Resistance at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) presents a varied array of artworks by contemporary Indigenous artists – both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander – ranging in different styles, content and medium. Unlike any other art forms, the striking features of a visual artwork can immediately arrest a viewer’s attention at the first cursory glance. Transfixed by wonder, we are lulled into the inner world of the artist who paints the canvas with his or her own unique impressions.
As I walked past the various artworks in the exhibition, there were some familiar Indigenous paintings whose colourful patterns I recognised as having been reproduced in Australian souvenir products. With a proper description on a metal plate beside each artwork – whose artist is officially acknowledged in large print – the exhibition has successfully worked to redress the anonymity of Indigenous faces in a predominantly white Australian culture.
As with any minority groups in a country, Indigenous people are forced to stay silent, but Resistance challenges unspoken social norms through its vivid artworks. An installation piece by Fiona Foley visually depicts the cultural fragments of the Indigenous Australian diaspora. It presents the word ‘DISPERSED’ in block letters, each separated by a character spacing in order to create an imposing presence. Its grim, metallic appearance, enhanced by the sharp, unforgiving angles of the letters highlight the veracious accounts of cruelty experienced by Indigenous people depicted in other artworks.
We Bury Our Own by Christian Thompson owes its profound message to the artist’s mixed Indigenous/British heritage. Photographed portraits of the artist in formal attire with flowers, candles and other objects covering his facial features evoke an eerie atmosphere of death, as if we are looking into the coffin of a deceased person. It undoubtedly suggests that the Australian society which rejects Thompson as a person of mixed race must ultimately reject its predominantly English heritage. Another notable artwork is The Darwin Room by Christopher Pease that presents an image of a snake caged upon a high pillar, whose alienation from its natural environment is highlighted in its sepia tones. It subverts the Eurocentrism of scientific progress belied under an advanced civilization, whose influence is believed to be able to domesticate an entire race of Indigenous Australians. Its surreal illustration and strong political message is reminiscent of Shaun Tan’s works.
The silent film Poles Apart by R E A is the apotheosis of Indigenous cultural consciousness within the exhibition. It showcases an Indigenous woman dressed in a black Victorian gown (thereby masquerading as a well-bred English woman) who is fleeing from an apparent threat generated by a supposedly white audience. As a person of Asian heritage, I am obviously not the target audience of this short film, but I cringe at the absurdity of blue, white and red paint (which represents the Federation flag of this nation and subsequent “integration” of its Indigenous inhabitants) splayed mercilessly at the actress to cover her fraudulent impersonation. Oh, the irony! What does she have to feel ashamed of? It is us who have illogically imposed the assimilation of Indigenous Australians that represent a living symbiotic relationship with the
natural environment. This is when it dawns upon the viewers that we are the imposters ourselves. It is us, the invaders, who have to question the legitimacy of our presence in this land, and not the Indigenous people. Furthermore, the fact that this exhibition strategically begun in January and continues through to February – thus including Australia (Massacre) Day – insinuates the need for some soul-searching. Our murky cultural heritage speaks volumes about national pride. No wonder we have a cultural cringe.
Words by Carin Chan
Resistance runs until February 21 at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. More information on this free exhibition is available here.