Little Distance Between Us

Little Distance Between Us
by David Garneau and Margaret Farmer

Little Distance Between Us: On the eve of an explosion of international Indigenous art exhibitions, curators David Garneau and Margaret Farmer explore resonances in Australian and Canadian Aboriginal art.

Deep in Sydney Harbour sits Cockatoo Island, the major exhibition site of the 17th Biennale of Sydney, The Beauty of Distance: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age. The first work you encounter at this former penitentiary is a striking black-and-white inflated castle. If you choose (and this ethical question is the heart of the work) to bounce on its Wiradjuri designs and around the black figure with up-raised arms in its centre, you will soon notice through the windows of the corner turrets decapitated heads bobbling with your motions.  Brook Andrew’s Jumping Castle War Memorial (2010) is an ironic counter-monument. It can easily be  moved to wherever victims are to be temporarily remembered and survivors enjoy their good luck.

A significant achievement of the 2010 Biennale of Sydney is curator David Elliott’s integration of Aboriginal art into the collection in a manner that allows each work to dialogue with the rest of the exhibition, and the rest of the world, while maintaining the surprise of difference. Christopher Pease (Australia) and Kent Monkman’s (Canada) independent reworkings of 19th century “discovery” paintings echo each other, reminding viewers of colonialism’s global reverberations. Placing some of Annie Pootoogook’s most challenging drawings in this context reveals her as not only a radical Inuit artist, but also a poignant observer of near-universal domestic dramas. Elliott’s inclusion of Kwakwakw’wakw carver Beau Dick’s masks, a massed group of larrikitj (memorial poles) by 41 Yolngu artists from North-East Arnhem Land, and the selection of artists of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry from a number of countries, unsettles the boundary between traditional and contemporary and challenges ideas of racial and cultural purity.

Mainstream interest in Indigenous art as Art is exploding and Aboriginal curators are managing the fuse. No fewer than four international exhibitions are planned for Canada and Australia in the next three years. Brenda Croft — with the assistance of Aboriginal curators from New Zealand (Megan Tamati-Quennell), the USA (Kathleen Ash-Milby), and Canada (David Garneau) — is curating Stop (the)gap/mind(the)gap, a multi-venue exhibition of moving image art by 20 Aboriginal artists from these four countries to accompany the Adelaide Film Festival in February, 2011. A few months later, First Nations curators Lee-Ann Martin, Jenny Western, Steven Loft and Candice Hopkins will unveil Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years, a 30-artist show in Winnipeg. In 2012, the authors of this article will present Unsettling, an exhibition of Aboriginal artists from Australia and Canada that will tour both countries. And in 2013, Greg Hill, Christine Lalonde, Candice Hopkins and an international advisory team are producing, for The National Gallery of Canada, the first of a promised series of quinquennials of international Indigenous art.

These exhibitions are the result of a confluence of forces. The engaging and complex art made by Aboriginal artists can no longer be ignored or ghettoized. A critical mass of Aboriginal curators with intellectual tools, confidence and collegial support are now in positions to make these exhibitions happen. At the same time, non-Indigenous intellectuals, institutional supporters and audiences recognize the significance of Aboriginal art and scholarship to the meaning and identity of their nations. The most important force, however, is a growing global Indigenous consciousness.

David Garneau: Indigenous artists and curators in both Canada and Australia are descendants of peoples colonized by the British Empire who struggle to reckon, resist, recover and re-form. Our bond is intellectual and affective. While the legacy of colonialism inhabits the bodies, hearts, minds and spirits of individual persons uniquely, it is only by recognizing the impact of our collective formation as Aboriginal people that individual healing and social change can happen. Discovering that other Aboriginal people, on a continent more than 14,000 km away, were also taken from their homes and families, deprived of their land, language and culture, were abused, made to feel ashamed and less than human, and as a result often turned to the slow destruction of themselves and others comes as jolt of enlightenment. This knowledge locates personal, familial and tribal experience within a matrix of global power and calculated strategy.

The privilege of meeting these folks and discovering the very little distance between us is a visceral experience that changes lives. When I heard Richard Bell describe his years on the street, I was reminded of Norval Morrisseau. Listening to a circle of elders at the Parramatta Artist Studios talk about being taken from their families and re-educated in Mission schools, I could have been on any reserve or community centre back home. Listening to a fair-skinned Aboriginal artist talking about the complexity of negotiating her identities, I feel at home. When Vernon Ah Kee returned to Australia from his first trip to Canada in 2006, which included a visit to a reserve, he reported back to his mates, “it is not that it’s the same; it’s that it is exactly the same.” [1]

Margaret Farmer: The country’s parallel histories, including the Apologies to the Stolen Generations each country made in 2008, [2] are consciousness-raising for a non-Indigenous person too. The twin apologies demonstrate that each country is trying to compose itself as a just society, that amongst the majority of the non-Indigenous population there is a sense that there are things to be sorry for and things to rectify.
Cheaper flights, the internet and enlightened arts funding also contribute to the efflorescence of Aboriginal exchanges. The international exhibitions and travels of artists Rebecca Belmore and Edward Poitras (both of whom represented Canada at Venice Biennales) and curators Gerald McMaster and Lee-Ann Martin, and Australian artists such as Rover Thomas, Vernon Ah Kee and Fiona Foley, and curators Brenda Croft and Hetti Perkins, all generated interest in contemporary Aboriginal art and possible collaborations. Cathy Mattes’ Australia/Canada artist exchange (2001) was an early effort. The most significant catalyst was the curatorial collective — Lee-Ann Martin (Canada), Brenda Croft (Australia), Megan Tamati-Quennell (New Zealand) and Margaret Archuleta (USA) — who formed to plan an international exhibition of Indigenous art, Jesus Loves Me. In 2003, most of the group met in Saskatchewan and then held a seven-week international Aboriginal artist’s and curator’s residency at the Banff Centre. This was followed by a symposium that spawned an important book, Making Noise! (2004). While the show did not go on, the physical fact of Australian Aboriginal artists and curators meeting their First Nations counterparts went a long way to encouraging future exchanges.

Another crucial step occurred in 2008, when the Canada Council’s Jim Logan organized a delegation of five First Nations and Métis curators to tour the Biennale of Sydney and to visit Aboriginal galleries, artists, curators and elders. He led another team of six to the Venice Biennale (2009) and a third group of six to New Zealand and Sydney in 2010. These scouting trips had a dramatic impact on many of the participants and demonstrated to Australians that Canada was committed to long-term partnerships. [3]

In advance of the coming exhibitions, the authors of this article thought it timely to discuss a few of Australia’s most interesting artists and how their practices resonate with their Canadian counterparts. Three broad themes guide the remainder of this article: the desire to signify and to display different ways of knowing and being; appropriation as a means of demonstrating bi-cultural competence, and as a tool to challenge stereotypes and disrupt national myths; and embodied resistance, the use of performance art and portraiture as a means of asserting presence and difference while also demonstrating similarities and a common humanity.

One of the most engaging paintings in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, is the huge (207.7 x 670.8 cm) Napperby Death Spirit Dreaming (1980) by the Anmatyerre brothers Tim Leura and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri. Some have difficulty accepting this sort of work as contemporary art, primarily because it is only barely informed by the Western tradition and seems apart from current discourse. But, as NGV curator Judith Ryan explained during a tour, the fact of making this painting and its presence in the gallery is a political act. Through works of art, Aboriginal people assert their existence, display their intelligence and declare their humanity — facts not always considered self-evident. In addition, this painting is a map that not only indicates a long-term relationship with the land but is also a symbolic record of events. Similar documents have been used in Australia and Canada to assert land claims. Finally, the painting’s three “insert” sections are Clifford Possum’s revisitations of paintings he produced earlier. This inventive self-referential time travel demonstrates that this work, like its artists, is not fixed by tradition, but is an extension of it.


Margaret Farmer is a curator at the National Institute for the Experimental Arts, University of New South Wales. Previous projects include the touring exhibition Terra Alterius: Land of Another and co-founding SafARI, the fringe exhibition to the Biennale of Sydney.

David Garneau is curator, writer, artist and Associate Professor of Visual Arts at the University of Regina. He is currently exploring the Carlton Trail and roadkill as landscape subjects, and is working on curatorial projects in Australia and Zürich.

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