In a time when hashtags, triggers, phobias and offended parties are popping up like peanut allergies in every corner, when backlash whips back and forth like a cut snake across the continent faster than the news cycle can handle, an exhibition showcasing Australia’s colonisation seems rash and inadvisable. The last time this was attempted was in 1988 at Australia’s Bicentenary, when Indigenous protests launched a Treaty movement that is now controversially coming to fruition in Victoria 30 years later.
Against this turbulent political backdrop where veteran history warriors compete for space on every platform, the National Gallery of Victoria’s new two-part exhibition in Melbourne, Colony: Australia 1770-1861 and Colony: Frontier Wars seems at first glance like an act of PR suicide.
But somehow this outrageously ambitious exhibit manages to create a magical space, an unimaginable sweet spot at the interface of competing histories, challenging everybody but offending no-one. This may be the first time this has occurred in the two and a half centuries since Captain Cook decided, “It’s a nice day for a boat ride.” It is unflinchingly honest and confronting, but is ultimately an act of love.
I had the privilege last week of a personally guided tour by two members of the curatorial team, Myles Russell-Cooke, an Aboriginal man, and Rebecca Edwards, a non-Aboriginal woman. I expected to be tag-teamed through segregated exhibits, with Rebecca handling the settler section downstairs and Myles talking up the blackfella area upstairs, but this encounter (much like Australia’s history) was far more complex than I expected.
My Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal guides were in constant dialogue, continually shifting between opposite perspectives that were somehow harmonious and unified, but never sanitised or simplified. This intimately honest conversation reflected the nature of the vast exhibition, in which the story upstairs is inevitably entwined with the one below. The first surprise indicating this unique relationship greets the visitor upon entry, where a long row of Koori shields stretches the length of a corridor in which every step and glance dissolves the fiction of Terra Nullius before any settler artefact appears. I immediately nicknamed this section the History Wards.
Inside, involuntary colonists share space alongside the colonised, as reluctant Kooris pose as savages in colonial portraits while convict love tokens etched onto metal discs howl across the oceans to sweethearts forever lost. There are beautifully detailed journals, arresting still-life paintings of shells and fish, cabinets celebrating the startling diversity of pre-industrial wildlife and haunting objects from forgotten makers such as a Koori woman’s ceremonial emu feather skirt. Lachlan Macquarie’s gothic chair looms large, inlaid with kangaroo fur and crowned with an armoured dagger-wielding fist. Female artists traditionally excluded from the colonial canon explode into the space with life, colour and a gloriously inquisitive lens that offsets the masculine collection of utilitarian, commemorative and propaganda pieces that would otherwise dominate the exhibit.
There are daguerreotypes of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, and the original portrait of James Cook that is mirrored upstairs in a Christian Thompson piece in which he uses the famous image as a mask. There are whalebone carvings and swashbuckling depictions of whale hunting. So much of this art is touchingly naïve, struggling with a charming bipolarity between popular assertions of a savage and barren landscape and the reality of astounding natural abundance and biodiversity. Amongst these lovingly curated treasures, visitors from all backgrounds may find themselves examining the internal artefacts of their own historical wounds and prejudices alongside the external objects and images they find. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visitors may find themselves immersed in an unfamiliar sense of empathy with the settler experience in this space.
Overall this is a cathartic, warts-and-all celebration that does not attempt to airbrush history with political correctness. The curators informed me that they decided to retain the problematic label of “artist unknown” with many of the Aboriginal pieces downstairs, while upstairs similar objects are labelled “once known”. This disparity is deliberate, creating what Myles describes as “space for competing versions of history, which addresses gaps and provides a way to make sense of the past.”
“This is how history works,” Rebecca agrees. “It is rewritten as you pull out all the threads to find the broader context.” She is excited by the idea that “history is messy,” while also revelling in a curatorial style that she describes as encyclopaedic in its order and structure.
Upstairs, where the First People’s works form the second exhibit, the structure is organised by themes such as Lamentation, Erasure and Presence, in contrast with the chronological sequence of the colonial section. This is celebrated as part of the dialogue rather than as a point of difference – two temporal realities dancing together.
During the climb upstairs Jonathan Jones’ Blue Poles installation, a reverse appropriation of Jackson Pollock’s work, bridges the gap between the exhibits. Then there is an obstruction at the entrance with Julie Gough’s installation Chase, a forest of tea tree sticks suspended from the ceiling, with tiny scraps of red fabric that seem to flit like spirits through wetlands at the corner of your eye.
In contrast with the downstairs space most of this Indigenous work is contemporary art, rendering the entire exhibition a cunning reversal of the myths of primitivism and development, with settler culture being drawn from the past while the Indigenous collection stands firmly in the present and looks to the future. Koori forbear William Barak’s historic pieces ground this work in an undeniable continuity of tradition, representing the earliest translation of First People’s images into western mediums.
Just as Indigenous pieces are featured in the settler exhibit, there is a non-Indigenous artist presence upstairs as well, with Arthur Boyd’s Half-caste Bride delivering a scathing commentary on past Eugenics policies and the liminal identities forming in the Aboriginal community during that period. These marginalised identities emerge triumphant from this story of biological genocide in the breathtaking modern works by Koori artists that fill these rooms with cries for reclamation and decolonisation.
The poignant focal point of this decolonising message is a bold installation of museum collection artefacts from “once known” Aboriginal artists, piled in a midden on the floor. Traditional items that would otherwise seem lost or discarded are given new life by this reimagining of the cultural practice of midden formation. They are reclaimed from the collectors who originally removed them.
I found myself a little teary about this installation as we completed the tour. I was finding it difficult to process everything I had seen and heard, which was completely rearranging my worldview. Myles summed up the experience for me, asserting that, “Decolonising is just about making space for different voices. But making space means giving up power.” Rebecca embraced this philosophy completely, and demonstrated how paradoxically empowering that process can be.
Check out our hit list of the best art to see in Melbourne this month.