Why Australian institutions need Indigenous gatekeepers

Natasha Matila-Smith


Since its first iteration  in 1993 the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT), programmed by the Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), has been instrumental in providing much-needed visibility for artists from the Asia-Pacific region,  marking an encouraging shift from the dominant Eurocentric modus operandi. QAGOMA have consistently made an active effort to promote multi-cultural arts to a receptive fanbase. APT is a crowd-pleasing tourist drawcard and is one of the largest exhibitions of its kind. Launching its eighth instalment in November 2015, APT 8 featured the work of eighty-three Asia-Pacific region contemporary artists from thirty-six different countries as well as seventeen Australian artists. For the first time, APT 8 also included the work of artists from Kyrgyz Republic, Iraq and Georgia[1].

Highlighting the artistic contribution of the Asia-Pacific region is a crucial step towards diversity in the arts, however, indigenous arts somehow remain in stasis. Of the seventeen Australian artists represented in APT 8, only seven are Indigenous Australian. This essay will discuss alternative models for self-representation by Indigenous peoples via new curatorial and linguistic frameworks, and crucially, the embedding of Indigenous people in roles previously occupied by non-Indigenous gatekeepers. Due in part to the miscommunication of Indigenous ideas through incompatible and typically Eurocentric systems and modes of engagement, multifarious exhibitions such as this quickly become an overwhelming and simplistic accumulation of interchangeable players. A number of regional consultants were involved in the planning and execution of  APT 8, yet the focus seems to be on international interest and scale.  The climbing quantity of contributing artists and the geographical reach are cleverly marketed as cross-cultural interaction.

The all-encompassing label ‘Asia-Pacific’ inherently perpetuates the ‘othering’ of non-European art practices.  QAGOMA notes that the APT exhibition is ‘focused on the work of Asia, the Pacific and Australia.’[2].  The problematic inclusion of Australia in this statement implies that Australia does not belong under the ‘Asia-Pacific’ tag –  should it not go without saying that Australia is included in this region?  Likewise, when I envision the ‘Asia-Pacific’, it doesn’t include New Zealand Pākehā artists such as Len Lye and Frances Upritchard.  Despite proclaiming this labelling of identities as a vehicle for othering, I do believe that affirmative action for the purpose of equality is very much a necessary component of achieving a true Pacific narrative.  To divert the focus from indigenous Asian and Pacific peoples in such a high profile setting is a missed opportunity for representation.

In discussing ways to keep contemporary Asian and Pacific arts moving forward, we must think carefully about how we use language, and how language is used to describe us.  Writer and artist Lana Lopesi sources agency and language as key to achieving authenticity in indigenous narratives .  She writes, ‘Indigenous communities no longer need mediation; we are capable of our own naming, speaking and doing; it is our views of contemporary art norms that need to expand.’[3]  Surely this begins with indigenous people being situated in positions of power.  It is too often that behind many indigenous exhibitions, there are the privileged and non-indigenous people at the helm of all decision-making.  Lopesi further suggests the decolonisation of language through the constant re-evaluation of language.  For example, replacing terms such as ‘Pacific’ and ‘Western.’

In Ioana Gordon-Smith’s Terms Of Convenience [4], the term ‘Pacific’ itself is problematic in that it alludes to the wide-spanning Pacific region yet it is simultaneously dependent on context of usage.  Much like the ‘Asia-Pacific’ term, it doesn’t necessarily denote all that are situated within this geographic region.  The ambiguity surrounding the use of this term indicates an increasing re-routing of linear thinking.  Gordon-Smith explains that actively seeking out alternative descriptive terms such as ‘Moananui’ and ‘Oceania’ represents a shift from the dominance of Western perspectives.  Similarly, artist, writer and curator Léuli Eshraghi states that ‘Asia’ is a ‘malleable, shifting geo-cultural zone of competing interests and agendas.’[5]. Hence the necessity for alternative terms that are not so loaded with negative histories.
In written materials for the exhibition Vai Nui Wai Niu Coconut Water[6], Eshraghi frequently uses ‘Moananui a Kiwa’ in place of the descriptive word Pacific[7]. It’s clear that this exhibition acts as a smaller alternative model to the APT 8.  Opening around the same time of year and following the same group exhibition format, Vai Niu Wai Niu Coconut Water is of a more intimate scale with only thirteen Pacific Island and Indigenous Australian heritage artists involved.  The artworks of Vai Nui Wai Niu Coconut Water, although in this instance positioned under the curatorial framework of the title, are simultaneously referential to Pacific concerns such as displacement, indigeneity and colonisation whilst at the same time not being exclusively about Pacific concerns.

Although there were many strong works in the exhibition, the work of Salote Tawale is immediately eye-catching and unlike most Pacific-heritage artists I have seen before.  In Tawale’s 2014 video work Pocari Sweat, the artist drinks from various branded plastic bottles and aluminium cans while sitting in a swimming pool.  Tawale is literally saturated in implied sweat.  Pocari Sweat critiques advertising while using strategies of advertising to engage with the audience. The vivid saturated imagery, strategic composition and visual advertising language depict a Pacific woman in a constant state of drinking, never satisfying her insatiable thirst. The predicament of Vai Nui Wai Nui Coconut Water questions both the insidious and not-so-subtle exploitation of Pacific cultures through a methodology of marketing to non-Pacific viewers. The exhibition succeeds in depicting contemporary Pacific art with precision—as a complex study that consistently evolves and does not have one particular aesthetic. The power of having an indigenous curator like Léuli Eshraghi results in an empathetic and thoroughly understanding eye that is immediately accurate because of his lived experience as an indigenous person.

Ian McLean states in Surviving ‘The Contemporary’: What indigenous artists want and how to get it that there is ‘nothing mysterious about what indigenous artists want. They want the same thing as most people: a fair slice of the pie. To even find a seat at the table, indigenous art has to first be accepted as contemporary art. This has been its defining struggle in the modern era.’[8]  So while the word ‘contemporary’ is freely issued, it is rarely seen outside the historically Eurocentric lens. That is, there exist different levels of acceptable measures for what is deemed contemporary art. Pacific and indigenous artists wish to be a part of the contemporary, but usually at the cost of their indigeneity. Either traditional indigenous practice is abandoned completely in favour of a more European aesthetic or works are framed to place indigenous within a European context.

McLean discusses further how relational aesthetics, theorised by French curator and critic Nicholas Bourriaud in the 1990s, proved advantageous for Indigenous Australian artists like Richard Bell[9]. The positioning of activist art or even actively involved artwork and community projects as contemporary art made it possible for indigenous practitioners to be part of a previously inaccessible market.  McLean further discusses the difficulties for indigenous artists due to the existing frameworks of contemporary art:

Indigenous artists cannot rely on either an epochal change that seemingly brings them into the fold, or perceptive Western critics to get them what they want.  They have to go out and get it themselves…There is no point having a seat at the table if you can’t speak the language, narrate the narrative, or dance the dance… Today even the long dead, even those condemned as living fossils of the Stone Age, can be contemporary. However, this new, very ecumenical condition of the contemporary does not guarantee everyone, let alone indigenous artists, a seat at the table.

It has been clear from very early on that the frameworks of art were custom designed to accommodate a Western audience, or rather a white audience. Indigenous people have always had a shaky relationship with the contemporary and I propose that not much has changed. There is definitely more exposure of indigenous arts but there is still a lot of systemic hierarchy in place that makes Western-challenging work more palatable for a contemporary audience.

This unexamined hierarchy is evident in exhibitions that take a traditionally tokenistic view of Pacific arts. Fish Hooks and Moving Trees: Pacific Transformations in Australia, a travelling exhibition curated by Joan Winters, operates on a particularly offensive grounding[10].  During the exhibition opening at BEMAC, Winters proclaimed herself to be an honorary Papua New Guinean—disregarding the political turmoil and the glaringly obvious fact that a white Australian woman will never face the same prejudice and bias based on skin colour and country of birth.  Throughout the opening speeches, people from each Pacific country stood on stage behind each speaker holding their correlating national flags.  Winters then proceeds to rush young dancers off the stage for not completing their performance in a timely manner[11]. My intention for raising this issue with Winters is not to embarrass or diminish her involvement in PNG arts, but rather to make it known that it’s not okay for a person in a privileged position to be at the forefront of such an exhibition.  It is no longer required, nor is it appropriate, that non-indigenous gatekeepers act as buffers between indigenous practitioners and predominantly non-indigenous audiences.

Until there are more Pacific people in positions of power to provide an accurate voice for the community, the full potential of Pacific arts will remain underdeveloped. In bringing forth this criticism, I clarify that there is much positive to be said about QAGOMA’s APT. However, the arts industry is in a radical need of re-evaluation and the art institution might need more than a push to be transformative. The traditional role of non-Pacific people to advocate for Pacific arts becomes a previously unrecognised way of retaining control over the indigenous.  Literally and figuratively, Pacific livelihood has always been under the thumb of colonised society. In a more extreme analogy—as a cis-gender male would never be expected to speak on behalf of a women’s organisation, it seems ludicrous that it has been so easily accepted that Pākehā dominate most of our senior roles. Remaining polite about this fact has kept Pacific and indigenous arts from evolving and finding equal ground with non-Pacific as contemporary art practitioners. Perhaps remembering that although Pacific and indigenous peoples are not privileged, they do have some power to change structural inequality.

[1] https://www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/whats-on/exhibitions/apt8/artists

[2] Ibid

[3] http://runway.org.au/decolonisation-frameworks-indigenous-curatorial-practice/

[4] Ioana Gordon-Smith, Terms of convenience, Un., 28-33

[5] Léuli Eshraghi, “Who are We Beyond Imperfect Imposed Asia”, Peril, accessed 14/02/2016, http://peril.com.au/topics/featured/who-are-we-beyond-imperfect-imposed-asia/

[6] “Vai Niu Wai Niu Coconut Water”. Caboolture Regional Art Gallery. 4 Hasking Street, Caboolture. 27 November 2015.

[7] https://www.moretonbay.qld.gov.au/uploadedFiles/moretonbay/discover/arts-culture/caboolture-art-gallery/events/Trilingual-Room-Brochure-Vai-Niu-Wai-Niu-Coconut-Water.pdf

[8] Ian McLean, Surviving ‘The Contemporary’: What indigenous artists want, and how to get it, Broadsheet, accessed 12/2/2016

[9] http://www.cacsa.org.au/Wordpress/yoo_bigeasy_demo_package_wp/wp-content/uploads/Broadsheet/2013/42_3/BS_42_3_Mclean.pdf

[10] Ibid

[11] Based on personal experience of opening event on 6/11/2015: http://bemac.org.au/events/fish-hooks-and-moving-trees/

Natasha Matila-Smith (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Hine, Sale'aumua, Pākehā) is an artist and writer based in Tāmaki Makaurau. Inspired by her mixed cultural heritage, she approaches...


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