Displayed in a historic homestead built on the cusp of Federation, Those Monuments Don’t Know Us examines colonisation and cultural expression and challenges ingrained assumptions of what fits where.By Neika Lehman.
Those Monuments Don’t Know Us
The word “bundoora” in local Woiwurrung language is understood as “the plain where kangaroos live”. A grassy woodland on Wurundjeri country – good for camp, ceremony and the production of silcrete tools – these days it also refers to a north-eastern suburb of Melbourne, settled during the great southern land grab of 1835. Bundoora remains home to many great river red gums, including a hefty cockatoo and lorikeet-clad tree, which leans across the grounds of Bundoora Homestead Art Centre – a heritage house, gallery and the current home of Those Monuments Don’t Know Us, curated by Andy Butler.
Set across the 14-room historic mansion-cum-gallery, the exhibition features new commissions and prominent works by Khadim Ali, Timmah Ball, Hayley Millar-Baker, Phuong Ngo, James Nguyen, Nabilah Nordin, Diego Ramirez, Priya Srinivasan, TextaQueen and Siying Zhou. Curatorially, it is a response to the homestead’s history, inviting 10 Australian artists to exhibit in the halls of a building that was never intended for them.
Bundoora Homestead was built in 1900 by prominent colonist horse breeder John Matthew Vincent Smith as part of a larger horse stud. The centrepiece mansion – an adaptation of the English Queen Anne-style home – came via a public architecture competition, won by Melbourne architect Sydney Herbert Wilson. Standing tall and prosperous in the wake of the 1890s financial depression, Bundoora Homestead, like other Federation mansions, is the material emblem for a new Australian nationalism at the turn of the 20th century. In 1901, the homestead saw in Federation, and Smith and his family transitioned from Victorian colonists to white Australians.
What cemented their new, politically stable identities was the White Australia Policy, now commonly understood as the foundation stone of the Australian nation-state. In accordance with the Immigration Restriction Act (1901), the first federal law passed after Federation and one of Australia’s founding legal principles, this continent was a place Smith naturally belonged. He was Australia-born, had white skin and spoke English fluently. Never mind Woiwurrung, the language of the land and his horse stud’s namesake, now symbolising both horses and kangaroos.
Beginning at the gallery’s generic entrance – it is joyfully easy to get lost in this space – I first encounter two large-scale textile works from Sydney- and Quetta-based artist Khadim Ali’s Fragmented Memories series (2017-18). Ali was trained as both a classical miniature painter in Lahore and muralist and calligrapher in Tehran, which partly explains the formidable presence and intricacy of his practice. The aura of Ali’s pieces is all the more accentuated by the dark shades and grandiose heights of the gallery’s first room. It’s a cruel task to begin a group show with such masterfully detailed work that could itself command hours of attention.
Moving to the next room, I come upon a small boy briefly watching Ballardong Noongar artist Timmah Ball’s video work Haunted. Soon, he turns and runs away. The video is a ghost story, comprising both archival and personal materials, and responds to the homestead’s eerie history after its sale as a horse stud. In 1920, the homestead became a psychiatric clinic for returned servicemen. This continued for most of the 20th century before it was converted to its present form. Ball links the site to other resonant spaces from her family’s past and, finally, to the larger spectre that haunts us all – colonial history. Ball shows colonisation for what it is – a recent and bloody thing, still disastrously pulling itself across a land that has held 60 millennia of Aboriginal life.
Moments of sitting in a deeper time are stopped short, though, displaced to another geography by Phuong Ngo’s installation Colony. Ngo has collected more than 300 photographic portraits from markets and shops in Vietnam, pasting each photograph with a French Indochina postage stamp, which commemorates French missionary Alexandre de Rhodes. Held between Perspex, the photographs hang from hundreds of red decorative ties, referring to a Chinese vernacular. The work is as immersive as it is reflective. The Perspex frames mirror and distort the Federation-styled room, linking the seemingly infinite global relations that determine our personal cultural expression.
Those Monuments Don’t Know Us is quick to assert that one cultural expression can have a limit determined by another, particularly through structural control regimes, such as the police force and courts. In a mock Chinese restaurant, slightly askew, Melbourne-based Siying Zhou recounts the story of a Chinese father who was arrested and charged while practising tai chi in an Australian park, because he used a blunt traditional sword. Placed next to a video of a man silently practising tai chi is what could be the sword in question, held in a beautifully decorated sheath made from kitsch stubby holders.
Melbourne-based artist James Nguyen continues his work with family members in two new video pieces that similarly reinterpret items that come to be cultural icons. Nguyen and his mother and aunt perform an alternative script of The Magic Pudding, in which their characters, sitting in the scrub wearing paper-crafted hats, playfully reflect on the joys and burden of an Australian pudding they love, protect and can’t seem to let go of – even if it lands them in court.
Each artist has their own room in Those Monuments Don’t Know Us, ranging from light-filled parlours and morning rooms to darker, more secluded spaces. The element of surprise entering each new installation room doesn’t wear off, particularly after stumbling upon Diego Ramirez’s red-lit vampire lair, where a looming coffin takes up the bulk of the windowless room.
Along the corridors between exhibition rooms I pass a large painting of Smith’s prized racehorse Wallace, son of Carbine, and a cabinet of old colonial artefacts (scuffed leather boots, horsehair brush). It takes more than a second to determine if they are a part of the show. Reflecting on the past and standing in the present, I oscillate between disturbance and comfort while experiencing Those Monuments Don’t Know Us. The Bundoora Homestead Art Centre is a unique space, so unlike the sterile white walls and industrial chic of many Melbourne galleries. It’s a funny feeling to see the artists’ work look so good here, a challenge to ingrained assumptions of what cultures fit where. Those Monuments Don’t Know Us would make for a solid travelling show. For now, the homestead is the ideal host for its curatorial intent, at least as the first site of its journey.
It’s useful to reflect on what’s been happening in the urban art world during the 18 months that Butler has been developing this exhibition. In Melbourne/Narrm at least, there has been a marked increase in public arts programming at both large institutions and smaller independents focusing on critiques of white supremacy. It can be frustrating to witness arts organisations benefit from the value of these external conversations while, behind the art world’s decorative facade, structural power changes remain unclear.
Bundoora Homestead Art Centre provides the literal and political edifice for this conversation, reflecting a period whose injustices flow into the present. But this isn’t just an exhibition seeking to “expose” the whiteness of Australian cultural institutions. Those Monuments Don’t Know Us also explores a rich, contemporary nation-state that need not rely on the dying legacies of an ideologically fragile white Australia. Rather, it points to a future.
Locating Australia’s Federation and its racist legislation as the historical crux of Those Monuments Don’t Know Us reveals the left’s so-called “obsession” with identity politics is literally the stuff that founded our conservative nation. The white Australian nation-state has always justified its presence by attempting to control the limits of belonging on this land. If that is not identity politics at its finest, I don’t know what is.
FESTIVAL Castlemaine State Festival
Venues throughout Castlemaine, Victoria, March 22-31
Arts Centre, Melbourne, March 19-28
COMEDY Canberra Comedy Festival
Venues throughout Canberra, March 18-24
THEATRE You Know We Belong Together
Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth, March 20-31
CINEMA Melbourne Queer Film Festival
Cinemas throughout Melbourne, until March 25
THEATRE Dance Nation
Red Stitch, Melbourne, March 17-April 14
VISUAL ART Apocalyptic Horse
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until September 15
SPOKEN WORD Keep. By Daniel Kitson
Cremorne Theatre, Brisbane, March 16
MULTIMEDIA Looking Here Looking North
Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Sydney, until March 17
FESTIVAL Adelaide Fringe
Venues throughout Adelaide, until March 17
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 16, 2019 as "History reframed". Subscribe here.