think about major issues of our time – turning to art for answers, asking deeper questions and considering perspectives – The National has true vitality to it. When our cultural institutions rise to the challenge of working meaningfully with these artists, they can provide a fertile space for public discourse.
VISUAL ART From Where I Stand
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until July 14
STREET ART International Mural Festival
Sheffield, Tasmania, April 21-27
MUSIC Boomerang Festival
Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm, NSW, April 19-21
MUSIC National Folk Festival
Exhibition Park, Canberra, April 18-22
INSTALLATION Museum of the Moon
Scienceworks, Melbourne, until April 29
VISUAL ART Fiona Colin: I'm not a Robot
Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, until April 27
Moonah Arts Centre, Hobart, until May 4
VISUAL ART Dale Harding: The Golden Mile
Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne, until May 15
CULTURE Buddha’s Birthday and Multicultural Festival
Supreme Court Gardens, Perth, until April 14
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 13, 2019 as "National inquiries".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.