Queen’s Land: Blak Portraiture

‘Queen’s Land: Blak Portraiture’ is a new visual survey of Indigenous portraiture emerging from the state of Queensland over the past 150 years. Conceived at the Cairns Art Gallery, it features the work of well-known artists such as Destiny Deacon, Danie Mellor, Vernon Ah-Kee, Tony Albert, Fiona Foley, Ryan Presley, Tracey Moffatt and Michael Riley. Lesser-known images represent political and social perspectives of early colonial and anthropological photography, along with Indigenous family photographs and activist social documents.

The prodigious exhibition is co-presented by the gallery with Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, led by Gallery Director Andrea May Churcher, Senior Curator Julietta Park, Consultant Curator Djon Mundine OAM, Art Fair Artistic Director Janina Harding and Michael Aird, Research Fellow, School of Social Science, University of Queensland. With a team working across several key institutions the show casts a wide net over Australia’s visual archives, particularly drawing from Cairns Art Gallery’s own collection.

Danie Mellor, A gaze still dark (a black portrait of intimacy), 2019, wax pastel, wash with oil pigment, watercolour and pencil on paper, 178 x 117.5cm. Photograph: Mim Stirling. Courtesy the artist, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne and Cairns Art Gallery, Queensland

Situated at the beginning of Australia’s tropic zone, the exhibition takes its time to represent the voices of Torres Strait Islands and Cape York Peninsula people as well as southern Queensland. I spoke with curator Djon Mundine OAM about this ambitious project that ties the traditions of pre-invasion Indigenous portraiture to the present.

This show explores how blak identity in the late 19th century through to present day Queensland is visually defined and interpreted through portraiture. What was the curatorial intention behind focusing on portraiture as the means to explore identity issues?

Portraiture is, in many ways, the act of making memory. For remembering someone, or for saying ‘I was here’. All along the east coast of Queensland, there are handprints and hand-stencils, which are portraits. In a ceremony, where you might paint your face, you paint your face in your maker’s image, similar to the Catholic sense of an image of God. If you broaden this meaning to the Creative Spirit that made you – your totem, you’re made in the image of that thing. In ceremony, you paint your body with a pattern and you perform a motion, a dance, a choreography to say ‘I am that person’. So there’s the part of it that is your image – the design or the pattern that you paint on your body is a portrait of you, in the same western way a photograph might be.

The other place you see your portrait is in your name. Your name is often related to your totem. You chant it, dance it and sing it.

Christian Thompson, Untitled #7 from the ‘King Bill’y series 2010, C-type print, 100 x 100cm. Private collector, Melbourne. Courtesy the artist and Cairns Art Gallery, Queensland

In the exhibition, we bought a number of poems and song, such as ‘Uncle Willy’, the Joe Geia song about Uncle Willy Thaiday. He was one of a group of people that went on strike on Palm Island and were forced off the island under gunpoint. Them and their family were taken away to another reserve. There’s also a poem by Oodgeroo Noonuccal ‘Son of Mine’, whose subtext is for Denis Walker. So that’s following in the tradition that people would sing about your totem, your name. To venerate and memorialise it, and to sing about your character.

They’re very potent songs and these are portraits of people: lyrical poetry portraits of people. And that’s where Vernon Ah Kee and the people of this generation come in and what they mean when they say: ‘We also self define’ now, ‘we want to create our own image’ or ‘we will define our own image’. That brings us up to the current generation.

The general way when we talk about histories of Indigenous representation on this continent is to talk about anthropological photography as if we Aboriginal people had little agency, and as if that period is suddenly followed by the moment of self-representation: when people are holding and looking back at the camera to finally express their agency. But that narrative might ignore the other kinds of representations you mention here that have always been happening.

What we have also got is people who are represented through generations. Like Oodgeroo Noonuccal and her son, there are many other lineages of mothers and daughters and parents and siblings.

If you’re talking about the character of someone in a portrait, there is also a history of that person, their family, and the shared histories of being politically active and standing up for their rights. There are generations of people saying ‘we refuse to be disempowered or controlled by others, we want to stand up and say what we need. We are not animals, we are self-defining human beings.

‘Queen’s Land: Blak Portraiture’ looks to rare photographs and footage from personal collections that reflect creative and activist familial lineage. In another trajectory of the exhibition, archival photography and commercial kitsch portrait images reflect the Western fascination with representing Indigenous people in racialised terms. Anthropological photographs seek to classify us into anatomical racial categories, while commercial imagery frames as ‘erotics exotics’ and cultural curiosities.

Looking to the faces of people living and working with early legislation like the monumental Aboriginal Protection and Restrictions of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 and in later periods of self-determination, the portraits in this exhibition explore the power and influence of Queensland’s First Nations people on this continent, who make up over a third of Australia’s Indigenous voice.

‘Queen’s Land: Blak Portraiture’ also asserts the power of the image, which continues to mediate the truths and new understandings of Australia’s settler-colonial history.

Neika Lehman is a Trawlwoolway writer, artist and educator based in Narrm/Melbourne.

Cairns Art Gallery
Until 11 August, 2019
Queensland