Over the fence

On either side of a weathered fence, two dolls face each other. Whether engaged in conversation, or play, one thing is certain, their separation. This signature photograph by Destiny Deacon displays the artist’s focus on an alternative world, or micro-drama. Here, and in other works, people in her life are substituted by inanimate dolls used to both invert the colonial gaze and recontextualise the Aboriginal figure.

Taking its title from her artwork, ‘Over the fence’, a group exhibition presented by the University of Queensland Art Museum, features the photographs of eighteen Indigenous artists drawn from the private collection of art patron and philanthropist Patrick Corrigan AM. The exhibition includes works by Vernon Ah Kee, Tony Albert, Brook Andrew, Richard Bell, Mervyn Bishop, Bindi Cole, Michael Cook, Brenda L. Croft, Nici Cumpston, Destiny Deacon, Fiona Foley, Leah King-Smith, Ricky Maynard, Tracey Moffatt, Michael Riley, Darren Siwes, Christian Thompson and James Tylor.

Contemporary Indigenous art challenges the status quo, both on aesthetic and political grounds. The compositions on show address identity, representation, racism, religious influence and the exploitation of land. Breaking with traditional media the artists underscore subjectivity, contested history and cultural perceptions. The exhibition emphasises ‘neighbouring’ issues between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and the longstanding disconnection and alienation, on either side of the fence.

With the rise of blak urban art in the 1980s, artists like Deacon, Croft and Riley broke away from expectations of the appearance and role of Aboriginal art. Their work redefined multiple aspects of identity, not just in relation to ‘blakness’ but also with respect to gender and sexuality, thereby cutting across binary divisions predicated solely on race. Arguably, the movement paved the way for the next generation of Indigenous artists like Cook, Siwes, Thompson and Tylor. The photographs in the exhibition continue to investigate these contentious issues through costume, kitsch objects and clever puns in mostly performative induced scenarios with the artist inserting themselves, either physically or metaphorically, into the pictorial frame. Like Deacon’s dolls, these actors explore identity and Aboriginality.

Adelaide-based artist Darren Siwes explores themes of philosophy, colonialism and Indigenous identity as it is today through haunting ilfochromes. Pre Sense (2003) is part of a series created in the United Kingdom and heavily influenced by the historical sites associated with the era of Britain’s colonisation of Australia.

Two figures, a woman and a man (the artist), appear in period dress signifying their assimilation into white community yet their ghostly presence suggests that by becoming someone else they are detached and alienated. The definitive light source, a streetlight, creates a soft yellow ochre-like tint, drawing the viewer’s eye towards these two ethereal figures – barely discernible, yet clearly there.

The work of Queensland-based artist Christian Thompson transcends boundaries. By using his own body as an armature, Thompson builds layers of dress and decoration in an arresting negation of the self. In Yellow Kangaroo Paw (2007) he is adorned with Australian flora as a headdress and his eyes are obscured from sight and most importantly, the viewer. Here the dark histories of Australia’s past are fixed in his glare, as he challenges the viewer to maintain eye contact and confront the issue of identity in both the past and present.

Autonomously, and in protest, the images in ‘Over the fence’ encourage the viewer to acknowledge and look beyond difference.

University of Queensland Art Museum
6 August to 30 October, 2016