Western notions of journeys are usually perceived as unidirectional and linear, moving from one fixed point to another. These journeys have too-oft been piloted and careened by colonial-settler voices. ‘The Commute’ at the Institute of Modern Art brings the work of eight artists located around the Great Ocean, also known as the Pacific Rim, to reveal that movement is in fact, multidirectional, transnational, and heterogenous. Through their diverse contemporary Indigenous experiences, the exhibition led by visiting curators Freja Carmichael (Quandamooka), Sarah Biscarra Dilley (yak tityu tityu yak tiłhini Northern Chumash, Chicana), Léuli Eshrāghi (Sāmoa, Irānzamin, Guangdong), Tarah Hogue (Métis, Dutch) and Lana Lopesi (Sāmoa), decentres colonial modes of perception of geography, spatiality, and temporality and reconfigures Western paradigms of museology.
‘The Commute’ celebrates the shared resistance, agency, innovation and creativity of the artists, seen in T’uy’tanat Cease Wyss’ Sacred Teaching series (2018) which includes an apothecary of salves and tinctures made from plant medicines gathered in Kānaka Maoli, Coast Salish and the Greater Brisbane Aboriginal territories, highlighting the connections between these disparate landscapes. Wyss’ use of the olfactory in her ethnobotany disputes understanding of art as material, tangible object. Carol McGregor’s possum-skins of Skin Country (2018) and Bracken Hanuse Corlett’s Qvu’tix (2018) (the W’uik’ala word for ‘dance blanket’) also draw upon living traditions and embodied skills. On the other side of Corlett’s Qvu’tix is an animation which envisages the blanket when adorned, signalling a cultural ‘activation.’
The conflation of past, present and future is exemplified in the embodiments of Indigenous futurisms and Afrofuturisms in the works by Ahilapalapa Rands and Hannah Bronte respectively. In her animation Lift Off (2018) Rands speculates on the future of Mauna Kea, Hawai’i. In the work, telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea lift off from the ground depicting worlds and futures where Indigenous peoples have sovereignty over their lands. Bronte also portrays an alternate universe that is untouched by colonisation. Inspired by the women around her, Bronte’s FUTCHA ANCIENT (2018) depicts First Nations women, complementing Lisa Hilli’s installation Sisterhood Lifeline (2018) which also celebrates the community and mutual support of bla(c)k women.
This intervention disrupts the rarified ‘White Cube’ which compromises the phenomenology of the art experience and the ontology of Indigenous art itself. ‘White Cube’ gallery spaces are yet to be radically and sustainably decolonised. They remain bastions of colonial presence with an art market that is infatuated with signifiers of identity and difference, viscerally exemplified by Natalie Ball and Chantal Fraser’s works.
In particular, Fraser’s work, The Way (2018) investigates the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm on unceded Cahuilla land. For Fraser, the wind turbine is a symbol of the exploitation of Indigenous land. Fraser has installed a working human-scale wind turbine that is covered in rhinestones that stands out of context in the gallery space, referencing the tokenism and spectacle that Indigenous art is subject to. The only way the turbine can be powered is through wind-force from the audience, referencing the one-sided transaction of labour and effort from Indigenous practitioners due to the expectation from the art world for Indigenous artists and artworkers to impart Indigenous knowledge and insight.
I encourage you to visit and engage with this thoughtful exhibition. While I am not myself Indigenous, these artists are – and their work speaks for itself.
Soo-Min Shim is an emerging arts writer based on stolen Gadigal land/Sydney.
Institute of Modern Art
Until 22 December, 2018