r e a by Genevieve Grieves

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

r e a runs through a blackened Australian landscape, bushland touched by fire. Her cumbersome nineteenth‑century dress hinders her every step. She stumbles to the ground, rises up, and keeps running; escaping from something unseen but not unknown. She could be caught in time, the ghost of an Ancestor escaping the violence of settlers—an all too common story in our nation’s history—but then we are shifted into an entirely different paradigm as her body is repeatedly splattered with red, white and blue paint.

This complexity is not unexpected from r e a, a Gamilaroi artist whose work is deeply grounded in lived experience but who also interrogates western culture, ideas and knowledge systems. She is a black, queer, truth‑teller who pushes boundaries across representation and thought, whether it be in academic or creative form.

She is intimate with the crimes of colonialism, having sifted through the archives to uncover truths that have been deliberately hidden and ignored. She—like other First Peoples artists of her ilk—holds the stories and histories of their families and communities with all the burden this entails. r e a often uses her body in her work, holding a space for us, the audience, so we too can be of witness.

PolesApart 2009 is one of her most important works and is multilayered. The title itself has many possible interpretations. It could refer to the distances between her family members in the time she evokes, dispossessed and dispersed across the southeast, travelling for survival in other people’s Country. It could reference the distance between black and white Australia or Indigenous and western societies, and how disparate these knowledge systems and experiences are—the great chasms between us that have yet to be bridged.

It definitely refers to the famous painting Blue Poles 1952, by American artist Jackson Pollock, which was purchased for a huge sum by the National Gallery of Australia in 1973.(1) By referencing this work she evokes the distance between understandings of ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘western’ (or white) art. One is revered, highly valued and normalised as high art; the other is often deemed anthropological, categorised as ‘other’ and valued as a curiosity not for its power as art.

In her choice of location for the video work r e a is also commenting on the whiteness of Australian art. She is running through a landscape in Victoria, near the region where the famous ‘Heidelberg School’ artists painted. Their popular depictions of the Australian pioneer experience omitted any representation of Aboriginal people or life, creating a white fantasy of possession and belonging. She runs through this Country to reject this. To say, I am here, we are here and you can’t deny our existence any longer. Uncomfortable truths are not nearly valued enough in our nation, and r e a has plenty of these to share.

(1) The National Gallery purchased Blue Poles for US$2 million (then equivalent to AU$1.3 million).

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Grieves, Genevieve. "r e a" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 304–307.

GENEVIEVE GRIEVES is a Worimi arts and cultural practitioner and educator based in Narrm (Melbourne).

r e a appears in