“The Production of Art as an Area of Social Action”

A new and quite different exhibition of “Aboriginal art” is on display in Sydney now at the Macquarie University Art Gallery. Curated by Jennifer Deger, interventions: experiments between art and ethnography was opened on December 9, 2009 by Djon Mundine. The exhibition features collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists and anthropologists that explore, in the phrase that I have borrowed from John von Sturmer’s catalog essay, “the production of art as an area of social action.”

Deger, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Art and Politics at the College of Fine Art, University of New South Wales, is the author of Shimmering Screens: making media in an Aboriginal community (University of Minnesota Press, 2006); that book still garners my vote for the finest ethnography of the new century. In it, she describes her Ph.D. fieldwork in the Arnhem Land community of Gapuwiyak. Deger, who has a professional background in media production, worked with the late Bangana Wunungmurra to deploy new media techniques to re-create and re-invoke the power of Yolngu rom: ceremony, law, culture. Shortly after completing the film, Wunungmurra died of a heart attack at the age of thirty-seven. As his adopted sister, Deger participated in his funeral rites; in the years since she has remained close to his family, especially his wife, Susan Marrawakamirr. Deger and her Yolngu family (left, Deger and Antonio Wanambi, Susan’s daughter’s son, and thus Deger’s gaminyarr in Yolngu kinship terms) have continued to work together in experiments with photography and painting, and other members of the community have been drawn into a variety of creative visual projects.

Shimmering Screens was a delight for many reasons, one of them being its record of Deger’s engagement with the film-making project and her reflections on the changes that it wrought in her as a person, an anthropologist, a daughter, a sister. It seemed to dissolve so many dualities (participant and observer, Yolngu and balanda, anthropologist and family member) while highlighting the differences between them, that it gave me a whole new appreciation of the concept of “same but different” that one hears Yolngu speak of so often. Now in this exhibition, Deger has brought her concerns and her experiments to a wider platform. In this extract from “making interventions,” her introduction to the show’s catalog, she speaks far more eloquently than I can of her business.

the productivities of back-and-forth
Jennifer Deger

interventions explores what might happen when researchers, instead of writing about their subjects, take up visual and other media as a way of relating with others. The exhibition claims the possibility of Aboriginal people working creatively with ethnographers to generate new forms and styles of cultural production. Compelled by the idea that making — and viewing — art is a critical and productive form of social engagement, interventions offers new ways of taking up, and taking seriously, Aboriginal ways of seeing the world.

Unlike so many of the projects fostered in indigenous community art centres across remote Australia, this exhibition is not aiming at the fine arts market. (Indeed, some of these projects may not be best served by being defined as ‘art’). There are other kinds of economies, other kinds of exchanges at play here. By breaching conventional separations between art practice and scholarship—not to mention between the Indigenous ‘subject’ and the non-Indigenous ‘researcher’ —interventions locates artists and ethnographers in shared fields of experimentation and cultural production. Curated in association with the Australian Anthropological Society’s annual conference, The Ethics and Politics of Engagement, the exhibition is concerned with ways of using art to engender rather than simply represent the ethnographic encounter.

Each of the works in interventions have been generated as a result of long-standing and highly personal relationships with Aboriginal people; each work reflects deep levels of respect for, and experience of, Aboriginal cultures and communities; each offers sights and insights that have arisen because of a willingness to work with people on their own terms. The photographic and mixed media installations bring together imagery from Aboriginal life worlds spanning Alice Springs, Sydney, the Central and Western Desert, the Kimberley, Arnhem Land, south-east and northern Queensland. Collectively they offer a unique perspective on what is at stake — what is on offer — in on-going struggles for Aboriginal people face to redress the imbalances, inequities and misunderstandings that distort their lives — and their relations with mainstream Australia.

At its heart this is a show about process and practice. It’s about back-and-forth dynamics as socially productive. It’s about the things that happen, the horizons that open, the ambitions that emerge — between individuals, between places, between cultures — when one does not approach social worlds, or academic disciplines, as hermetically sealed. The results — neither traditional Aboriginal art, nor traditional scholarship — affirm the potential of art to transform lives, histories, and outlooks.

The themes introduced in Deger’s essay are taken up in a grand manner by John von Sturmer in his “notes towards a performance,” which comprise the central text of the exhibition’s catalog. Impressionistic, kaleidoscopic, and yet oddly integrative, von Sturmer’s reflections range from abstract meditations on political mantras and the vacuums they mask to snippets of memories of watching traditional dances performed in the streets of Aurukun, and from his own encounters with medical bureaucracy to reflections on the task of anthropology. Von Sturmer’s contribution to the exhibition itself takes the form of a reprise of his installation and performance piece Unfinished Business (right), which took place earlier this year in Sydney’s Mori Gallery and features readings by Djon Mundine.

In addition to von Sturmer’s performance piece, the exhibition includes video/mixed media installations by Deger, Susan Marrawakamirr, and David Gurrumurruwuy Bukulatjpi, examples of the ongoing collaborations between Deger and her relations in Gapuwiyak. (Djalkiri #1 can be glimpsed on the left in the triple portrait of Mundine, von Sturmer, and Deger at the end of this essay.) Also included among the artworks on display at Macquarie are the work of two photographers who have documented Indigenous lives and portray a living art through their reflected photographic explorations. 

Michael Aird’s traditional country surrounds the Gold Coast area in Queensland, and his color and black and white portraits, collected under the rubric Equal Before the Lens, portray a broad cross-section of Indigenous people engaged in activities that encompass traditional and Christian rituals, hunting and fishing, the making of art, and the education of children. Taken together, they prove what a wonderful portmanteau concept is expressed in the Aboriginal English expression “business.” Chris Barry, working out of Alice Springs in a series entitled Encountering Culture: a dialogue, offers a series of tableaux (below) created by teenagers on the streets of the town. Barry captures the gaze of these youngsters into her camera, and allows them to self-consciously create the narratives that the photographs share with viewers.


Other contributors to the show are Jennifer Biddle and Rose Napurrurla Tasman, whose decades of work together have been documented in Biddle’s 2007 monograph breasts, bodies canvas: Central Desert art as experience (UNSW Press). Here a painting by Napurrurla presented as a gift to Biddle is complemented by digital stills and a “soundscape.” Anthony Redmond’s Nyornja–working together to find a kid in Ngarinyin country offers insights into the native bee pollen (nyornja) conception dreaming of his eldest daughter. The work elucidates concepts of inside and outside as exemplified by the beehive (sugarbag) and relates them to the wanjina, the exemplary instance of Kimberley art, spirits who “embody the tension between motionless self-possession and creative wandering.”

The notions of art as experience, as conduit, as experiment predominate in interventions. One’s thoughts are repeatedly drawn away from the artifacts on display to the actions and encounters that engendered them and to which they stand as witness. Photographs, paintings, and drawings are here as aspects of experience, not as ends in themselves. In this respect, despite their presence as artifacts in an exhibition, these artworks seem to approach more closely an Indigenous experience of art as process and action, and like the wanjina, partake of both stillness and motion, a moment that encapsulates flux.

One of the first insights in Shimmering Screens that brought me up short was Deger’s discussion of what a photograph reveals (or hides) about the relationship between the photographer and her subject. That silent dialogue is much in evidence in all the works included in interventions, and part of the show’s intent, it seems to me, is to move the dialogue out of the realms of silence and shadow. For the last two and a half years the word “intervention” has been a loaded gun in Australian political discourse. By choosing it as the title for her exhibition, Deger wants to remind us that Indigenous people intervene in the lives of whitefellas, and that given a chance, these interventions can be powerful moments of connection and creation rather than distancing and destruction.

Djon Mundine, John von Sturmer, Jennifer Deger Samantha Wunungmurra, Chris Barry

interventions will be at the Macquarie University Art Gallery through February 3, 2010. My thanks to Michael Aird for his photographs, reproduced here, of the exhibition’s opening night, and to Jennifer Deger for sharing his work, and hers, with me.

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