Just Not Australian

I moved here from New Zealand five years ago, a country with its own Indigenous battles. My ancestors are from the United Kingdom and the Kingdoms of the Pacific Islands and although New Zealand will always be my heart, Australia is the place I now call home.

As I finish writing this review it is January 26th, commonly known amongst my peers and the First Nations people of Australia as Invasion or Survival Day. This day is fraught with intergenerational trauma and grief for Indigenous people whose histories have been ignored and erased. A few days ago the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, announced that there will be $6.7 million dollars going towards the construction of a replica of Captain Cook’s boat, which will then travel Australia over 14 months. My first thought when reading about this news was ‘who would this project actually be serving?’

Gordon Hookey, MURRILAND! #1 (detail), 2015–ongoing, oil on canvas, 2.1 x 10m. Photograph: Zan Wimberley. Courtesy the artist, Milani Gallery, Brisbane and Artspace, Sydney

This similar line of questioning is being explored in the group exhibition ‘Just Not Australian’ at Artspace, Sydney. A group of 19 Australian artists have been curated into a broad exploration of race, place, belonging and what it means to be ‘Australian’.

Entering the gallery I am greeted by a large Gordon Hookey (Waayani) painting titled
Murriland! #1 (2015-ongoing) along the back wall. It is an ongoing series, which tells the history of Queensland from pre-colonial to present day. The bright colouring of the painting at first seemed at odds to me with the history that was being depicted, but then darkness does come in all colours and so amongst that vibrancy and depth of colour there is sharpness, breath and danger.

In the next room, large lettering spells ‘exotic other’, a 2009 work by Tony Albert (Girramay, Yidinji and Kuku-Yalanji). The word ‘other’ is made from kitsch-wares with racist depictions of Aboriginal peoples that the artist has collected over many years. These objects have become commonplace in Australian culture, whether seen at your local op shop or on the bookshelf of your neighbour, without much thought to what they represent. The objects reinforce the continued ignorance of an Indigenous voice; they have been stripped of their authorship and instead are presented in crude caricatures, perpetuating stereotypes. Albert has reclaimed these objects and presents them to us, en masse, in order to place the accountability back on us. How can you continue to not listen when the violent history of Aboriginal Australia is deafening?

Tony Albert, exotic OTHER, 2009, installation view, Just Not Australian, Artspace, Sydney, 2019. Private collection, Sydney. Photograph: Zan Wimberley. Courtesy the artist and Artspace, Sydney

Flaming gallahs, a Southern Cross tattoo on a lifeguard’s chest and the colours green and gold are just some of the stereotypes used to denote Australia. Hoda Afshar critiques this cliché nationalistic idea of pride in her photographic series The In-Between Place (2011). One of the photographs title If you don’t love it, live it (2011) plays on the ‘love it or leave it’ adage that has become synonymous with Australian nationalism. With tongue in cheek, Afshar’s characters are sitting in a darkened car with balloons, flags and even have Australian flag tattoos on their cheeks. Dressed in traditional clothing, their expressions are blank, as if they are suspended in this moment. Caught between two worlds, they are trying to keep their traditions and culture from their homeland as well as attempting to make sense of who or what it is to be ‘Australian’.

Hoda Afshar, Dog’s Breakfast, 2011; If You Don’t Love it, Live it, 2011, installation view, Just Not Australian, Artspace, Sydney, 2019. Photoggraph: Zan Wimberley. Courtesy the artist

Vincent Namatjira (Western Arrernte people) and Ryan Presley (Marri Ngarr) both examine the predominantly western white gaze that has shaped Australian history. Namatjira’s series of ink portraits of prominent Australians range from Cathy Freeman to Julia Gillard and Eddie Mabo. Presley creates large-scale replicas of Australian banknotes but replaces the predominantly white figures with those from an Indigenous background such as Dundalli (c.1820-1855) who was an Aboriginal warrior and leader from the Dalla people in Queensland. By rightfully inserting Indigenous Australians into the timeline of history both artists cleverly dismantle the hierarchies of race and power and seek to change the dominant white narrative of history.

As I leave Artspace the wind has picked up but the air is still thick and humid. I am standing on Gadigal land, it is not my own, I was born to a different land, Aotearoa. Generations of Australians have stood in my place and many more will in the future. To stand here is to acknowledge this fact, to celebrate and embrace it. The artists in the group show Abdul Abdullah, Hoda Afshar, Tony Albert, Cigdem Aydemir, Liam Benson, Eric Bridgeman, Jon Campbell, Karla Dickens, Fiona Foley, Gordon Hookey, Richard Lewer, Archie Moore, Vincent Namatjira, Nell, Raquel Ormella, Ryan Presley, Joan Ross, Soda_Jerk and Tony Schwensen encourage us to look inwards, to question and critique our actions and the world we live in, to celebrate the differences within each of us and to have a hand in rewriting history.

Talia Smith is an artist, writer and curator originally from Auckland who is currently based in Sydney.

Until 28 April, 2019