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three shadows

djon mundine: new indigenous photography

Djon Mundine is a Sydney-based curator and writer, artist and activist.

Jagath Dheerasekara, Muckaty, Manuwangku, Under the Nuclear Cloud Jagath Dheerasekara, Muckaty, Manuwangku, Under the Nuclear Cloud
courtesy the artist
PHOTOGRAPHY TODAY IMPINGES ON OUR LIVES IN ALMOST EVERY WAY—MAKING OUR MOST PRIVATE LIVES EXTREMELY PUBLIC, INTENTIONALLY OR NOT. THIS PLACES MANY OF US ON THE PUBLIC RECORD, OUR CANDID WITNESS IMAGES OFTEN INADVERTENTLY BECOMING PUBLIC PROPERTY—MORE-SO FOR AUSTRALIA’S ABORIGINAL POPULATIONS AS SEEN IN DIFFERING FORMS OF PHOTOGRAPHY ACROSS THREE CONTEMPORARY EXHIBITIONS IN SYDNEY. HOW DO WE CONTROL IMAGES OF OURSELVES—HOW DO WE SAY WHAT WE WANT TO SAY?

Manuwangku, Under the Nuclear Cloud—Muckaty Station, by Jagath Dheerasekara was part of the Head On Photo Festival at Customs House in Sydney. Uranium mining, processing and usage have long been controversial in Australia and, being mined on their land, has always been connected to Aboriginal people. Now Muckaty Station Aboriginal landowners in the Northern Territory are being pressured to have their land become a dumping site for radioactive waste from Australia and overseas.

This is the second Aboriginal human rights issues exhibition covered by Dheerasekara who previously photographed Aboriginal housing under the ‘Intervention’ in the Northern Territory in Stars, Sky, Trees, Breeze (Jagath’s Journey, 2010) at the Vanishing Point Gallery, Sydney. [Dheerasekara is currently a recipient of an Amnesty International Human Rights Innovation Fund Grant. Eds]

At the opening of Head On, a friend commented that Dheerasekara's photographs were clumsy, showing Aboriginal people in a ‘bad’ light, as poverty stricken and in ill health. My own response was different. In his medium-large, rich colour images of people and country Dheerasekara purposefully sets out to show that this supposed empty desert, the place for a proposed radioactive waste dump, is a ‘green’ landscape full of normal people of strong character actively engaging with their environment and each other. We shouldn’t expect every Aboriginal male to look like David Gulpilil or every Indigenous woman to be a Christine Anu clone. Nor do most Aboriginal people, wherever they live, exemplify all the ‘Home Beautiful,’ trappings of the trendy western upper middle class. Nor do they expect to be treated as rubbish.

At the 2012 National Indigenous Photomedia Conference in Melbourne at the Centre for Contemporary Photography a speaker lamented current prejudices affecting artists who like to take images in the street, in public space. In PhotoGraff by Gary Trinh and Jason Wing, at Simon Chan’s Art Atrium, there is a declaration from the artists: “I am not a pedophile—I am not a terrorist.”

“The mindful do not die,
But the heedless are as if dead already!”
Dhammapada 21 [Buddhist text, third century BCE]

A binary view exists as to how to reach revelation—fasting and deprivation or indulgence by which to see the essential or discern the core from the crust. But revelation is also to be found in the everyday: the mindfulness of the ordinary. It’s definitely to be found in the absurd and mirthful, in wit and in laughter, and in the art from the street of Garry Trinh and Jason Wing. The binary of real and shadow. Their daring, sharp eyes catch every trick of perspective where cars appear to merge into the urban landscape like camouflaged animals. Eyes catch shadowy, faded, residual signage and graffiti, now with new readings: (End Restriction [Parking]).

Nicole Foreshew, belong to all yet to none, 2012 Nicole Foreshew, belong to all yet to none, 2012
courtesy the artist
Nicole Foreshew and Darren Bell’s show at Blacktown Art Centre in western Sydney is titled A Place of Sense. A place of sense? A place of senses? But what is sense? We construct ‘our place’ through memory experienced through the senses: sight, sound, taste, smell and touch.

An accompanying text states, “Reflecting on their continued connection with Blacktown and Western Sydney, artists Foreshew and Bell form poetic responses to place through large-scale photomedia prints, site specific installation and performative moving image. A Place of Sense explores the complexities of identity and location within contemporary urban experience” (program brochure).

A youth plays with the male-ish shovel-nose spear, but in a non-threatening way (Darren Bell, Since always, 2011 [youth with shovel-nose spear]). Serendipitously, in Arnhem Land the directional adjective-noun word Kumur Djalk—you precious thing—is a social term of endearment that has its roots in the same word for stone spearhead—normally wrapped in paperbark and traded across hundreds of miles. Nicole Foreshew’s image of a floating, wrapped spiritual object (titled Belong to All Yet to None) is an iconic image of this sense of the sacred. In traditional Aboriginal society you wrap sacred objects, ritual gifts, special foods, valuable ochre colours, bodies living and dead. You use paperbark or specially decorated fabric. And what more sacred site is there than a woman’s body? A gender binary emerges in the exhibition, whether accidental or intentional—apt, mature and without recrimination.

In a video, women (Foreshew’s close family) play and twirl, coiffured in the artist’s fabric. The women spin like Wonder Woman with her ‘lasso of truth’ capturing escaping villains, revealing her power. They spin like a centrifuge, throwing off their outer, everyday coating. The simple, graceful movements here could be said to be seductive; it is part of the performance, but also expresses a powerful and warm, purposeful yearning. A modest, coquettish vanity—a display of affection and tenderness beyond words.

Darren Bell, Reflected on High Darren Bell, Reflected on High
courtesy the artist
Parallel with this, unconsciously, is an equally tender view of a typical Western Sydney male BBQ captured by Darren Bell. Men divest themselves of their outer garments to expose their power differently—tearing open their shirts to reveal their chests: Supermen.

These are great candid shots, only one of which gets near to a posed portrait. The strength of men, their potential for violence and their exposing of themselves also allows them to be completely vulnerable, physically and emotionally. They are real people. We feel we know them intimately. We are with them, comfortable and not challenged. They are raucous and happy, while an almost aloof second group is really reserved—silent witness rather than spy; more like a close relative, a confidant we have known all our lives. Bell has a great eye for the male psyche that his subjects reveal here.

Alcohol is said to be a depressant but also a suppressant of control. People talk of taking hallucinogenic drugs to see new or different perspectives, even visions. They forget alcohol can take you into another place of sense. It’s said that people tell the ‘real’ story, the truth when they are ‘pissed.’ I haven’t seen such an alive set of moments captured in photos in a long time. An amazing event, coupled with Foreshew’s images of almost instinctive, graceful movement.

You can bring in ‘big names’ to make a curatorial career or, as at Blacktown Arts Centre, you can work with talented locals. It’s curious that as the ‘the state’ and other vested interests clumsily strive to ‘train’ a set of young Aboriginal pet poodles or witless government stooges to be paraded nationally and internationally, it would appear the progress of Aboriginal society becomes possibly irrelevant. What is happening organically at Blacktown Arts Centre and with its local theatre productions leaves clunky, expensively funded programs for dead—the difference between 17th century chamber music and Lady Gaga.


Jagath Dheerasekara, Manuwangku, Under the Nuclear Cloud, Head On Photo Festival, Customs House, May 4-July 7; Gary Trinh, Jason Wing, PhotoGraff, Art Atrium, May 8-26; Nicole Foreshew, Daniel Bell, Place of Sense, Blacktown Arts Centre, Sydney, April 20-July 7

Under the Nuclear Cloud will be featured at this year’s Darwin Festival August 10-26 and tour to Adelaide and Canberra in 2013.

Djon Mundine is a Sydney-based curator and writer, artist and activist.

RealTime issue #110 Aug-Sept 2012 pg. 52

© Djon Mundine; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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