Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.
When Larrakia, Jingili, Filipino and English woman Coby Edgar didn’t feel like her university degree was conveying a true sense of the breadth and depth of First Nations art in this Country, she made it the focus of her curatorial career to expand the conversation. Now curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, she is the true definition of a Future Shaper, helping pave the way for more informed dialogues. She has helped open up the collection in surprising and whimsical ways and shone new light on its storytelling power in pocket exhibitions like My Heavy Heart in Black and White and Our Country isn’t young, or free… Each new show intimately expands our understanding of who the institution is for.
When did you first fall in love with art?
Indigenous art has always been around me. I grew up with Aunties and Uncles that were constantly painting and making things. One particular Uncle, Ian Lee, would get me to draw a scribble on a piece of paper and ask, ‘What do you want me to turn it into?’ I’d say, ‘the Tasmanian devil from the Looney Tunes’ and watch him transform this scribble into a sketch. And my step-grandpa John Turner would do these little quizzes with us. Every time we’d go over for dinner, he’d ask us things like, ‘Who painted The Scream?’ So we’d have to go into the encyclopedia for the answer, then we’d get extra dessert or whatever. It was a bit of healthy bribery.
At what stage did you discover that curation was a career you wanted to pursue?
I did a Bachelor of Visual Arts at the University of South Australia. I was a bit disappointed, because I was the first person in my family to go to uni, and I didn’t think I learnt heaps about Aboriginal art. I was really interested in doing that, because you don’t learn much about it in school. So me and my best friend told our lecturer Tony Collins and he was like, ‘Okay, I call your bluff, do you want to tutor in it?’ And I was like, ‘Ok, wow, let’s do it.’ I realised most of my classmates couldn’t read Aboriginal art. It made sense to me. I guess that’s just a visual vernacular you have from growing up around Indigenous culture. It was something that came naturally to me, and I enjoyed helping people understand what they couldn’t see in front of them. That’s a really beautiful place to be in.
You didn’t want to become an artist yourself?
I started off making art, but I’m really shit at it. So I started down the curatorial path because a lot of the people around me were making amazing art, and I found it easier to have conversations with them. To try and draw out their ideas and figure out how they would conceptually realise their works. I can watch someone’s process and get obsessed with that. They’re letting you into a part of their psyche and their thinking that is not resolved. Curation was, in my early days, much more based around that kind of relationship. But now I work with a collection, so it’s very different. It’s more about finding the gaps and figuring out what the Australian narrative in 100 years should look like.
How does your role at Art Gallery NSW help contribute to that national conversation?
I’m a black and queer curator, and I feel like it’s my home, my family. By definition, the institution is the house of white thinking, and it always will be, because that’s how it’s built. But the Indigenous influences that have been permeating in my workplace go back decades. Hetti Perkins worked here for nearly 20 years, and senior curator Cara Pinchbeck is still killing it. So I’m lucky enough to work in a space where people are used to understanding Indigenous ideas and excellence. I can’t see myself going anywhere too quickly, because they let me be me as a person. And I think that that’s really evident in my work. I’m quite an emotional curator. I don’t shy away from talking about death and massacres, which is really difficult for me. There’s a reason for that, transgenerational trauma is real. But then there’s also the joy. And they let me bring all of that out in my work. People appreciate my honesty and vulnerability in that space. And my voice in there helps other artists and younger curators. I’m a little bit of a ratbag, and they love me for it.
What does the future of art look like in this Country?
Artists are the mirror to society. My job is to help bridge the gap between their work and audience understanding. First and foremost, I’d really liked it if the arts were funded properly by governments. If artists didn’t have to starve just to get a show up. I’m lucky enough to have a full-time, permanent job. I get my paycheque. To watch artists suffer throughout the pandemic, and to know how much they give to us as a society, has been really, really hard. They’re the ones who are going to tell that story. The next few years are going to be a reflection on the way that we value the arts.