Voice. Treaty. Truth. in art

In the International Year of Indigenous Languages, National Gallery Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, Kelli Cole, a Warumungu/Luritja woman, has curated an exhibition for our new Learning Gallery that also speaks to the 2019 NAIDOC theme — Voice. Treaty. Truth. Within the gallery space, she champions Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander vocabulary and expression.

The first exhibition to inhabit the National Gallery of Australia’s Learning Gallery is Body Language. In this show, I’ve placed the identity of Australia’s diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities at its core. Through story, dance, song, kinship, carvings, painting and markings on bodies and objects, it becomes a doorway to the rich complexity of Australia’s Indigenous cultural expression.

Christopher Pease ‘Cow with Body Paint’ 2007, courtesy the artist and Michael Reid Sydney + Berlin and Gallerysmith, Melbourne; and Kitty Kantilla (Kutuwalumi Purawarrumpatu) Tiwi people ‘Female figure’ c. 1996

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, language is fundamental to the expression of culture and identity. For us, language goes beyond words on a page. It is alive in our oral traditions and in patterns and designs, as a means of keeping stories alive and constructing our identity — which is also inextricably connected to Country. In the Gallery, we often speak about the long artistic traditions of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, but these visual traditions are also strongly linked to language, passing on knowledge, and our oral history traditions.

When considering symbolism in Aboriginal art, people will often turn to what is considered ‘traditional’, carrying with them the baggage of what they believe qualifies as a symbol — fine dotting and concentric circles being obvious examples. This comes from a limited understanding of the complexity of the symbolism and the diversity of Indigenous nations in Australia. Emily Kam Kngwarray, for instance, rarely used the well-known iconography or motifs of Western Desert painting. Instead, she chose to follow the women’s traditional methods of mark making.

Emily Kam Kngwarray, Anmatyerr people ‘Ntange Dreaming’ 1989 © Emily Kam Kngwarray/Copyright Agency

Body painting and ornamentation are traditions that carry deep spiritual significance for many Indigenous Australian people, whose cultural rituals and iconography can differ greatly from one nation to another.

Damien Shen Ngarrindjeri people ‘Ventral aspect of a male #2’ 2014

The exhibition includes artists widely dispersed throughout Australia and shows that language — verbal or visual — is key to identity. Notably, the bilingual written material supporting the exhibition was produced in consultation with the artists and their communities. Visitors will discover many nations and peoples, however the works are not arranged by the artists’ location, but rather to highlight similar narratives. Damien Shen is a Ngarrindjeri man, for instance, and his photographs sit alongside Tasmanian Ricky Maynard’s, as both are about continuing cultural knowledge and about strength and reliance.

Vernon Ah Kee’s compelling text and photographic works in the exhibition were created in response to the racially charged riots in Cronulla in December 2005. The photograph Can’t chant (wegrewhere) #2 2009 shows three young men, two of which are holding surfboards that mirror the iconography of rainforest shields, standing resolute on the beach, as if going into battle. The wordplay of the title is echoed in cantchant 2009, the words ‘we grew here’ filling the canvas and interrogating the slogan used (predominantly by white young men) during the riots: ‘We grew here, you flew here’. As an Indigenous man, Ah Kee takes ownership of these words to highlight the hypocrisy in them and the history of denial with regard to Australia’s own violent past.

Vernon Ah Kee Kuku Yalanji/Yidinji/Waanyi/Gugu Yimithirr/Koko Berrin peoples ‘Can’t chant (wegrewhere) #2' 2009 © Vernon Ah Kee

Body Language includes many other narrative threads and incorporates aids to help visitors of all ages discover and learn more about Indigenous Australian language, and explore what language means to us and for our ongoing resilience.

Body Language is on display until 3 November 2019 in the National Gallery of Australia’s Learning Gallery, Level 2, FREE. The Gallery would like to thank Education Patron Tim Fairfax AC for making this Learning Gallery possible.

The National Gallery wishes to acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and countries that are represented in this exhibition. We pay our respects to their Elders, past, present and future.

NAIDOC Week originally stood for ‘National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee’. Now, we celebrate NAIDOC Week each July across Australia by exploring the rich history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

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