A pair of new exhibitions opened this past week at the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum. One extends established queries about the nature of objects stored in museums and their relationships to the people they purport to represent. The other makes the museum the site of Indigenous agency and poses an entirely new set of questions about how technology, broadly defined in the museum context, creates avenues for renovating strategies of communication.
The first exhibition, written on the body, continues Waanyi artist Judy Watson’s interrogation of museum collections of artifacts associated with Australia’s Indigenous people. (See, for example, the glass work museum piece that adorns the Musée du quay Branly in Paris.) In the UQ exhibition the focus falls most directly on the marks that exist on or along with these objects and that serve to identify them according to different schemata. In the most obvious instance, these marks are museum labels, sometimes attached with string or glue, sometimes written directly on the object, in both cases defacing its original construction and adding a new layer of meaning to the semantics encoded in the thing itself.
In a Saussurian sense, these labels also point elsewhere, to a history, a location, a person who at one time or another who created the object, or removed it from its original place of use or deposit, or transformed it by placing it in a new context (specifically that of the museum). Some of these objects would be considered “classical” ethnographic data—pendants, shields, weapons, or decorations—but in this exhibition they have been arrayed alongside the detritus of a modern civilization: a collection of kitchen utensils that are as utilitarian, but in a different context, as the “museum pieces.” For Watson, whose Indigenous heritage spans both contact and pre-contact societies, both have resonance in a personal history that is also a larger cultural history. And both raise troubling questions about the interaction of cultures and the ways in which one culture seeks, through the appropriation of naming, to dominate another.
The second exhibition, Gapuwiyak Calling, is something quite new in many ways, even though it builds on the video work that co-curator Jennifer Deger has been exploring with Yolngu from the remote community of Gapuwiyak since the 1990s, when she collaborated with Bangana Wunungmurra on the film Gularri: that brings unity. More recently Deger and Paul Gurrumuruwuy, under the auspices of their Miyarrka Media project, produced Christmas Birrimbirr, which records the meeting of Yolngu and Christian traditions in the celebration of the build-up of tropical storm clouds just prior to the feast of Christmas.
This show opens new ground, as Deger explains it in her brief catalog essay,
In 2008 the introduction of Telstra’s 3G mobile network generated a wave of creative energy across the bush communities of Arnhem Land in Australia’s tropical north. New genres of video, photography and performance flourished. Travelling at lightning- speed via satellite and Bluetooth, this digital culture rode the energy of the new and the cheeky. Moving hand-to-hand, kin-to-kin, community-to-community, it drew inspiration from both the Internet and the ancestral. It was made to be watched, to be shared, and then deleted to make way for the next.
So began a new era in Australian Indigenous media, a period of intensified communication, connection and creativity in which Yolngu exploited the potential of phones as multimedia tools—and, in so doing, claimed a place for themselves in the digital world.
The results are startling. In a twenty-two minute film, Ringtone, that plays on a continuous loop at the UQ installation, a number of Yolngu men and women pull a ringing cell phone from a pocket and then explain the significance of the chosen ringtone—a clan song recorded during bungul, the call of a green frog that is associated with family—to the viewer. Some of the participants, including Gurrumuruwuy, comment further on the meaning of cell phones to the community, or reactions to the introduction of this new technology to the Yolngu of Gapuwiyak.
The possibilities afforded by the image and video capture features of cell phones have been thoroughly exploited, in typical Yolngu fashion, to extend and reinforce clan networks, to capture significant milestones in their lives, traditional dhapi (circumcision) ceremonies and secondary school graduations. They remind Yolngu of distant loved ones, and serve as vehicles for self-promotion and humorous grandstanding through performance that mixes bungul and hip-hop moves.
But not all of these effects are positive, as captured in this still from the film.
In her essay, Deger notes that, while these phone technologies allow the sharing of images among a more restricted social network than the broader world of the global internet, they have given rise to some of the same social problems—bullying, gossip, misinformation—that Western cultures are grappling with. But part of the very reason for creating the works that are showcased in Gapuwiyak Calling is the desire of Yolngu to demonstrate the exact opposite: how these technologies can be used to shore up the traditional social networks and “to support and even strengthen rom” while forging new connections within Yolngu spheres and reaching out to the wider world.
And herein lies the particular fascination for me of the concurrent displays of written on the body and Gapuwiyak Calling at the UQ Anthropology Museum. The objects in written on the body evoke, in Judy Watson’s words,
collectors plotting the classification of the object, describing its function, its history, carefully adding the number that ties it into the collection. By writing onto the object, the collector asserts their ownership and authority, stamping it onto the cultural item.
This can be read as a form of colonization, sterilization and desecration. The tattooing of numbers and scarification of labels onto objects in some way takes away from their natural beauty and form. It diminishes them to be curiosities within a museum.
The museum becomes the record of suppression, the objects the evidence of subjugation.
In Gapuwiyak Calling, Yolngu have seized history and pre-empted the colonization of their culture, writing, as it were, within the context of the museum itself. To quote Deger again,
And so began an experiment in activating a Yolngu poetics of connection in an anthropology museum gallery; a project that, if it were to succeed, needed to do more than simply catalogue and classify Yolngu new media as contemporary cultural artefacts. Throughout the design, the media selection, the arrangement and production of wall and touchscreen texts, the challenge has been to find ways to present this phone-media in a suitably performative way, in keeping with the subject matter as well as Yolngu social and aesthetic values. For us, the art of curation lay in finding ways to re-mediate the photographs and films so as to give them new life and meaning appropriate to the broader, and yet still site specific, intercultural context of the University of Queensland Anthropology Museum.
Or as Gurrumuruwuy simply puts it,
We decided to name our exhibition Gapuwiyak Calling because we’re calling you through our phones, calling so you can connect to us.
We’re grabbing hold of new possibilities using these little things.
Maybe you’ll answer us.
My thanks to UQ Anthropology Museum Direcotr and co-curator (of written on the body) Diana Young for supplying me with the exhibition catalogs and the wonderful installation photographs, which were shot by Carl Warner. Below are some views of written on the body.