“We defy by existing” was a resounding message from curator Tina Baum at the unveiling of ‘Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial’ at the National Gallery of Australia. It’s defiance clear from the outset, heralded by Reko Rennie’s video installation OA_RR, 2017. Taking control behind the wheel of a vividly painted vintage Rolls Royce, Rennie careens over the landscape, turning burnouts in the red dust, leaving clouds to settle. The video sets a tone that simmers beneath the work of the triennial’s 30 artists across a diverse array of media; an electricity, a tension and assertiveness.
Throughout there is a directness of intent and boldness of scale – with works of great size, skill and structural complexity. Pieces by master weaver Yvonne Koolmatrie, shell necklaces by Lola Greeno and the commanding Eastern Island Warrior headdress (2014) by Ken Thaiday Snr are immediate examples of cultural practice in deft contemporary motion.
Early on the show begins to examine the strength in reclamation – or a RE FORMATION, in keeping with the title of Megan Cope’s eloquent installation – forming new narratives and readings of history and the present. Recent works by Jonathan Jones, Brook Andrew and Tony Albert are arresting with alternate interpretations of historic imagery and ephemera. Others, including Raymond Zada, scrutinise, disrupt and interrupt matters of race and identity in the digital age and era of image saturation. As outlined in the accompanying wall text, “By resisting rigid notions of what Indigenous art is, refusing populist views of history and challenging stereotypes, artists continue to use their art as visual tools of resistance, replacing physical weaponry with wit, satire and juxtaposition to challenge and confront.”
Archie Moore’s interpretations of flags of political symbolism, such as Aboriginal Anarchy (2012) galvanise all around them in a collective call to arms. Another suggestion of uprising comes from the use of found materials, as if building from the materiality or detritus of ‘empire’ itself. Karla Dickens reimagines the Australian flag in Taking back the Stars (2016), projecting resilience and a sense of ‘mend and make do’. She writes in her artist statement, “To protest as an individual, art is my voice—yet walking and standing alongside others smooths the powerlessness.”
In the final spaces the mood becomes more sombre, around the theme ‘bearing witness’. The works, while still predominantly large in scale, become quieter, more meditative and touch on the museological. Through mapping, Judy Watson looks at the names of places (2016), how history is or isn’t recorded in archives and accounts. Daniel Boyd’s large-scale painting Untitled (DOC) (2016) is an opportunity for comprehending the gaps in what is known. Laid out as a focal point are the almost funereal dresses of Black days in the Dawson River Country – Remembrance Gowns (2016) by Dale Harding. These garments provide a constant, unsettling presence.
Coinciding with the 50-year anniversary of the 1967 referendum, ‘Defying Empire’ is less celebration as it is a poignant and harsh reminder of wrongdoing and the appallingly little that has been done since. To enter ‘Defying Empire’ with this awareness threads all works with an urgency and gravity that can’t be denied. For this moment in time, the purpose of art is irrefutable, as is the purpose of a National Gallery.
It is exciting to see the whole foyer space of the gallery’s major wing utilised for the presentation. In fact the National Indigenous Art Triennial works spill out into the institution more widely: Rennie’s Rolls Royce, the very same seen in his video, stands guard at the main entrance. Yhonnie Scarce’s astounding glass installation Thunder Raining Poison (2015) oversees entry to the permanent collection. Laudably, entry to ‘Defying Empire’ is free and the absence of an accompanying shop, into which visitors are usually corralled upon exiting major shows, enables the viewer to take the full force of what they have seen with them, keeping the art fresh in the mind and heart, rather than diluted by commercial capitalisation. Fittingly, one of the final works is Fiona Foley’s large, sweeping wall and floor sculpture I.O.U. (2016). The sentiment is apt and cutting.
‘Defying Empire’ is fierce, uncompromising and impactful. The triennial is essential viewing, and a rich space in which to listen and learn.
Yolande Norris is a writer and producer working between Canberra and the regional town of Braidwood, New South Wales.
National Gallery of Australia
Until 10 September, 2017
Australian Capital Territory