Robert Andrew: Our mutable histories

Robert Andrew’s oeuvre is grounded in the celebration of family and history and the exploration of the emotional and phenomenological return to country. A determination to ‘unearth what lies beneath’, to reveal and re-present histories is the impetus behind his practice, providing a new narrative to a past previously denied and hidden. “I found my artworks as a way for me to reconfigure the truths and myths, and to slowly build an image that I feel gives a more honest look into Australian colonising history”, says Andrew who descends from the Yawuru people of the Broome area in the Kimberley, Western Australia; “This exploration gives me deeper insights into how my family have navigated through these times.”

Robert Andrew, Our mutable histories, 2017 at the Museum of Brisbane. Photograph: Carl Warner. Courtesy the artist and Museum of Brisbane, Queensland

‘Our mutable histories’ at the Museum of Brisbane, gives voice and form to the disconnection between Anglo-European and Australian Indigenous history, and the complexity of belonging to two cultures. Taking on the role of mediator Andrew navigates these dualistic binaries through the liminal space of his installations. Through contrasting materials of raw ochres, natural oxides, chalk and water alongside contemporary technologies with electromechanical components, Andrew creates and reveals a new, original landscape known as the ‘third space’ where two worlds can co-exist. “This place is not one nor the other, however it is not disconnected from either”, says the artist. Although raised in a largely ‘white middle-class’ setting, Andrew has chosen to engage with the piece of his heritage that, in his own words, “has been misunderstood, displaced and disconnected through time and location from myself and other family members.”

Robert Andrew at work

“For me this commitment to engage with the ‘unknown’ family culture meant there needed to be changes in where I was positioned, culturally, socially and politically”, says Andrew. “This process wasn’t planned or initiated willfully, it is something that is evolving with time. This to me is this ‘third space’ where I get to confront the forgotten and denied, rearrange my initial cultural hierarchies and make in my art practice to reflect my progress”. Here, one can “take the best of intersecting places, or be challenged to see the uncomfortable truths and try to situate them to then be seen outside this area. Hopefully my artworks communicate this coming together of my Indigenous and non-indigenous heritages. To show a changing landscape where both positions describe the whole and possibly add to the constantly moving Australia histories.”

Robert Andrew, White wash over the burn, 2017, aluminium, stabilised charred timber ochres and chalk, 310 x 800cm. Photograph: Carl Warner. Courtesy the artist and Museum of Brisbane, Queensland

Newly commissioned work, White wash over the burn (2017) consists of 21 short-length boards mounted vertically, side by side, extending eight-metres across the gallery wall. Salvaged from the artist’s current Brisbane residence, an old workers cottage dating back to 1865, there is a strong belief that this timber would have been cut from trees that were standing before colonisation. The wooden panels have been deeply burnt to create a thick charred surface, overlaid with oxides and ochres, and applied with a final whitewash of chalk to now resemble “a picket off a suburban fence”. The process of burning into the surface references how until recently, this action was used as a way of trying to erase, cover up and deny atrocities committed on Indigenous people. The finished surface has been progressively carved into with text taken from official government documents dating from 1900-1950 that contain correspondence between the artist’s great-grandmother, grandmother and A.O. Neville, the ‘Chief Protector of Aborigines’, in regards to numerous citizenship applications, rejections and denials. Andrew views the English written word as a colonising tactic, utilised in attempting to force and maintain cultural homogenisation upon an appropriated people. By carving deep into the timber Andrew exposes historical truths that have since been silenced or ignored.

Robert Andrew, Ground Up, 2017, aluminum, electromechanical components and computer controlled, 230 x 500cm. Photograph: Carl Warner. Courtesy the artist and Museum of Brisbane, Queensland

History is a mutable and reconfigurable force. It is documented, erased, re-written and scraped back revealing rich cross-sections of layered lives and narratives. This palimpsest process has been a strong component in Andrew’s practice. Ground Up (2017) is a kinetic wall and floor installation; a computer controlled electromechanical work that uses water to slowly erode a substrate built up on five large panels. Over the course of the exhibition, the Yawuru word Buru (meaning country, ground, earth, sand, time, and space) will appear beneath the layers of ochre, oxides and white chalk. These elements then bleed down the surface leaving their own marks as they meander down to the floor; the residue forming a new landscape.

Robert Andrew, Data Stratification, 2017, aluminum, electromechanical components and computer controlled, string, sticks, rocks, stone and pearl shell, 260 x 600cm. Photograph: Carl Warner. Courtesy the artist and Museum of Brisbane, Queensland

Andrew uses modern machinery to automate concepts of colonisation, subverting these technologies to make them his own within the matrix of urban Aboriginality, in turn creating a communicably visceral experience for the viewer. “I see a lot of Indigenous artists bringing their individual stories forward, these then become very important accounts that form a part of the larger moving image of Australian history”, says Andrew. “Hopefully these visual stories give people an ‘in’ on a personal level, and if not directly relatable then they may give a small seed of thought that goes on to slightly shift their ways of seeing.”

Museum of Brisbane
Until 16 July, 2017
Queensland