The relationship between art and Indigenous identity in Australia has been formed over thousands of years, and the visual arts are still a dominant tool used by Indigenous artists to express their identity in contemporary society. Making art in a modern culture that places great credence on individualism means that artists are continually pushed to create something that is unique and conveys their personal identity. Aboriginal artists frequently create art that reflects their own cultural experiences or events, most specifically in relation to the intervention of Western society. Indigenous artists seek to create very distinctive identities in their art, giving both their culture and people a voice.
The Queensland Gallery of Modern Art’s (QAGOMA) recent exhibition, ‘My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia’, examined the identity of Indigenous Australians, presenting their views on history, politics, personal experiences and connections to land. Aiming to address ‘things that people may have thought they knew, but to look at them through a different pair of eyes’ (Madeleine, 2013), this provocative and engaging exhibition palpably sought to voice Indigenous identity in one of Australia’s most prominent art galleries. Aspects of Aboriginal history and expressions of their newfound identities have emerged strongly in contemporary Indigenous Australian art over the past thirty years, in conjunction with the wider acceptance of Indigenous artists. Ancestral traditions, paired with an explicit exploration of the place of Aborigines within Australian history, are continually expressed through the artists’ photography, sculptures, paintings and installations.
Similarly, the attitudes that are reflected in both contemporary and traditional works are a reflection of colonial encounters and past attempts to integrate Indigenous Australians into white society. Identity, as a profound notion in Aboriginal art, is not based entirely upon the mere idea of finding an individual’s place within society, but is also expressed as the voice of past and present circumstances. The exhibition ‘My Country, I Still Call Australia Home’ presented a vast range of these ‘voices’ and bound all the disparate artists in a desire to share their experiences, and tell stories that brought to light their concurrent lives (McLean, 2013). The exhibition’s curatorial approach presented these artworks as crucial parts of Australian history. Additionally, the central theme of the artists’ connection to land proved to be a leitmotif to which all viewers could relate. This celebration of a culmination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art possessed a strong ability to move its audience, creating both a deeper understanding and more empathetic view of past relations between disparate cultures.
Judy Watson is one of the leading contemporary Indigenous artists whose artwork appeared prominently in the QAGOMA exhibition. Her intense, provocative and very personal works seek to illustrate the traces of her Indigenous family, exposing issues such as identity, isolation and politics. Through her current and previous works, Judy Watson expresses her strong identity as an Indigenous woman, as well as revealing her attitudes towards the political relationship between Aborigines and White Australians. In this exhibition, her painting entitled Memory Bones (2007) is an artwork that details both personal and political cross-cultural experiences. Using the strength of her own experiences to act as the touchstone for her work, Judy Watson has created something unique, and a sophisticated and visually stimulating piece in which a viewer can become immersed.
I listen and hear those words a
hundred years away
that is my grandmother’s mother’s country
It seeps down through blood and memory
into the ground
Memory Bones was placed in the ‘My Life’ section of the exhibition and appeared primarily as a political artwork. Reflecting on the treatment of Indigenous Australians in local community jails, Judy Watson presents us with sixteen bones illustrated against the red bloodstain on the canvas, to consider an atrocious event in Aboriginal history. The artist has created Memory Bones to explore the Palm Island Riots, which occurred as a response to an Aboriginal man’s death in custody in 2004, an episode that can be identified in many other artworks in the ‘My Life’ section of the exhibition. White Australian mistreatment and miscomprehension of the Aborigines on Palm Island has been a key subject for both Watson’s and many other Indigenous artists’ works. This event resonates because it was a pinnacle of past and present conflicts between the Australian police force and Indigenous people.
Judy Watson’s Memory Bones is indeed a reflection of not only her own, but her fellow Indigenous peoples’ identity, which has been displaced in Australia. Similar to many other artworks in My Country, I Still Call Australia Home, Memory Bones serves to remind viewers of past interactions between Indigenous and White Australians. No longer intact, the bones appear on Watson’s canvas as a harsh realisation of the damaged identity of many Aborigines.
As a whole, the dynamic and enthralling exhibition, My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia helped provide insight into the intangible connection of Indigenous peoples’ relationship to land, history and identity. Judy Watson has not only contributed her art to current social discourse, but her strong opinion, knowledge and attitude, which is so vitally important to the continued development of multiculturalism in Australia today. A considered and nuanced comprehension of identity in this modern world has never been so imperative. Differentiated cultures and societies must be recognised as individual and unique in order for each to find their inimitable place in the world. Paradoxically, the ability to identify one’s self through contemporary artwork is also instrumental in helping us to understand and transcend the boundaries between cultures. In particular, Indigenous identity in Australia, through contemporary art, challenges audiences to look at history with a different perspective. It encourages us to re-consider our own lives and attitudes, consequently creating change and bringing Australians together as a whole.
Judy Watson, memory bones, 2007. Pigment on canvas, 211 x 127cm. The James C Sourris Collection, Brisbane. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane.
A considered and nuanced comprehension of identity in this modern world has never been so imperative.
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