The inaugural exhibition for the Victorian Government’s Yalingwa initiative, A Lightness of Spirit is the Measure of Happiness, is boundlessly entertaining. Ten new works from southeast Aboriginal artists, commissioned by ACCA, emerge from aesthetic endearment to force critical contemplation. Driven by Presley’s curatorial passion, the exhibition’s unassuming modesty masks its subversive agenda.
I must start with a disclaimer.
I am not an Aboriginal person and do not claim to represent the experience of these artists. I do not claim to comprehend the continued struggle for self-determination: a right that is systemically undercut and culturally sabotaged. But, I do challenge myself to understand the histories of repression (particularly within the art museum) and my role in advocating for structural transformation. And this exhibition has challenged me to reframe that sustained struggle in a more joyous light.
In fact, my disclaimer signals the exact history of ownership that Presley works to destabilise: the museums ownership of colonial trauma; the medias ownership of Aboriginal experience; and fundamentally, the White ownership of Black histories. When expectations pervade our ability to interpret anew, these expectations must be problematized, or better yet, rejected for their insatiable silencing of racial politics to construct an imagined ‘other’. And this term ‘other’ has led to a defiant and rich lineage of Aboriginal cultural critique that refuses to accept what Aileen Moreton-Robinson defines as “the whitening of race” (Moreton-Robinson, 2004). Throughout history, the museum has become an infrastructure to exercise the privileging of Anglo non-Indigenous voices in the telling of First Nations history. Not least at the level of collections, but in systemic infrastructural exclusions that have enabled and defended marginalisation, and continue to do so.
I recently discovered Nathan ‘Mudyi’ Sentance’s blog Archival Decolonist [-O-] . Nathan, a Wiradjuri man who grew up on Darkinjung Country, NSW, is the project officer in First Nations programming at the Australian Museum. I would hope that he would praise ACCA’s current exhibition. His essay titled, ‘Your neutral is not our neutral,’ encapsulates the success of A Lightness of Spirit is the Measure of Happiness. Prescriptive and defiant, Sentance calls out the assumed neutrality and myth of objectivity in cultural institutions, declaring that “museums are not f**king neutral.” (Sentance, 2018) It reminds me of artist Richard Bell’s influential essay ‘Bell’s Theorem,’ dogmatic and humorous in exposing the West’s construction of Aboriginal art.
Subtle in its delivery, ACCA’s exhibition does not shy away from the same political agenda.
I do wonder though, how many people have missed the profound complexity of these works in a dismissal of their aesthetic modesty. Vicki Couzens’ Djawannacuppatea (2018), for example. Often reliant on found objects and basic, household materials, these works represent distinct personal narratives, but gain cultural and critical momentum in their assemblage. An ambitious representation of joy, humour, and cheekiness, Presley helps artists navigate contemporary issues of gender identity, political instability, and self-determination refined engagement.
I am reminded of Tracey Moffatt’s 1997 video work titled Heaven. In a comic exposition of Bondi’s surf culture, Moffatt inverts the voyeuristic male gaze and historically racialised privilege of looking and researching. Subversion is dealt with cheekily and the resultant dichotomy is dramatic. Moffatt is anthropological in her methodology and expository in ambition. The juxtaposition, and reclaiming, of historically White frameworks of scientific knowledge (executed in the documentary style to reflect upon degrading 18th century ‘scientific’ research of First Nations people during invasion), focuses our attention on the iconic Australian act of removing a wetsuit to emphasise cultural histories of exclusion.
It is precisely the shifting of power relations and institutional tone that is so important. With the infusion of joy and humour, Presely’s exhibition becomes a radical proposition for ACCA’s future.
Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Whitening Race: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004.
Nathan ‘Mudyi’ Sentance, ‘Your neutral is not our neutral,’ Archival Decolonist [-O-], May 30 2018. URL: https://archivaldecolonist.com/2018/05/30/your-neutral-is-not-our-neutral-2/.