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For Amala Groom, making art is a collaboration between herself and her Wiradyuri ancestors. Drawing on her history and culture, as well as her legal training, she seeks to subvert the colonial project. “Colonialism affects all of us … To be change agents we have to be inclusive, and Aboriginal culture is inclusive.” By Neha Kale.

Wiradyuri conceptual artist Amala Groom

Conceptual artist Amala Groom.
Credit: Penelope Benton

Amala Groom knows that language can be deceiving. She has always sensed the gap between what people say and what they mean.

In 2016, Groom, a Wiradyuri conceptual artist, found herself at a cocktail party in a New York brownstone, in an awkward conversation with the host, the wife of a former Australian prime minister. Her interlocutor, the proud owner of a work by Emily Kame Kngwarreye, left a lasting impression.

“She said to me, ‘What do you do for a job?’ ” the 41-year-old Groom recalls. “And all I could hear was what she was really saying, the context in which she was saying it. She was really asking how I was contributing to the GDP, so I responded with ‘I make political art’. Then she said, ‘Have you seen my Emily?’ I felt sick, so I just said, ‘Your sitting room is beautiful.’ ”

That conversation became the subject of Groom’s best-known work, Have you seen MY Emily? (2017), a six-channel video installation, later retitled Does she know the Revolution is coming?, originally commissioned by Sydney’s Casula Powerhouse.

The work sees six versions of Groom restaging elements of the encounter. In each she wears a couture blazer and statement earrings. “This painting was a good investment,” she deadpans. “At least, that’s what my financial adviser told me.”

When I speak to Groom, it’s a week from the opening of the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. Groom, the only finalist from New South Wales, will show The Fifth Element, based on a print of Down on his luck, an 1889 painting by Frederick McCubbin.

She found a print of the gloomy swagman a couple of days after the bushfires hit, but before the onset of the coronavirus. It was abandoned in an Aldi parking lot near her home in Bathurst.

“I had a lot of empathy for him and wanted to extend marrambang to this colonial dude who was embracing national identity,” she says, referring to the Wiradyuri practice of love and kindness.

In The Fifth Element, the words “We Are All In This Together” float over the landscape in red paint. Groom’s addendum complicates the fictions constructed by painters such as McCubbin, exposing the bloody fantasy of colonial nationhood that still haunts the Australian imaginary.

But it also hints at the indivisibility of all people, regardless of culture and history, part of ngumbaay-dyil or “all are one”. For Groom, this has been a particularly prescient concept during a year in which acknowledging the web of ties that bind us has become a life-or-death matter. It’s a moment that’s asked us to accept our place in a social body, to put our responsibility to the world and each other ahead of our individual lives and privileges.

“I’ve been making this kind of work for ages and it’s not because I think ‘all lives matter’ – it’s because colonialism affects all of us,” she says, smiling. “It’s not because I want reconciliation and peace – there is a whole bunch of stuff that needs to be addressed in order for equality to be achieved. But to be change agents we have to be inclusive, and Aboriginal culture is inclusive.”

She pauses to consider the sentiment, then says finding that print “was a gift from the gods”.

Groom was born in the northern NSW town of Casino. She moved to Bathurst – where her family comes from – when she was two. They relocated to Bondi when Groom was a five-year-old. Her mother was a fashion designer and her father a photographer.

“I grew up in a really creative environment,” she says. “I was always super-intellectual, wanting to change the world.”

She thrived during primary school, but high school proved more challenging.

“I was just not stimulated by anything,” she says. “There was this constant rhetoric [about] history, no one was really teaching you how to think and I struggled with the notion of a conventional education.”

Groom says she became lost in the White world. “I had a pretty serious IV drug problem, so pre-27 [years] are a bit of a blur,” she says. “Then I got sober.”

She stopped using after the mother of her best friend died of cancer. A few weeks later, she gave up drinking for a long period when she was hit by a taxi in Kings Cross. “It’s all just a series of extraordinary events that led me to walking the path back home to culture.”

Soon after, Groom enrolled in an Aboriginal studies course at Eora College in Redfern. “I started that course two months before the Northern Territory Intervention was passed, so within my first weeks of being there I was on the phone to politicians, trying to get them to change the way they were going to vote,” she says. “It took … until then for me to find out that I had any kind of purpose. Then I became really involved in the community and started to get some support from senior people in our community.”

In 2009, she started studying law at the University of Technology Sydney. “It was horrible, I hated it,” she grimaces. During her degree, her sister attempted suicide. “She had called me and asked me to come to Canberra to visit her – I told her that I couldn’t go because I had law exams,” she says. “[The next day] I got an email from [human rights organisation] Incomindios saying they were going to sponsor me to attend the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Geneva. That night, my nan visited me from the other world and told me, ‘When you come back from Geneva you are going to stop that law degree and start making art.’ I was going through a lot of cultural business at the time. That entire period was a lesson in remembering the embodiment of culture and of deep listening.”

That moment sparked one of the most profound shifts in Groom’s life, one that saw her increasingly honour her feelings over her intellect.

“I’ve had this thing pulling me my whole life and the pull became stronger and stronger,” she says. “The way I would articulate that is as miwis or spirits, as droplets of [Wiradyuri creator spirit] Bayaami, when we follow our feelings, we are in higher alignment with our ancestors, our immediate environment, ourselves and each other. In Indigenous ontology, the intellect is an afterthought. One of the most difficult things was dealing with other people projecting their belief systems onto me.”

In one of Groom’s earliest video works, The Invisibility of Blackness (2014), the artist stands in front of a black backdrop, staring defiantly at the viewer. “I am Wiradyuri,” she begins. “My mother is Wiradyuri. My grandmother is Wiradyuri.” She summons a matriarchal lineage that spans generations, tapping into the incantatory power of language to declare the fact of her selfhood. The screen fades to black, symbolising the truth of Aboriginality as inextricable from the place we call Australia, a sovereignty that the colonial project has attempted to scrub from the record.

“All the art that I made in the first two years of making work was just a happy accident,” says Groom, who studied art and design at the University of New South Wales in 2016.

“My arts practice is a collaboration between myself and my ancestors. I’m a custodian for a particular story and that story dictates how it is realised. With my first works, I just cried all the time. It’s quite full on to hold that space, to hold that kind of energy within me as a person.”

Groom’s law background also shapes her art-making. In Lest we… get over it… (2017), she splices together the iconography of White Australia with speeches by Pauline Hanson and Tony Abbott. With sharp editing, she appropriates the tone of reverence reserved for nationalist myths and uses it to narrate the truth of colonisation.

“Kyle Sandilands had said, ‘Why don’t they just get over it?’ ” says Groom, who was invited to make the work for the 2017 Hobiennale in Tasmania. “It had really pissed me off. So Mum and I sat down to make it and we had so much footage. I use a lot of history and culture to evidence the Aboriginal experience. That’s my legal training. The demonstration is the action of making the work. In order to get that message across to everyday people, I’m trying to make stuff irrefutable.”

In May this year, Groom won the Wyndham Art Prize for Copywrong (2018). The sculpture features an imported boomerang painted with the phrase “come back home” in a mixture of white acrylic and ochre. It powerfully indicts the lack of legal entitlements that First Peoples possess over their own cultural materials.

“I made that work in 2018 around the time of the Fake Art Harms [Culture] campaign, a joint initiative by the Copyright Council, the Indigenous Art Code and Arts Law Centre of Australia,” she says. “They found that 85 per cent of artefacts sold in Australia as tourist art were made overseas. The week I found out that I won the Wyndham Art Prize, the legislation got rejected in federal parliament.” She sighs and rocks back in her chair. “So, I’ve won something as an individual but my whole culture loses.”

Groom’s past 12 months have been consumed with travel. Her work took her to Korea, London, Indonesia and Japan. “The last year was super-fabulous,” she says. “Here I [was] going overseas all the time, wearing my fancy clothes.”

In October, she will be the subject of a five-year survey at the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery and in 2022 she will show as part of Personal Structures, an international group exhibition at the 59th Venice Biennale.

Three years ago, she moved back to the Bathurst region with her mother. Sometimes, she misses Sydney. But living on Wiradyuri Country has made space for another evolution. It’s invited an outlook that is less interested in city life and the perpetual noise of the art world. Instead, she’s making space for new avenues and embracing a creative rhythm that reflects her worldview.

“I’ve been spending two or three hoursa day just dreaming,” she says, her face lighting up. “I’ve started making more tactile, smaller works that are more politically responsive. We applied for a place the other day and it has a massive studio. I’ve never had a studio. I’ve got a lot more clarity. I am more sensitive to stuff and there is heaps less ego. We have this principle called yindyamarra, which translates to showing respect and honour and being patient and going slowly. I’ve been learning and remembering how to embody that within my world.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 8, 2020 as "Pride and Groom".

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Neha Kale is a Sydney-based writer and former editor of VAULT magazine.