Feature story Nov/Dec edition 2018

 

Australiyaniality

In a thought-provoking exhibition aiming to redress Australia’s identity, Australiyaniality at Holmes à Court Gallery includes the Yawuru word liyan in its title, relating the Aboriginal view of well being.

Artist Curtis Taylor with his work in Australiyaniality at Holmes à Court Gallery in West Perth. Photos Lyn DiCiero

Almost two years in the making, Australiyanilty at Holmes à Court Gallery in West Perth brings together 27 artists from diverse disciplines and cultural backgrounds to interrogate their own sense of Australian identity and explore what a better Australian identity could look like. Across the group, from visual artists to filmmakers, musicians, performers, photographers and writers, collaboration is rife and many have forged new territory in their practice, or explored new disciplines as a conduit for their message. Choreographer Jacob Lehrer for instance, has produced a sculptural work for the first time. Curator and Holmes à Court Collections and Exhibitions Manager Sharon Tassicker, says artists valued the freedom the project offered because it wasn’t prescriptive, allowing movement outside what was normally expected of them. “Two workshops leading up to the show also gave artists the opportunity to extend and refine their initial ideas,” she says.

As a result, an energetic cacophony of visual and sonic voices fill the gallery, vying for the attention of visitors. Eight alternative flags for Australia are paired with alternative Australian anthems. A stuffed kangaroo is almost fully encased in a resin cube bar its head, legs and tail. An eski invites visitors to reach inside for some ice-cold racism, and Captain Stirling’s portrait, appearing to be once enshrined in an elaborate gold frame, has been unceremoniously screwed up and presented on the floor. Strident in its delivery, ideas and concepts abound in the show, together with a sense of urgency to address the past in order to create a better future.

The Australianarium Cubby, a deceptively playful work by audiovisual artist, musician and producer Roly Skender commandeers a corner of the vast gallery. Recreating the childhood experience of building a cubby from household furniture, the adult size Australianarium, created with layers of blankets and felt, reveals a light sculpture on its ceiling representing the night sky on 1 January 1901 – otherwise known as Federation Day. Skender says it represents an alternative date for Australia Day for some, but also what ties us together in our Australian identity. “We can all look up to the sky and see the same thing. I think Aboriginal people knew that, and this work suggests we can create our own stories around our similarities.”  

Roly Skender with his work The Australianarium Cubby and Sharon Tassicker, Collection and Exhibitions Manager at the Janet Holmes à Court Collection at Australiyaniality at Holmes à Court Gallery in West Perth.

Artists in the show include Brook Andrew, Tim Burns, Paul Caporn, Olga Cironis, Sohan Ariel Hayes and Martine Perret, as well as co-lead artists Matt McVeigh and Curtis Taylor. In podcasts created by Skender, McVeigh says he thinks non-Aboriginal people struggle with their Australian identity. “They know they don’t have that continuous connection to the land. I’ve come to terms with that and it doesn’t make me feel inferior as an Australian. What we need to do is look at what we have – a treasure. We have the longest continuous culture known to man, and I’d like my children to have the opportunity to see Australia through Aboriginal eyes as well.”

The word liyan, included in the Australiyaniality title, is a Yawuru word relating to Aboriginal peoples’ view of their well-being and their relationship with their community. Taylor says the more interaction and conversations the exhibition generates the better. “With that comes good liyan,” he says. In one collaboration, Taylor says McVeigh bought in an image of the Australian coat of arms to which he added a colourful Ilma, usually used as an embellishment in storytelling and dance in the Broome and Dampier Peninsula area. In an act of defiance, the coat of arms is presented upside down, the Ilma surrounding it symbolically claiming back Australian sovereignty.

Born in Broome, Taylor grew up in Bidyadanga, later travelling around the state. He is also a court and prisons interpreter for Aboriginal people mainly from the Western Desert area, spreading from Broome to Kalgoorlie and the tri-state border of NT, SA and WA. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re big court cases or small, we’re saving lives by interpreting, and that’s the most humble reward. There are funny stories, but then there are some really hard ones, and it can take people a long time to heal. When they’re over I have to disconnect. Art is an outlet for the things I see. We still have a long way to go, but this show is about a diverse group of people telling the story of how we can move forward.”

Included in the show is the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, prepared with 300 Aboriginal people in agreement about what they wanted to present to the Australian public, later dismissed by the Turnbull government. The statement called for an Aboriginal voice in the Australian Constitution. In part it says “our ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood,”  while also speaking of a “torment of powerlessness.” “It was mammoth,” says Tassicker. “The rejection of the statement seems like the most recent disrespectful disregard of Aboriginal people as far as I’m concerned. I was shocked and angry, and I’m a white fella, so I can imagine how they all felt.”

She says the project has been all consuming because the subject matter is in the news every day. “It’s alive out there in the public space, so you’re always tuning into and hearing things that feed into it.”

Ultimately, the exhibition seeks to open channels of discourse both within and beyond the gallery walls in a bid to influence a broad demographic.

Tassicker says the conversation can start in the gallery, where people will bring their own understanding and experiences to the show. “It might reinforce a belief, or change what they think. We’d like people to make up their own mind, but make room for conversation – even if we disagree. But let’s go ahead and re-stump the foundations of Australia – and with the Uluru Statement as the design, we could go forward and do just that.”

Australiyaniality continues at Holmes à Court Gallery in West Perth until 25 November.

See the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart here