Defying Empire & Expectations – the Third National Indigenous Triennial

Defying Empire & Expectations – the Third National Indigenous Triennial

I did not go to the recent Van Gogh show at the National Gallery of Victoria. I say that with a sigh of slight relief, as I think it’s finished now. I stayed away not through any Van Gogh aversion but rather due to my aversion to densely populated exhibitions (and indeed anything dense that isn’t cake).

I was thinking about packed exhibitions (and yes, maybe cake too) last weekend when I visited the National Gallery of Australia to see ‘Defying Empire: The 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial’. For the third time. Each time it has been deliciously, delightfully, breezy. Not empty, it seems to be well patronised (considering it is three months into its six-month slot), but definitely not full. Bliss.

It is, to give away the punch line, a really good show. Really very good. If you’re in Sydney, I thoroughly recommend making the 4hr (we all know its actually 4hrs with the crawl along the M-whatever out of Sydney) drive down. Indeed, even if you’re Melbourne-based, I’d be tempted to advocate same (though if you do it in 4hrs you’ll doubtless lose your license to the rapid-fire succession of speed cameras encircling Melbourne).

The spiel by curator Tina Baum is all about defiance through existence, and the assertion of indigenous history in the face of colonial attempts at erasure. Rare, for a curatorial spiel, the proof is in the pudding, and walking about the show does bely that interweaving of art and activism and the engagement both aesthetically and in the interests of sharing cultural knowledge and history.

Opening with a brightly hued outsize wall-mounted work by Brian Robinson, the Triennial starts as it means to continue; melding tradition with contemporary edge, in the case of Robinson, traditional Torres Strait imagery reworked in contemporary coloured metals. Gazing on it, you become aware of a layer of sound emanating from inside a darkened room near the entrance.

Within, Reno Rennie’s film of a camo-painted Rolls Royce spinning joyfully in clouds of red dust will doubtless make you smile, appreciating its playful challenge. The imagery is powerful but not overdone, allowing the viewer room to enjoy the work within or without its intended confrontation.

The rooms are themed. This, when done well, is a personal pet love. The first room, replete with teal walls, is themed ‘Forever Memory.’ It showcases what would one generally thinks of as “traditional indigenous” art – woven baskets, shell necklaces and intricate dot paintings in shades of orche that embody the oral histories and stories of Indigenous culture.

The contrast in moving to the next room is marked. One white wall hosts luminously coloured dot paintings while its opposite is adorned with black silicone objects of indeterminate origin. They could be snakes, sex-toys or some blend of the same. Somewhat organic but distinctly brutal with obvious BDSM overtones, the work is by turns compelling and rather repulsive. 

After these stark white walls the next room, ‘Resistance and Refusal’ is dark and impressively massive. With Megan Cope’s beautiful oyster mounds in the foreground, the walls are bedecked with works that, although well over 3m wide do not individually dominate such a sizeable space. Tony Albert’s tribute to Indigenous servicemen fashioned out of Aboriginal kitsch memorabilia is eye-catching is its shotgun shape, but other works arguably give the viewer more on consideration.

Next are several strong works from Archie Moore. These include Blood Fraction and Black Dog, both of which use visual juxtaposition to spiritedly call out racism cloaked in nomenclature. (Blood Fraction is one of my top picks of the show).  Moving on thematically from the apt ‘Disrupting Invisibility’ we hit ‘Asserting Prescience,’ with its royal blue walls and focus on works that directly unpick and rework symbols of western power. The Australian flag is unmade and remade, while traditional bronze statues of the stock-photo white man are draped in balaclavas and also, thus, reborn.

In testament to its inspired curation, your emotions swell with your progress through the rooms – culminating, arguably, in ‘Rising Passion’, with its red walls and striking works by Karla Dickson. Dickson’s use of drab office suits to signify white capitalism is masterful, matched only by her blending of cultural messaging in Assimilated Warriors at the other end of the room.

Curiously the last room, ‘Bearing Witness,’ is somewhat anti-climactic. Overpowered by works that are intent on ‘bearing witness’ in a fairly obvious way (think, list of massacre sites) the room falls into the same trap that has snared much contemporary Indigenous art to date: in its overwhelming intention to make the viewer think, it actually ostracizes them. Thankfully, though, this is something of which Daniel Boyd is not guilty. Boyd’s Untitled (DOC) is a monolithic monochrome of an historical painting that was originally a fictionalised reimagining of Cook’s Hawaiian death in 1779. Charmingly abstract, it evokes the Indigenous dot tradition even as it pays homage to the post-impressionists, the dots resolving into an image. 

Overall the show is hugely successful; a thought-provoking and aesthetically enchanting selection that appears to have been made on artistic merit rather than the artist’s genetic makeup.

Defying Empire is on now until 10 September at the National Gallery of Australia, open daily 10am-5pm. Admission is free so no excuse!

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