unDISCLOSED, the second national indigenous art triennial

Indigenous Australian art has, over the last few decades, become big business in Australia and overseas, and for good reason. It is unique and it is beautiful. Most Australians, I suspect, only know of the “traditional” dot painting style of the Central Australian Desert and perhaps the wood carvings of the Torres Strait Islands. However, contemporary indigenous artists are producing works across the whole art spectrum from traditional painting to modern sculpture, from digital photography to video installations, and it is this variety that is currently on exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia in its second national indigenous art triennial titled unDisclosed. The first triennial was titled Culture Warriors and was, I understand also exhibited in Washington DC.

The exhibition is organised thematically, with the themes speaking to traditional relationships with country and people as well as to more modern concerns regarding identity and the ongoing effects of oppression. They are:

  • Family, Ritual and Country
  • Invisibility, Silence and Memory
  • Belonging
  • Manifesting Presence
  • Revelation

Twenty male and female artists spanning a wide age range are represented. While there wasn’t a piece of work I didn’t enjoy, the works that spoke most to me were those in which political comment was woven into gorgeously conceived art with an indigenous sensibility.

Particularly clever are two works about colonisation by Michael Cook, Broken Dreams featuring a woman and Undiscovered featuring a man. Each work comprises 10 photographs that comment on indigenous experience of colonisation in a surprising and mind-bending way. In Broken Dreams, a beautifully dressed indigenous women is pictured in England of the late 18th century. As the sequence progresses, moving across the sea to Australia, she is gradually undressed. In the second last photograph, she is bound by rope. The photos are simple – in their muted tones and uncluttered composition – and complex in their iconography. What, for example, is the role of the colourful lorikeet which accompanies the woman on her journey? This is the sort of work that invites conversation.

Another mesmerising work is Christian Thompson’s Heat which comprises a “large-scale three-channel projection of three young Aboriginal women, sisters, each on a separate screen”. We see only their heads and bare shoulders against a plain background. They stare into the camera – and therefore at us, the viewers – with only the occasional blink. Sometime during the projection, which runs for a little over 5 minutes, wind catches their hair which becomes alive and waves about their heads and faces, while they maintain their steady stares. (How they didn’t sneeze, I’ll never know!) The symbolism of the hair is complex and invites us to consider women’s hair, personally, historically and mythologically. It makes us think about the relationship between hair and wildness, beauty and, of course, the power held by and over women.

My third selection, for the purposes of giving you a flavour, is Nici Cumpston’s set of four large landscape works which were created by combining photography with inkjet printing, watercolour and pencil. The images all depict aspects of Nookamba Lake (aka Lake Bonney to “the interlopers”) which is part of the damaged Murray-Darling River System. The lake, now stagnant, was once part of a flourishing system supporting a rich indigenous life. Cumpston’s stark images – with their muted colours – contain evidence, if you know where to look, of that past life while also conveying the current degradation. And yet, paradoxically, the images are beautiful too. I sometimes wonder whether such beauty – though admittedly stark – can undermine the message?

The exhibition’s curators, on an the interpretive panel, describe Heat as saying:

 We are here; We are strong; We have survived.
And that is, indeed, what the whole exhibition says, loud and clear, and with a confidence that is inspiring. It is well worth seeing … I wonder if the triennial could turn into a biennial!

(Note: I have not included images of any of the artworks here for copyright reasons)

4 thoughts on “unDISCLOSED, the second national indigenous art triennial

  1. Had to go look at the gallery on the unDisclosed website, wow what gorgeous work! It must have been really wonderful to see it all in person. Thanks for sharing about it.

  2. I love the fact that you and Dad ensured I grew up in a household that truly appreciates and sees the meaning and beauty in Indigenous Australian art. This exhibit sounds wonderful.

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