“ART IS A VESSEL OF PROTEST”

Matriarchy, feminist futurism, sisterhood, and subverting the patriarchy from an Indigenous woman’s standpoint. Those are just a handful of themes touched on by the exhibition RECENTRE:sisters, curated by Kimberley Moulton, (Senior Curator, Southeastern Australia Aboriginal Collections for Museums Victoria) and showing as part of theYIRRAMBOI First Nations Arts Festival in Melbourne.
By Mia Abrahams

What does Indigenous art look like in 2017? 

Indigenous art in 2017 is anything that is created by an artist that identifies as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. It can be photography, sculpture, dance—it’s endless. The aboriginal aesthetic is not confined to dots or lines or ochre, or a stereotype of what people may assume what Aboriginal art is.

There’s beautiful examples of work coming out (for example, in the recent exhibition Sovereignty, at ACCA). The breadth of art there spread from video and projection, to weaving and possum skin cloaks. [Indigenous art] spreads from the customary or traditional—shield making and cloak making or basketry—through to video work and photography. Yirramboi is an incredible example of the diversity of both the Australian Indigenous and international First Nations community, and what we’re doing in terms of our creative expression as sovereign people.

Aboriginal art lends itself to political art too. Not all Aboriginal artists are political, or identify as such, but I think that it’s inherent in our work and in our histories. A lot of our art at the moment is challenging the patriarchy, and challenging the government, and challenging prejudice and assumptions about who we are. That’s a really important way that our art can change and shift ideas.

Hannah Brontë, Video still from Still I Rise, 2016

The RECENTRE:sisters exhibition subverts patriarchal Australia from a sovereign woman’s standpoint. What is the relationship between art and protest or politics? Can we make art in 2017 without it?

We certainly can make art without politics. But, for a lot of the Aboriginal artists that I’ve worked with, and for myself in my own practice, the current climate that we live in as Aboriginal people within this country, and the government, policies, and ongoing colonial regime that we live under, completely informs our work. Art is vessel of protest itself. It’s an opportunity to voice frustrations, and to voice pride, but it’s also a way to challenge systems. I think the artists in RECENTRE really challenge the patriarchy and the white hegemony—the oppressor.

Ultimately though, the artists in RECENTRE celebrate womanhood. That’s what I love about these artists, the celebration of who we are as Aboriginal women. More broadly, art is so crucial right now, and the arts is so crucial right now…to really stand up and voice how we feel about current situations, and to really challenge authority. Unfortunately, it’s not funded the way it should be, but for a healthy society and community we must have arts, to really give us a voice.

Tell me about RECENTRE:sisters, how it was conceived, and what are some of the highlights?
I wanted to work with female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, and I was thinking of the importance of sisterhood, and the matriarchy in our current lived experience as Aboriginal women, and how artists are centring or re-centring that history in their work.

The artists that I have asked to be part of the show are doing some really interesting work. Destiny Deacon, an amazing strong black woman, who I have admired for man, many years has really influenced my way of thinking around Aboriginal art.

Some of the other artists are covering topics such as personal matriarchal structures in their family and future imaginings of feminism and the matriarchy. Hannah Brontë’s work, “Still I Rise”, reimagines a future female parliament of Aboriginal women and women of colour.

I hope that people can come in and connect to the strong sisterhood that is happening in the moment within our community, and connect with how these artists are positioning the matriarchy in their work.

Why is it so important to have Indigenous curators in our cultural institutions? 

Generally, if you look across all the major institutions within Australia, the level of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment is dramatically low, particularly in areas like curatorial and collection management. [Ed’s note: There are very few Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander curators even for the Indigenous collections of museums and galleries across Australia.]

These cultural institutions have a huge responsibility to collect for the future and for the now, and for telling stories and histories. If we don’t have Indigenous people leading the vision for our culture and art in these spaces, well, then our histories and stories and are being told from a white, non-Indigenous perspective. And that’s really problematic, and it’s still happening in 2017.

I’m very privileged to have the position I have at Museums Victoria, as the curator for South-East Indigenous collections, and I know that my organisation is working towards improving their employment rate. But, if you look across the sector, in all the major institutions, the curators that are in the art galleries and museums in Indigenous cultures, you’ll find there are few Indigenous people there.

We have to critically look at why that is. It’s 2017. We should be leading this space as Aboriginal people in these institutions, alongside our non-indigenous colleagues.

Yirramboi First Nations Arts Festival runs through 14 May. RECENTRE:sistersruns through 5 August, at the City Gallery, Melbourne. 

This interview has been edited for brevity.

Image: Twitter/@263kimmy