Sorry, Didn't See You There

There was always one particular question on multiple choice exam papers that used to irk me far more than any other. Was it a complex abstract reasoning question? Perhaps one which offered the baffled student four seemingly identical answers? No, this question preceded even question one: ‘Are you of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent?’

If a student colours in the ‘yes’ bubble as their answer, they often gain extra credit. I struggled to understand why this categorising question is necessary on our papers. Do people believe that those of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent are incapable of achieving to the same standard as others? Or does this question simply act as compensation from a guilty government, knowing that their own ancestors’ malicious and egotistical actions may have left many of these individuals in a hopeless state, without adequate education? If we are unsure of the capabilities of Indigenous Australians, how do we make sense of the success and impact of contemporary Indigenous artists?

I had a chance to think about these questions as I followed the curator of the Gallery of Modern Art, Bruce McLean, around the exhibition, ‘My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia’, mouth agape. I was abruptly confronted with three simple, yet gripping words: ‘I forgive you’. What I saw was Bindi Cole’s exquisite emu-feather covered artwork of the same name (2012). I knew immediately that this was an answer to Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Indigenous in 2008, emphasised by the use of emu feathers, which to the aboriginal people are deeply meaningful. Emu feathers glued by blood to the feet were used by aboriginal people to walk without leaving traces. The artwork is suggestive of forgiveness extended, without leaving traces. Next to this work was a small screen on which a number of Indigenous individuals uttered that solitary phrase in soft tones—‘I forgive you’. The impression was one of absolute, unconditional and all embracing forgiveness, which can but hit the viewer like an earthquake. Cole has expressed the sentiments that it is through art that she has got healing for the hurt she saw and experienced as an Indigenous person, her grandmother being a member of the stolen generation.

On the opposite side of the wall, we are met by another, more multifarious artwork that deals with the same event: Tony Albert’s Sorry (2008), which is composed of the word ‘sorry’ spelt backwards in large vinyl letters, with each letter covered in kitsch objects. Australia’s 2008 apology was an immensely emotional time for Indigenous people, who until that point had, for decades, been neglected and disregarded in their own land. Through this artwork, young Townsville-born Indigenous artist Tony Albert is conveying the magnitude of this emotion (qagoma.qld.gov.au, 2013). Kitsch objects are those that are usually deemed tacky because of extreme sentimentality, but they also can provide an audience with a familiar point of reference. They are immediately recognisable, unlike most forms of art, which question the viewer, and even ask for their interpretations. The Kitsch objects used in Tony Albert’s Sorry are from his personal collection, including small signs and pictures of stereotypical Indigenous people; such as a man standing on one leg carrying a boomerang beaten into a piece of copper. The use of the kitsch objects confronts the viewer with manufactured black faces that are shaped to fit the white background, symbolic of incongruence. Perhaps a doubt as to whether sorry could ever fuse the two contrasting elements is posed through this work.

The works of Tony Albert and Bindi Cole are, on the whole, compassionate and pardoning, showing that despite their land being snatched from them and their daughters being taken to eliminate their race, the Indigenous, instead of being bitter, are willing to accept that word, sorry. But my question is: why wasn’t that four-letter word, not ‘sorry’, but ‘love’? Some people argue that Indigenous Australians do not take advantage of the benefits they are given, but maybe that is because they feel that they will never be accepted into the white community, no matter how hard they try. I realised, sadly, that this was the case while I was travelling on a train to an unfamiliar destination. I had an elderly Anglo-Saxon woman with me. She peered in disgust at an Aboriginal man sitting near us in the carriage. ‘Don’t ask the black man for directions’ she said, ‘what would HE know’. I understood then that saying ‘Sorry’ is not good enough. I wish we could say sorry with our actions rather than depend on that one word spoken five years ago in parliament to make it all okay. 

The arrangement of the art works, the juxtaposition of each against the other to create unity in the message ‘Sorry’ that was being given, showed me that the exhibition had been very thoughtfully put together. This was emphasised when Bruce McLean paused again in front of a colossal wall blanketed with a collection of paintings made up of a plethora of coloured dots. And the thought struck me that each of those miniscule dots, though different shades, contributed equally to something greater, something magnificent. Perhaps this embodied the artists’ aspirations in the realm of the subconscious—the Australian continent—blended into a colourful multicultural whole. 

Bindi Cole, Wathaurung people, I forgive you (installation view), 2012. Emu feathers on MDF board, 11 pieces: 100 x 800cm (installed, approx.). Purchased 2012. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery. Photograph: Natasha Harth, QAGOMA. © Bindi Cole Chocka/Licensed by Viscopy, 2014.