Ceremony Curator’s Letter


By Hetti Perkins, Arrernte/Kalkadoon peoples, Senior Curator-at-Large and curator of the 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial: Ceremony, which opens in 2022.

Hetti Perkins, Arrernte/Kalkadoon peoples, pictured in front of Uta Uta Tjangala, Pintupi people, ‘Untitled’, 1984, purchased with the assistance of the Foundation Gala Dinner Fund 2018 © the estate of the artist, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd, and Dorothy Napangardi, Warlpiri people, ‘Mina Mina’, 2008, purchased 2014 © the estate of the artist, licensed by Aboriginal Artists Agency Ltd.

The 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial: Ceremony will open on Ngambri and Ngunnawal land with a ceremonial act. Paul Girrawah House, under the guidance of his mother, respected Elder and Traditional Custodian Dr Matilda House, will scar several trees in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden as a permanent installation. Carving designs onto, and objects from, living trees without harming them is a cultural practice distinctive to southeastern Aboriginal communities. These works are the beginning of a project he hopes will eventually encompass the entire Parliamentary Triangle.

Paul’s relationship to his matrilineal Country endures despite the encroachments that have seen the destruction of so many ‘old people’ trees. The settler violence perpetrated upon Aboriginal land is lamented in Wiradjuri dancer Joel Bray’s first film work, commissioned for Ceremony. Yet Joel emerges as the embodiment of the resilience of our cultural heritage to overcome the privations of colonisation: “Like fresh shoots appearing after a bushfire, there is hope.”

‘Ceremony’ is not a new idea in the context of our unique heritage, but neither is it something that only belongs in the past. In their works, the artists assert the prevalence of ceremony as a forum for artmaking today in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Our people still hold our ceremonial practices close. They are a part of our everyday lives. For instance, acknowledging Country is something all Australians should be conscious of wherever we are travelling in this beautiful land.

Ceremonies can be personal or collective acts of faith, intimate rituals or mass protests. One of Australia’s enduring protest actions, the Tent Embassy, will celebrate its 50th year during Ceremony. The Embassy and other demonstrations are about land rights, about expressing and asserting the inalienable connection of our people to our Country — a form of ceremony. It is a politically activated performative action.

When Lake Burley Griffin was created in 1963, a ceremony ground near the current National Museum of Australia was flooded. In Ceremony, Anangu artist Robert Fielding will present a creatively resurrected abandoned car whose strategic positioning comments on the political annexing of Ngambri and Ngunnawal land. For Robert, these cars are laden with memory and symbolism: they are associated with the people who owned them and the journeys they took in their homelands. As visitors to remote communities know, cars are a valuable commodity in enabling families to attend ceremonies and visit Country.

Robert Fielding, Western Arrernte/Yankunytjatjara people, car sculpture featured in photographic series ‘Graveyards in Between’, 2017, image courtesy and © the artist and Mimili Maku Arts. Photograph: Jackson Lee.

Ceremonies can be public and private, secular and sacred, traditional and contemporary. Wiradjuri artist S.J Norman’s performance-based practice draws upon multiple lineages of ceremony within the contexts of “big-‘C’ ceremony and small-‘c’ ceremony”. S.J will perform an iteration of Bone Library where he considers the living essence of so-called ‘dead’ First Nations languages through a live inscription, on this occasion collaborating with members of the Walgalu community to engrave the bones of “totemic colonial beasts” (sheep and cattle).

Like a formula that has an ‘active ingredient’ or ‘radical agent’, each work in Ceremony will have a performative element or purpose. The idea of ‘active’ is central: works that are active; works that are activist; works that activate. The first iteration of the Triennial, Culture Warriors, curated by Brenda L. Croft, Gurindji/Malngin/Mudburra peoples, opened in 2007 to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum and the 50th anniversary of NAIDOC. Subsequent editions — unDisclosed, curated by Carly Lane, Kalkadoon people, and Defying Empire, curated by National Gallery Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, Tina Baum, Larrakia/Wardaman/Karajarri peoples — have consolidated a First Nations-led and -centred major survey exhibition within the Australian cultural landscape. In this way, the National Gallery acknowledges the first people of this country, who are the inheritors of the world’s oldest continuous cultural tradition.

Wiradjuri artist Nicole Foreshew collaborated with the late Booljoonngali, Gija people, on the Gemerre/Garraba project from 2017 to 2020, an innovative and unprecedented cross-generational and cross-country collaboration. Clay and ochre are commonly used in funeral rituals and Nicole’s installation for Ceremony will comprise clay vessels and portraits of the late artist’s hands imbued with ochre, alongside a major suite of Booljoonngali’s Gemerre paintings, recently acquired by the National Gallery. Nicole will also present a related work in the Gallery’s Australian Garden that centres on cultural healing with an immersive healing mist, scented with natural bush medicine that she harvests from the bushland surrounding her home studio in Coffs Harbour on the New South Wales north coast.

Ochre is a key element in Yawuru artist Robert Andrew’s ‘writing machines’, which employ open-source programmable technologies to create wall installations. Robert’s durational works reveal a word on an ochre wall by slowly eroding the outer layer of white paint. Each of these artworks is site-specific, drawing on the language of the people on whose Country the work is located. For the Triennial, Robert has been gifted a word by Dr Matilda House. In his works, Robert reveals the ever present and culturally invested landscape
of Aboriginal land beneath the topography of modern Australia, a poignant reminder when the 2021 NAIDOC theme is ‘Heal Country’.

The concept of iteration, in which each unique action is simultaneously new and old, is at the heart of ceremony. In the panoramic paintings by Mantua Nangala, Pintupi people, the iterative action of meticulously applying lines of dots echoes not only the tali (sand dunes), but also the ritualised performance of ceremony. The commissioning of Mantua’s large-scale triptych by the National Gallery is a first for the Mparntwe/Alice Springs-based Papunya Tula Artists art centre and marks the 50th anniversary of its founding.

Ernabella Arts, founded in 1948, is Australia’s oldest art centre. Ernabella — or Pukatja, a community in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia — was home to Kunmanara Carroll, who left his ancestral lands in Pintupi Country as a teenager. Following a return to visit his Country as an old man, Kunmanara repeatedly revisited sites of significance in his Country in his sgraffito ceramic forms. These beautifully organic stoneware objects become vessels of memory, each inscribed with a marker of place, whether it be the distinctive cruciform rockhole of Yumari or the sinuous line of Wanampi, the water serpent associated with Walungurru/Kintore.

Now living in Kamberri/Canberra, James Tylor, too, revisits his ancestral Kaurna Country through the lens of daguerreotype images. The alchemical process of creating direct-positive images is suggestive of the merging of the ingredients of fact and fiction that becomes history. In employing a technique whose invention in the 1830s coincided with the passing of the South Australian Colonisation Act, James documents the ongoing effects of colonisation on his people in the present day.

Gamilaroi artist Penny Evans’s practice is inspired by time spent in Country, which is part of a broader decolonising process for the artist. Penny’s installation BURN Gudhuwa-li is a series of burnt banksia forms in clay, exploring the cultural significance of fire and the devastating impact of failing to follow Aboriginal protocols of caring for Country. Penny’s banksia forms are anthropomorphic and suggest the inextricable connection of people and place, and the symbiotic relationship to fire developed over millennia.

The cataclysmic bushfires of recent years have led Wiradjuri researcher, artist and architect Joel Spring to reflect on “the sheer scale of what is lost, the silence created in its absence”. The performative action of listening is a central to Joel’s practice. As Joel finds, “really listening to it takes time … There’s something that reveals itself to you the more time you give to it. For me, from Wiradjuri culture, Wiradjuri Country, Wiradjuri language, that is yindyamarra. That is going slowly. That is showing respect. And when you show respect to something through listening, it reveals itself to you.”

Ngemba carver Andy Snelgar talks about finding the song in the tree and bringing that song out as he travels through Country looking for wood from trees or branches that have fallen on the ground. Andy first started carving under the instruction of his uncle Paul Gordon, a respected Ngemba-Gurru-Gillu Elder. Andy’s trademark delicate fluting and incising bring his unique sensibility and ancient heritage into seamless confluence, expressing the ongoing significance of these objects and, by association, ceremony in the contemporary experience of Aboriginal communities in the southeast.

Andy Snelgar, Ngemba people, carving a shield, Old Bar, NSW, 2021, image courtesy and © the artist. Photograph: Julie Slavin

Carving within a ceremonial context is a key practice of Bard and neighbouring communities throughout the western Kimberley region. Darrell Sibosado’s contemporary experience informs works that draw on the rich heritage of riji, the incised designs on pearl shells that are the scales of Aalingoon, the Rainbow Snake. Traditional riji symbolise features of the natural landscape, sacred sites, flora and fauna, and ceremony grounds. Mapping the movement of people to, during and from ceremony into meaningfully abstract designs is an integral part of Darrell’s cultural cartography.

Yolŋu ceremonies “have always been and will always be the backbone” for Gutiŋarra Yunupiŋu as a member of the Gumatj clan of the Yirritja moiety, an identity that is intrinsically connected to his Country. The name Yunupiŋu refers to a significant rock in the sea and his family totem is the bäru (crocodile). Gutiŋarra draws on the coastal landscape of his homeland in northeast Arnhem Land to create filmic ‘self-portraits’ at the Mulka Project — a digital library and production centre in Yirrkala. Of his commissioned work for the Triennial, Maralitja, Gutiŋarra explains: “As Maralitja, I am performing the buŋgul (dance) of bäru. Bäru comes from the saltwater, I come from the saltwater.”

Dylan River also tells stories that are close to home and is well known for his work in film and television, as are members of his immediate Glynn, Thornton and McDonald families. For the Triennial, Dylan returns to his ‘first love’ of still photography that led him to cinematography. It is his Kaytetye homeland north of the desert capital that we see literally through Dylan’s eyes in a technically ambitious work. Using a specialist Phase One large-format camera with a macro lens, Dylan will capture a vista of his Country as reflected in the lens of his eye.

In her first foray into filmmaking, Hayley Millar Baker, Gunditjmara people, invites the audience not just into her (fictional) home, but also into her head. Working in a new genre aligns with a shift in Hayley’s conceptual imperatives. “I’m now positioning myself as the narrator and basing stories on myself as a multidimensional human being, while at the same time stepping away from fixed narratives, leaving the works open to more ambiguous interpretations, but always based on some sort of truth,” she says. The action in this intensely personal work primarily occurs in a domestic interior, reminiscent of the staging of earlier photographic series. Where the spiritual presences were once mutely glowing forms, in this cinematic work the characters with whom Hayley shares the ‘stage’ are unseen and only become ‘animate’ through their interaction with Hayley.

The fibre art of sisters and creative collaborators Margaret Rarru and Helen Ganalmirriwuy, Liyagawumirr/Garrawurra people, has a unique presence within the venerated tradition of weaving. Their darkly luminous bathi mol (black dilly bags), crafted from natural materials harvested from their homelands of Yurrwi/Milingimbi and Laŋarra/Howard Island, embody the merging of past and present, the old and the new. Sacred objects, including the traditional conical mindirr (woven vessels), were carried by the ancestral Djan’kawu sisters. As Rarru and Ganalmirriwuy immerse the gunga (pandanus spiralis) fibre in local and secret recipes of natural dyes to create their trademark mol (black) hues, so too their bathi and dupun (hollow logs) are steeped in Liyagawumirr and Garrawurra tradition. When asked what draws her to use mol in her works, Rarru says: “Because black is beautiful.”

Helen Ganalmirriwuy, Liyagawumirr/Garrawurra peoples, Milingimbi, 2018. image courtesy Milingimbi Art and Culture © the artist. Photograph: Ben Ward.

One of the works commissioned for Ceremony that most obviously connects to Kamberri/Canberra is a Blak Parliament House by artists from the Yarrenyty Arltere and Tangentyere art centres in Mparntwe/Alice Springs. This Aboriginal take on Australia’s political heartland, a collaboration by 16 artists led by Marlene Rubuntja, comprises a hand-sewn version of Parliament House complete with people having meetings and debates. Kamberri/Canberra is seen by many as a distant place where decisions are made that directly affect the lives of our people. Taking the form of fantastical soft sculptures, this installation will place our people centre stage and acknowledge the role of culture in the history of our political struggle. For Marlene, “In my head and heart, I grew all these ideas and I started feeling well again. Now I feel like a strong woman, I like talking for this place [the art centre], this art, because I want others to be encouraged to get strong also.”

The kinetic power of the performative act, actively iterated through any of the myriad artistic expressions that proliferate throughout our communities, makes us strong, as Marlene says. For Joel Spring, “linking back to our cultures, as always being passed down orally … builds sort of a muscle”. The concept of exercising our cultural muscle is an adept way of understanding that the connection to Country and culture is visceral. It’s what compels us to make art, to gather in solidarity for our community, culture and Country. S.J Norman directly evokes the corporeal connection when he writes, “Blood is such clever stuff: it has profound intelligence and a long memory. History is never history. It’s alive in the written and unwritten rules of our world.
It’s alive in our language. It’s alive in the depths of our bodies. This is something that is traditionally understood by Aboriginal people; that our bodies are of the land and the land is of our Ancestors. History is something to be understood viscerally.” In each ceremonial action, artists make an individual mark in this history. Ceremony is the nexus of Country, culture and community, and the 4th National Indigenous Art Triennial: Ceremony is another stitch in a timeless heritage.

Hetti Perkins is curator of the upcoming exhibition Ceremony and Senior Curator-at-large, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the National Gallery of Australia. This article is from the October 2021 issue of Artonview, the National Gallery’s magazine for Members. Become a Member today.