Jason Wing has said that a common thread in his practice is ‘the everyday battle that Aboriginal people fight living in this colonial institutional framework.’ We spoke to Wing as he launched his first solo exhibition with Artereal Gallery which comprises works from his ongoing ‘Captain James Cook’ body of work as well as new and existing pieces from the ‘Battleground’ series of shields. Wing is also currently exhibiting with National Australian Maritime Museum and the National Museum of Australia, and his work ‘Captain James Crook’ is included in a new hang of the permanent collection at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In July, the artist will be included in ‘8 days in Kamay’ at the State Library of New South Wales. He is creating a major public artwork along the Parramatta River titled ‘Fire sticks’ comprised of 8 Dharug/Darug Nawi (canoes) in steel, and nearby he will paint a mural more than 100 metres long on the M5 motorway.
How do you come to (and then master) your unique mediums? Can you tell us a bit about this aspect of your creative process?
I always think of myself as a student of life and art. My creative process is different every time; however, I often start by writing down my intention, what medium is the best visual solution at the time, and what is the best approach to deliver the visual solution. Then I research, sketch and refine, refine, refine. I strive for simple complexity.
Unlike some desires to erase the memory and image of Captain Cook your work prompts us to see his actions as criminal armed robbery. What has the journey been like, both personally and with your audience, with this subversive concept and image?
I have no issue with Cook personally or his achievements. Cook personifies Colonisation’s ongoing oppression targeting Aboriginal people. I can understand the desire to remove/update colonial statues of oppressors and people largely responsible for the attempted genocide of Aboriginal people such as Governor Macquarie.
Macquarie designed and rolled out the Australian assimilation policy, forced removal, kidnapping, martial law, high incarceration rates, attempted genocide, domestic/non-domestic slavery of Aboriginal people and more. It is inconceivable that this is acceptably perpetuated and celebrated. However, my personal position is a desire to see us update and build. My solution to Colonial place-making is to action a 1:1 ratio of Colonial and Aboriginal statues, place-making, naming and more. For example, for every statue of Cook, there should be a statue of Pemulwuy or another Indigenous leader.
In 2012, as a result of my artwork, Australia was stolen by Armed robbery, winning the Parliament of NSW Aboriginal Art Prize, I was targeted by anonymous and non-anonymous internet trolls, targeted by mainstream media’s prominent shock jocks, and faced a potential civil suit for defaming Captain Cook’s “good” name. I received potential death threats and psychological abuse, personal legal costs and more. Despite these personal consequences, I would do it again, and I will not stop telling and retelling the truth. I challenge the dominant colonial narrative negating the truth of ongoing oppression of Aboriginal people on all systematic levels.
How did you stay creative during lockdown and has it altered your work in any way?
Artists are used to not being supported by our government, social, politically, culturally and financially. Historically our government considers art to be an unnecessary luxury item and it is always the first sector to be defunded. I feel that it has therefore been business as usual for artists and arts workers. Artists are the ultimate sole trader entrepreneurs and financial survivors against all ongoing systemic corporate hurdles.
My practice did evolve to more handmade works on available materials – specifically pens and paper. I focused on sketching in my art diary, virtual reality projects and handmade artist books. I had no issue being creative, and it was a great shift to returning back to the basics of drawing and creating handmade objects.
Your series ‘Battleground’ could keep going indefinitely, what progress have you made with it over time and what do you see its future as?
An ongoing series of artworks allows for critical reflection and the opportunity to rework new perspectives and ideas in a different time, place and space. The challenge is how to continuously reinvent under strict constraints without watering down the conceptual rigour of the work, with the aim being that each new iteration of the work and addition to the series is an elevation of the concept. I am thrilled with this second iteration of the ‘Battleground’ series (the first having been shown at the 2017 National Indigenous Triennial at the NGA). Personally, I feel it has a new poignancy and power due to the fact that the timing of the exhibition coincided with the recent Black Lives Matter protests and the 250th Anniversary of the Gweagal Shield.
These new works argue that there is a link between Captain Cook (the highest-ranking officer on the dingy) and the first bullet fired by Colonial settlers. Before they even set foot on land to shake our hand, our welcome to country was a bullet, allegedly fired by Cook. This violent, and likely lethal welcome to country, ripples and echoes to our present day and little has changed in terms of the initial sentiment and intentions of the invading conquers.
The new iteration of my shields have a musket/bullet hole almost perfectly centred within them, as a direct reference to the Gweagal shield. I have also incorporated ‘placard like’ text onto these shields, including on one the words ‘COVID 17–70’ which speaks to the biological germ warfare used as a military genocidal tactic in colonised/invaded countries such as Australia, Africa and India. Other text on the shields include ‘ALWAYS WAS NEVER WILL BE’, ‘CIVILLIES’, ‘ABOUT FACE’ and ‘NOBLE SAVAGE’.
Why is it important to address the parts of history/culture we should cherish and those that are shameful?
Aboriginal culture is the oldest living continuous culture in the world, having existed for over 100,000 years. We are arguably the most important culture in the world, yet we are also arguably the most oppressed people in the world.
This state and government-sanctioned systemic oppression is celebrated by our current and past governments from 1770-2020. Historically and currently, our Government has actively designed official government policies promoting the attempted genocide of our people. Past, present and future. Still to this day they are largely unaccountable with recent statements by our current Prime Minister stating/implying that there was “no history of slavery of Aboriginal people”. This infallible denial of western fact speaks to an ignorant, uneducated, so-called leader lying to the public’s face with no accountability and completely protected. There is no amount of “politically correct” backtracking or spin doctoring to resolve this belligerent, unremorseful denial, which gives permission for others to follow his racist, untrue, inaccurate fake news. We deserve better leadership and more respect for what should be the most respected culture in the world.
Look at how the rest of the world protects their national treasure, such as the pyramids, which have existed for a mere fraction of the age of the Aboriginal culture. How does our government protect our irreplaceable national treasures? Rio Tinto explodes a 46,000-year-old sacred site on National Sorry Day, 2020. They said “sorry” “not sorry” and then received approval for more sacred sites to be destroyed. This has been happening every day since 1770. It is important for all individuals to speak up about injustice; otherwise, we are complicit accomplices. Injustice will only prevail if we allow it to.
What do you see as the role of art and, if you want can you speak about this in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement?
Art has always been a vehicle for social justice.
Aboriginal people are less than 3% of the Australian population – we used to be 100%. We will never be the majority, so we do need to partner with other solidarity movements on an international scale to build allies and to highlight our own experiences of ongoing injustice.
The reality is that if the so-called ‘minority’ groups of the world unite, then we would actually be the majority. Laws, military force and systemic oppression are what keeps this majority in the role of a minority. The internet is a great tool to equalise, mobilise, inform policy, educate, archive, broadcast and more. This social media tool can force mainstream media to be accountable for injustice or at the very least present an alternative to the Western colonial mainstream media propaganda of fake news, fake histories and fake truths. It is critical to unite in solidarity of all minority groups, but we as Australians have the ultimate personal responsibility to empower the most significant culture in the world. People who benefit from the oppression of Aboriginal people have a responsibility to equal the balance.
Making art is a way for me to have my voice heard.
12 June to 11 July 2020