Monday, November 13, 2017

Encountering the ENCOUNTER Exhibition at the Museum of Australia

I went on a road trip with my friend and collaborator Peter Waples Crowe to see the exhibition ENCOUNTER at the Museum of Australia. The trip to Canberra was also designed for us to spend time together and think through and discuss a project we are both working on for the Ballarat Art Gallery for 2017. Peter was asked by Gordon Morrison from the Ballarat Art Gallery to do an exhibition that responded to their collection of colonial prints which are mostly of Aboriginal people depicted through the eyes of the colonial invader. As you might imagine they are variously representing people from the most strange to the most idealised but all definitely as 'the other'.
Peter asked me to collaborate with him for this exhibition as he liked my work and saw an interesting connection between my reconstructed anti colonial furniture and his work.
So this was the context for our trip. We had also planned to visit one of Peter's cousins, a Ngarigo elder at Tumburumba on the way home.

The exhibition was questionable in its layout as it was very confusing to get around and I felt like I was missing things. It also had the stereotypical brown and black look that always goes with anything Indigenous that I wonder about. It was very much a 'museum' exhibition and yet it was full of the most amazing art which Peter informed me are now beginning to be called 'belongings' rather than 'artefacts' which is a museum term that I have always felt uncomfortable about.
However the main impression I had from the time spent there was of deep sadness. In fact when I found Peter after about half an hour of watching videos and reading text by Aboriginal people responding to the British Museum bringing their belongings home and then taking them back again, I had tears streaming down my face and so did he. Overwhelmingly every person said a version of this, 'we want them back, you have taken everything else and these are all we have left, please give them back!' The belongings were exquisite objects that showed over and over again the sophistication of the culture that produced them and the giant theft that placed them in the hands of the British Museum. Even objects that were supposedly given or traded were mostly done so with dubious sentiment. There was some concession to Aboriginal artist today who had made objects in response to the British Museum's belongings however there was a significant absence of some contemporary artists such as Maree Clarke who has a long history of researching stolen belongings in museums and reconstructing cultural practices from this work.

Next door was an exhibition curated by Jonathon Jones involving a contemporary art response to the ENCOUNTERS exhibition. This involved some really good work by people such as Julie Gough and ?????

After the Encounter with ENCOUNTERS we drove down to Tumburumba  to meet Uncle John Casey, Peter's cousin. This was an experience that totally overshadowed the museum encounter and left me in no doubt about the importance of cultural belongings being restored to their rightful place.

Uncle John Casey - Ngarigo Edler