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Among the galleries scattered throughout Darwin that participate in the city’s annual Arts Festival, the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art (NCCA) has made a deliberate break from the spectacle of the Indigenous art market in order to highlight some harder truths regarding cultural exchange in Australia. Bungaree’s Farm, a set of videos curated by Djon Mundine OAM, and The Most Stolen Race On Earth, a series of mixed-media installation works by Sydney-based artists Blak Douglas and Adam Geczy, lay bare the inherent imbalance of cultural exchange between white imperialists and First Nations peoples. The exhibitions achieve this through a split focus: Mundine examining the internalised conflict of Indigenous peoples in their efforts to remain true to their culture while staying alive in white Australia, and Douglas and Geczy revealing the brutality of the external apparatus which ensures this negotiation remains a continuous life or death situation for Indigenous people. This exhibition is required viewing amid the buzz of the Darwin Festival, an event that does not benefit in the slightest from reminders that Indigenous artists must always forfeit something of themselves that their white counterparts do not. The festival benefits even less from reminders that such compromises made by Indigenous artists form the tip of the iceberg of the underlying issue. This makes Mundine’s, Douglas’s and Geczy’s contribution all the more crucial.
Bungaree’s Farm poetically explores the complexity of the inescapable internalised conundrum facing Indigenous people: to assimilate and sell out or to resist white hegemony until it becomes the death of you. Mundine collaborated with fifteen Indigenous Sydney-based artists (including Blak Douglas) who submitted short video works in response to the historical figure of Bungaree. At the start of the nineteenth century, Bungaree was the much loved ‘clown’ representative of the Indigenous people from what is now Broken Bay in Sydney. He welcomed and entertained the colonisers and guided a number of significant expeditions of the time, most notably the circumnavigation of Australia with Matthew Flinders. Providing such services to white colonisers was not received well by Bungaree’s own people, nor by many Indigenous Australians at large. However, Mundine finds the contradiction at the heart of Bungaree’s position poignant and directly comparable to the situation of many Indigenous ‘representatives’ now. By collaging selected artists’ impressions of Bungaree, footage of the Mossman district where he lived and worked, songs dedicated to his legacy, re-enactments of his life and contemporary imaginings of his motivations, Bungaree’s Farm poses white Australians with a question: how would you react if you were caught in a position between cultural and physical death?
Douglas and Geczy’s The Most Stolen Race On Earth aims to relay just how high the stakes are for Indigenous Australia within this negotiation, unmasking the brutality embedded within the project of assimilation, wherein the white Australian nation state allows no alternatives. This situation has provoked an enraged response from Douglas and Geczy. Some of the installations manifest as poignant, simple and confrontational messages speaking to this rage. Hung Ten, an installation of pairs of thongs printed with the Aboriginal flag and suspended through the soles by large, sharp fish hooks leaves no room for conceptual ambiguity. Likewise, the installation of black, red and yellow nooses titled Trophy Room testifies to the same simple and terrible truth of the disposableness of Indigenous bodies and culture. Although the artists’ anger is entirely righteous, its power meant the message became inconsistent in parts. The installation of children’s clothing (Hand Me Away), as well as a photographic series of Roman statues, titled Dead White Males, failed to sustain the argument with the same lucidity and momentum of the stronger installations.
Mundine and Geczy participated in an artist conversation where Geczy spoke of the lingering impact the successful political art work should have; how it should be capable of installing an unmistakable sense within the viewer that the issue at hand is more substantial, even more complex than they previously anticipated. Mundine’s experience at bundling historical information and contemporary parallels, through a creative criticality that has become his signature, ensured viewers walked away with this exact impact. Each collaborating artist featured in Bungaree’s Farm uses the character of Bungaree as a vessel through which they expose stereotypes of Aboriginality which have trapped Indigenous people within the white imaginary since invasion. The effectiveness to which these artists clown the stereotypes imposed on them, in all their dehumanising aspects, affirms Bungaree’s contemporary resonance within the wider and insidious project of assimilation. The ironic horror this performance imparts leaves us with another question, bigger than Bungaree as a character: nowadays, the chances of your head being severed and presented in a jar to the ‘Motherland’ are remote for Indigenous people. But how much respect has white Australia truly mustered for First Nations people when in 2016 the most noteworthy advancement involved replacing this jar with a spit hood?
Blak Douglas & Adam Geczy, Trophy Room (detail), 2016. Suspended nooses made from synthetic rope. Installation view, NCCA with Dead White Males visible in the background. Image courtesy the artists. Photograph Fiona Morrison.
Blak Douglas & Adam Geczy, Dead White Males. 48 inkjet prints on rag paper. Image courtesy the artists. Photograph Fiona Morrison.
Bungaree’s Farm, 2016. Curator, Djon Mundine. Detail, installation view, NCCA.
Blak Douglas & Adam Geczy, The Most Stolen Race On Earth, installation view (detail), NCCA, July-August 2016; (left): Monkey Suit, centre: Unfair Game, background: Hand Me Away; Photograph Fiona Morrison.
Bungaree’s Farm included work by Daniel Boyd, Karla Dickens, (BLAK) Douglas, Leah Flanagan, Amala Groom, Warwick Keen, Peter McKenzie, Djon Mundine, Caroline Oakley, Bjorn Stewart, Leanne Tobin, Jason Wing, Chantelle Woods, Sandy Woods.