ELSPETH PITT: Hello. My name is Elspeth Pitt. I'm Senior Curator of Australian Art at the National Gallery here in Kamberri, also known as Canberra. I'd like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and the Ngambri, their Elders past, present and emerging, and also to acknowledge that creative practice has occurred on this Country since time immemorial. I'm really honoured to be here tonight with Judy Watson and Helen Johnson, two artists I admire deeply.
And just a little introduction: Judy is a Waanyi woman based in Meanjin, also known as Brisbane, and Helen a second‑generation immigrant of Anglo descent living in Naarm, otherwise known as Melbourne. Judy and Helen's exhibition, of which you can see some footage at the moment, 'The red thread of history, loose ends', is one that considers the historical and ongoing impacts of colonisation, particularly as they relate to women. Matrilineal histories are key to Watson's work, while Johnson's work explores the symbolism of women and whiteness in historical illustration and contemporary media alike. Their works were commissioned by the National Gallery with the assistance of the Balnaves Foundation, and we'd all like to acknowledge the vision and the generosity of Neil Balnaves, who passed away just as this exhibition opened.
Tonight we were also supposed to have been joined by our dear colleague and friend Cara Kirkwood, Head of First Nations Engagement here at the National Gallery. Cara, unfortunately, is unwell and is no longer able to join us but she kindly prerecorded an introduction earlier this morning, while she was still feeling OK. So we'll cut to her shortly. Before we do that, I'll just let everyone know, as Justin has mentioned to the audience here, that we're using the Slido app tonight to take questions from the audience. I think the details will come up on the screen shortly, and not that we expect otherwise but we know that all questions asked will be respectful of the artists, their practices and of cultural reconciliation more broadly. So, Justin, maybe we can go to Cara's intro. Thank you.
CARA KIRKWOOD: Hi, everybody. Good evening and welcome to the National Gallery's National Reconciliation Week event. I am co‑piloting remotely today on the beautiful, very cold lands of the Ngunnawal people in a suburb of Kamberri, what I'm deeming now as COVID land. I would be joining the lovely Elspeth Pitt this evening but I do have COVID, in isolation. A big shout‑out to Judy, who is one of my favourite people at this Reconciliation Week. I'm also standing in front of my favourite painting by the lovely Karen Mills. Millsie, if you're watching from the Northern Territory, g'day; I hope you're having a good Reconciliation Week as well.
Tonight is very special. We are focusing on an exhibition through the in‑conversation with Judy and Helen, which I will hand over to Elspeth in a moment, but I just wanted to take a moment to let you know about a few things from the National Gallery's perspective and that this week in National Reconciliation Week is a really important week. In fact, we've seen many things happen. We've had a massive ceremony yesterday with our really important work being centred in the heart and pulse of the Gallery in the ‘Aboriginal Memorial Poles’, and a shout‑out to the Ramingining community who have travelled all the way here to sing those poles in for us. From all accounts, it was really spectacular and really special, so thank you. Linda Burney becomes the first Aboriginal woman to ever hold a ministerial portfolio. Congratulations, Linda. This year's theme, of course, is: Be brave, make change. It's really important, I think, to recognise a couple of landmarks. In fact, how National Reconciliation came about is from the '67 referendum, happening on the 27th of May in 1967, and the Mabo decision on June 3rd, 1992, which gives us these coordinates for the week. The last time ‑ that is the last time we've had a major referendum, and I guess under the theme and aligning referendums, it's very interesting to think that under the banner of being brave and making change, we may well see ourselves have another referendum in the coming years, in fact, so that's very exciting.
The other thing I wanted to talk about was quickly with the NGA's ‑ the National Gallery's Reconciliation journey, we've got a couple of big marked events going on at the moment, and one of them is the ‘Ever Present’ exhibition, which is a partnership with our Indigenous Arts Partner, Wesfarmers Arts. Thank you very much. We have ‘Ever Present’ currently being shown in the Singapore National Gallery, and I must say, Judy, your work is out on the front banner out in the front of the gallery. I think I sent you a text photo of that. And it's really exciting for that to be there. I know Tina Baum, who I was replacing here tonight ‑ strangely we're both remote ‑ is travelling over to Venice at the moment. But thank you, Tina, who has been over there for some time actually co‑curating and there's been a lot of cross‑cultural exchange in that context about how First Nations culture is being viewed outside of Australia. It's really important.
I think that we've ‑ also, before I go, we do also have ‑ speaking of Wesfarmers as our National Indigenous Arts Partner, we have the Wesfarmers National Gallery Indigenous Arts Leadership Program, who currently I imagine that right about now are having canapés and some nice drinks downstairs in the room. But that has been a very fruitful program for us over the last 12 years. We've seen now what might be around 120 alumni of that program, and that ‑ I can't tell you ‑ having experience with that program, we've had a lot of ‑ I guess the best way to say this is it's really building the arts, culture and creativity ecology for this country. That program has got some very serious, awesome alumni in it. So if you're in the audience, alumni people, g'day to you too. I'll hand it over to you now, Elspeth. Thank you, my co‑pilot. I'm sorry I can't be there, everybody. I hope you have a wonderful night. Thanks.
ELSPETH: Thanks, Cara. And it's also ‑ maybe we'll do this later but it's actually Cara's birthday today too, so she's in isolation and maybe we'll send her a little message afterward. But, Judy and Helen, before we begin, for our blind and low vision audiences at home and online, could you briefly self‑describe? Judy, would you go first?
JUDY WATSON: Sounds like 'self‑destruct'! (Laughs). I also want to acknowledge our traditional owners of this Country and it was lovely just recently seeing Aunty Matilda House just up at the AIATSIS Conference. So my name is Judy Watson. I'm an artist and Waanyi woman, mother, daughter, many things, currently living in Brisbane, and our Country is north‑west Queensland and the Gulf of Carpentaria, cut by the Northern Territory border.
HELEN JOHNSON: Hi. I'm Helen Johnson. Also many things, I suppose ‑ a mother, a daughter, an artist, training to be an art therapist. To self‑describe, physically I'm pretty short ‑ five foot two. I've got short, curly hair that's brown, and brown eyes and fair skin. I'm wearing a rust‑coloured jumper and shoes and a black skirt and tights because it's freezing here in Canberra.
ELSPETH: It's very cold in Canberra today.
HELEN: I'd also like to acknowledge the Elders of this Country and pay my respects.
ELSPETH: And, finally, I'm Elspeth, as I've said. I'm pale skinned. I have brown hair, green eyes and I'm wearing a dress made out of recycled materials in a kind of patchwork manner. So, anyway, we'll get to the meaty stuff now, which is your work and your amazing exhibition. So I think just to kick off, I want to acknowledge that the works in the exhibition, which I hope you've had an opportunity to see upstairs, they're two distinct bodies of work that have come together within that space and yet they were made in relation to each other. You spoke to each other during the making of the works over the course of about a year. But I want to ask first about the title, which is something that you arrived at together: 'The red thread of history, loose ends'. Could you speak to the significance of that title and its manifold meanings? And, Judy, perhaps you could start us off. Thank you.
JUDY: Yes, I've heard of that term and read about it by Ernst Wreschner and he talks about the red thread of history being ochre, and that ochre is at the beginning of every civilisation around the world. You'll find it at the burials, the births, early painting, et cetera. And I know that in our Country, ancestors' bones would be ochred, wrapped in bark, placed in chambers with stones on top. And I spoke to Helen about the Henry Parkes quote that I had read coming down through ‑ I'm not even sure if it was Parkes, I guess ‑ with the crimson thread. So maybe you can talk about that aspect, Helen.
HELEN: Sure. Yes, so Henry Parkes, if anyone's not aware of the person for whom this suburb is named, I believe, he was the New South Wales Premier and was very instrumental in Federation of the states of this continent into so‑called Australia, and he gave an oration in I think 1889 that sort of led to the process of Federation, and in that he used this image of the 'crimson thread of history', which was his articulation of the white Supremacist project ‑‑
ELSPETH: Of a bloodline?
HELEN: Yes, that all these pure white races were uniting to prosper, when obviously we know that that was an egregious piece of propaganda. So we thought it was pretty interesting to bring these two different ideas of that red thread into play with each other, particularly given our different subject positions.
ELSPETH: Thank you. And I guess in a way it's such a succinct and modest image but one that's kind of very rich and, as you say, speaks to these very different subject positions, but, nonetheless, I think it's really apparent when you walk through the show that there are these material and conceptual resonances between your works. So I'd love to maybe hear a little bit about that and maybe you could speak to some specific works as well.
JUDY: Sure. Will we have images coming up?
JUDY: Great. So this work here was made in connection with deaths in custody, and it doesn't feature all of the deaths in custody that have happened or occurred throughout Australia. I know that my great‑aunt, for example, is not there but she certainly died in custody after being sent to Palm Island and then brought back to Mt Isa Detention Centre. But these are just some of the names that have been allowed to be released to the public by the families of deaths in custody and these came through The Guardian. So you can see there's the names, the names that are allowed to be reproduced, and then there is muslin cloth, which has been sewn by friends and family, anybody who wanted to come and collaborate, and I like the idea of ‑ I painted the welt wounds and just pinned them to the muslin cloth itself and then asked people to come in, and they were stitched with linen thread, waxed linen thread, and you can see the threads hanging down too. And I was wanting ‑ as people were stitching ‑ we were having a great time stitching together, but to also reflect on this and think about as the needle goes in, it's the idea of to pierce and then, as it comes back around again, it's to repair. So that whole thing of the stitching being a healing process in itself but also something that we were doing together. So at one stage, I had a whole lot of people I'd invited ‑ women, in fact ‑ to come and we had the muslin cloth stretched across a table and people were on either side of it, stitching, and it was a really great thing and I got my son to make the food for us and it was something where we could speak across generations of different histories and different experiences, and there was one young woman who was working, supporting refugees, and somebody else at the other end of the spectrum doing something else. So it's a way of like a stitching circle, but once again piercing and repairing.
ELSPETH: So community‑driven but also ‑ I mean, that's one thing that is really evident in both of your work, this archival practice; this, I guess, bringing to light these lesser‑known histories that we all need to know but don't necessarily hear enough about. But I guess also materially, you both tend to work at scale, often with material. You've said this really beautiful thing in the past, Judy, about this kind of tender stamp of femininity, which I think is also evident in this kind of sewing, and again this idea of the thread. I wonder, Helen, if you want to pick up at this point and maybe speak to some of your work in the show.
HELEN: Sure. I guess I construct a lot of my works by creating surfaces and then masking them out with different gauges of masking tape. So it's almost like you put down a layer of paint and then you preserve some of that layer by masking it and then obliterate the rest of it with another layer until you've built up this ‑ it's almost like a palimpsest, I suppose, at the end of which the painting becomes like this blind surface and you can only see the uppermost layer, which is often a thick kind of moulding paste layer and then it's a process of pulling the tape out of that layer. I think in signwriting, they call it 'weeding', weeding out the final, and it feels like you have to dig into the surface sometimes with a sharp object to get to where the tape is buried and then these different registers of image emerge and intersect with each other in these ways that I find ‑ particularly if I'm dealing with archival material, that's ‑ for the images to be able to interfere with each other and make each other incoherent, I think it's a useful way of approaching particularly the sort of histories that I've received through my education as a white person in this country where you're fed these sort of coherent nationalist narratives about colonisation and how it supposedly worked, and then you ‑‑
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Could you speak up?
HELEN: Oh, apologies. Is that better? Thank you. Sorry. I do have a tendency to drift into quiet. Please prompt me if I fade away again. Now I need to reconnect with my train of thought. Yes, using these material processes as a way of thinking about disrupting those supposedly coherent narratives and thinking about ‑ we were talking earlier about this ‑ about encouraging people to do their own digging as well, realising at certain points in your life ‑ well, this is something that I've done in any case ‑ that you know very little and it's time to go and start educating yourself, and that's a long process.
ELSPETH: Yes. Well, I think that kind of leads to my next question. In a prior interview with Tina Baum, who with Jacklyn Babington, were really instrumental in working with Judy and Helen on this project, which has been a long time in the works and was one delayed many times by COVID, as we're all used to now. But, Helen, you cite in this interview with Tina something that Judy said during one of your first conversations, which became a touchstone for you, and, Judy, your statement was: "It's a shared history and no‑one gets away with it", which is such a great statement. A really loaded one. So I wanted to ask, Helen: why did that become so important to you and, Judy, what do you see as the full implication of that statement?
HELEN: I guess I've made quite a lot of work that seeks to address these colonial continuities and legacies and histories from my position as a white woman and I feel like that's always really complex because I feel it's not for me to address Indigenous stories and histories and content in my artwork. So, for me, it has to be a conversation, and if I'm going to address this ‑ dig back into the archives of how the colony that I'm a part of has developed and established itself and continued to assert itself and continued to do damage, that that should be undertaken alongside the voices of Indigenous artists who are working through their own stories and histories. I'm sure there are people who would differ about that and it's a big conversation but that's something that I think about.
ELSPETH: And Judy?
JUDY: Well, I just think it's important to know more about the history of the place you're living on and working on and travelling on and visiting. And so for me personally, if I'm here in parts of Australia, it's not my Country but I want to know about it and I want to know those histories, and the same if I'm travelling overseas. I want to know the earliest history first and then build up from there. And to me, that's the way to make sense of yourself. And when I talked about "It's a shared history and nobody gets away with it", I think that's true. I think we all have a responsibility to know about this place and about not just our impact on it but previous ancestors' or histories' impact upon it and try and do something about it. I really believe in the power of people to change what's happening and I really hope, for my children's and future generations' sake, that all of us actually make a stand, learn about those histories, do something about it and pass it on.
ELSPETH: Yes. Thank you. And maybe just can you comment on this because this is something that I have felt myself sort of walking through the show, and, again, this kind of speaks to the material and the conceptual concerns that perhaps you share, but the fact that these aren't solid objects or paintings sort of like framed on canvas. They're not static. And so as a member of the public walking through them, you kind of animate them and you feel implicated in the histories and the memories that they're referring to. Is that something that you're conscious of?
JUDY: I've always loved the way that the textiles or the works on canvas ‑ I love having the torn edge of it and the way it moves and ripples, and it is animated, and I think ‑ even the shadows on it. And people have asked why do I use the torn edges, and it's because it enables your gaze to move beyond it. There's something about that. And I think that the way it's set up at the moment, it is maze‑like and people can walk through and then come out and see those ripples of history and experience like an osmosis, coming back and forth between the artist and the viewer, and experiencing it like this. I think it's pretty exciting. It's better than going to the show! (Laughs).
HELEN: I also think that when the work is free hanging and the bodies of the people in the space are part of the conversation, it also means that depending where you are in the room, you have a whole different set of imagery in your line of sight. So it's like all of the surfaces and the content of the room are talking to each other at the same time in a way that's more complicated than just like a linear experience of an artwork.
ELSPETH: Yes. Well, I guess in that respect, I'd also like to ask how the works inform each other and, in fact, do they always inform each other because that's something you've also spoken about in the past. Sometimes the works are at odds with each other. Judy, did you want to start?
JUDY: Well, I think we've got different histories and different stories that we bring to this but, in a way, it does go back and forth, the same as you're sort of reading it and reflecting from one perspective to the other. So with my work, I'm thinking about ‑ and this really came from the conversation of what the work was going to be about and, Helen, the sort of work that you were making ‑ and I thought: OK, if we're looking at colonisation, history, women, I want to look at the women in my family. And that's where I started working with the idea of the maps and the silhouettes. The maps are maps of Country that our family are from and stations they've worked from, and then the silhouettes ‑ except for the one of ‑ so this is my mother, Joyce, on the left here at the moment and it's a pastoral tenure map. And a lot of those stations are places our family ‑ both my matrilineal and other ancestors have worked on those properties, and Mum grew up on one. My grandmother was born on Riversleigh Station and was taken away with her mother, Mabel Daley, taking my grandmother, Grace Isaacson, running away from the Station in the middle of the night because, of many things, including police used to take the kids away, there was violence on the station, and so my grandmother remembers ‑ she was 5 or 6 years old and like 'Rabbit‑Proof Fence', basically they're running. Mabel, her mother, had a little baby, Daisy, and there was Grace's little brother, Paddy, and they were following rivers and creeks. My grandmother said that her mother would catch fish to sustain them and she would give us ‑ as in my grandmother and the rest of the family ‑ the flesh off the backbone, the best of what she had. So there's all those stories that come through that then I, I guess, remember and utilise as an artist to try and convey some of those stories within my work. So this is my mother's profile and she actually said she wanted to be on the Walter Roth map, which if you look at it says that 'the blacks are wild and not to be trusted in this part', and all of this sort of thing, and she really wanted to be the sort of 'blacks not to be trusted' one, but I just said : No, sorry". It just didn't fit. But I think when you look at the shape of ‑ almost like the sheet within it, it's also showing that shadow silhouette style of ethnographic photography. So it's got all sorts of things within it and it's charged with meaning, apart from just being a map.
HELEN: I guess I ‑ just going back to what you were saying about there being a sense of the works being at odds, I think for me, thinking about Judy's stories and the stories of her family and survival, my relation to this place is so different and so shallow. My parents came here in 1975 as aspirational economic migrants from the UK and I was born here four years after that. So it's a really different way of inhabiting this place and I think that that disconnection from this place is reflected in the work as well. And I also think the materiality of the work in the space, it's very clear that it's two distinct bodies of work, and even though my work has been conceived of as these sort of through spaces, they also become this monolith in the middle of the room that's such a white woman thing to do in a way and I think that ‑ I actually think it's important to acknowledge those things when they occur and address your own positions of ignorance and your own positions of entitlement in a position such as mine as part of the discomfort, that it's not ‑ that thinking about the rifts that are in existence in this place, in these places ‑ there are a lot of people, I think, who are like, "Just put that in the too‑hard basket. It's too challenging", and I think it's really important actually to look at those challenges and feel that awkwardness and keep pushing through it.
ELSPETH: Absolutely. And I think maybe just following on from this, Judy, you've kind of touched on this in terms of speaking about the work, which includes your mother, Joyce. But, as we touched on in the introduction, a focus of these works is women or other women in your lives in various ways and capacities. So could you speak a little bit more to that because one of the interesting things, I think, Helen, particularly about one of my favourite works in the show, 'The birth of an institution', is what you are kind of talking about, as a white woman myself. Women have often been kind of victims, I guess, of colonial or patriarchal structures but they're also complicit. So did you want to maybe speak to that a little bit?
HELEN: Yes. So I guess I was thinking with this body of work ‑ like, I've made works dealing with this sort of archival material in the past that tends to become really male‑focused because a lot of the imagery from around Naarm, where I live, which was colonised in 1838 ‑ I think was the sort of moment ‑ it's very male‑dominated imagery and it's easy to sort of just go, "Look at all the evil ruling‑class white men" but you've also got to remember the old adage of "Behind every powerful man there's a powerful woman", and that's not to generalise and go, "Oh, women had a great time in that context" ‑ I'm sure they didn't ‑ but I was interested to ‑ with this work, to flip the script and just ask what does it look like if this institutional space is repositioned so it's emerging from a woman's body? So the liquid lines of an architectural blueprint in this painting are adapted from the blueprint of the State Library of Victoria, which was ‑ here it is. So this building was erected in the 1850s and I guess I think about this as ‑ I didn't want to particularly pick on the Library but just identifying it as a ‑ I think of it as, like, the colony was starting to get its molars when it was building these big institutional buildings, and just thinking about the idea of that dome on the top of that building ends up being what is crowning ‑ is about to be pushed out from this woman's body but it also becomes a mechanism to talk about just all the lines of influence and power that go into those colonial processes and the roles that both men and women play in them. At the time, I was reading Richard Broome's 'Coburg: between two creeks', which is a history of an inner northern suburb of Melbourne that was once a farm village. And in that painting, these figures that are surrounding the labouring woman come from reading this history of the processes where it's like arriving in an area, the division of property, the erection of a school and a church. It's like the control of information is really central and comes first, and then everything else sort of falls into place after that. The land continues to be divided. Now we're buying tiny one‑bedroom apartments for $800,000 and it's still part of the same process. So the figures around the edge are like the priest, the policeman, the father who's also the banker, the midwife, the teacher. So just trying to lay that out and think about the deliberacy of those structures.
ELSPETH: And, Judy, did you want to say anything more about the matrilineal aspect? It's so striking when you walk into that space and you encounter Joyce. She's really the first work that you see. And then just down that through line across ‑ or down the space, just this sort of succession of women. Did you want to say something to that?
JUDY: Yes, I think it just was a bit of a stumbling of starting to make work and then think about it. I had used silhouettes before and, in fact, I was talking with both of you previously about a project that I did. It was called 'Songs for Jefferson'. I had silhouettes facing each other, and one at the University of Virginia was ‑ I had Walter, who was a cleaner, facing off with another guy, who was the head of the arts school, and that whole idea of facing off with people of different economic backgrounds or different stratas in society and thinking about institutions and who has the most power, and I actually think that Walter as the cleaner with the keys probably has more power than his supposed adversary at the top of the arts school. But that's where I was thinking. So that's where the portrait of me comes in. That was one of the 'Songs for Jefferson' projects.
ELSPETH: The second work?
JUDY: The second work, yes, that's myself with a climate change graph and vegetation that I'd picked up during COVID times and the baler shell. Which I've used a lot as a bit of a metaphor for my matrilineal family because the baler shell was used as a drinking vessel. It's often found at water holes that are inland. It's something that is a very female form. It's used as a vessel for ochre, painting up water, et cetera. Then my daughter Rani is further along, and she's a bit like Lady Justice with the freshwater mussel shells. Then my sister Lisa with the tenure map again. There's Rani with the freshwater mussel shells and there's almost like ‑ I call it the Lady Justice with the hoop pine coming down across her face. And Lisa with the kangaroo grass and the dugong bones, rib bones coming through.
Then the next one ‑ maybe it's not there. Further along. Anyway, it just goes down. Then my cousin Dot, who does shibori work with me, and that's my non‑Aboriginal side. And then Ebony, who's my art assistant in the studio. There's Dot. So it's just that whole idea. I didn't really know where it was going to go to. And Ebony has got once again a chart sort of talking about climate change or talking about various things that are affecting us. And then at some stage I'd like to talk about the Carpentaria petition. Is that OK? Yes, this one here. So there's an image coming up showing the petition itself and on here you can actually just see the signs of the signatories for the petition. The background for this work was made by jumping on and dancing on the canvas with a lot of earth involved and the petition reads: "Dear sir, as our representative in the Legislative Assembly of this State, we the undersigned beg to briefly put before you some of the annoying circumstances surrounding us in connection with the employment of Aborigines and would point out that our opinion is that so long as we are agreeable and anxious to act humanely and fairly with the blacks, we should not be hampered with restrictions such as we have been and are now subjected to. In regard to the payment of certain sums to the Government for boys and gins" ‑ that's the term for Aboriginal women ‑ "employed whilst giving homes to these people who would otherwise be thrown on the state, we are of the opinion that the amount of wages should be left optional with the employers, to be paid in accordance with the merit of the employee". Anyway, it goes on and basically they're saying they just don't want to pay Aboriginal people who are working on these properties and they'd prefer to have white boys coming in, past school ages, working there. And they're talking about Dr Roth, as in Walter 'Roeth', also known as Walter Roth, and I've used his map, which was very much part of this whole colonisation, and they're advising that reserves should be set aside for the blacks now wandering the district and these reserves placed under police supervision, guided by advice of local justices.
So why I'm interested in this is because these are all the stations surrounding our Country and they've got the signatures of all the people from those stations. So this is the power and influence which basically pertained to my matrilineal family, my Aboriginal family.
ELSPETH: Thank you. I think maybe just extending from this, obviously these bodies of work are part of your broader practices. These concerns and these interests are part of your existing practices, and yet these works were commissioned by the National Gallery, and I'm keen to hear your thoughts about institutions like the National Gallery in a reconciliation context because, of course, museums are colonial structures. They're places that keep, acquire, classify objects which assign value to objects. So I'm just interested to know whether you think: can they change? Can they be flexible or become flexible enough to encompass all of the audiences they seek to represent?
HELEN: That's a big question. I mean, I feel like ‑ a lot of the work that I made in this show started with this idea of foundations and the rot in the foundations in the colonial institutions. And I think that can be applied to museums as much as any other kind of institution, that there are these realities sitting in the collections of dispossession and brutality and theft and all of it. But I think the complexities of that and maybe the impossibility of redressing that in an absolute way doesn't mean that you shouldn't attempt to do it. I think there are a lot of museums doing really important repatriation work and that kind of thing and forming relationships with communities whose objects they have in their collections and that sort of thing, and I think ‑ I mean, I was saying to you earlier, I think the rehang of Australian art upstairs here currently does some really important work in terms of what is brought into proximity with what other works. There's a Fiona Foley work sharing space with a Tom Roberts painting and I have this sense of those ‑ there's lots of instances in that show of works that have been waiting and calling to each other and have not been in physical proximity to each other until now. So I think things like that are important, and making space for Indigenous curators and artists who come in and inhabit these spaces, as they do in brilliant and beautiful ways ‑ currently in Ceremony and in the Indigenous curatorial team here.
ELSPETH: We have some amazing, amazing First Nations people on staff, yes.
JUDY: Yes, I agree with the current hang, which is upstairs. I hope everybody's seen it and will go and see it. But just seeing ‑ I can almost imagine, as the curators and installers have put the work together, those decisions of making ‑ putting one work against another and the spacing and everything else, and mostly I agree with it. There's probably one thing I might ‑ but I can't even remember what that is. So it's something that I totally agree with and I've heard other artists and visitors say the same thing and it's just so clever but also brings histories together and artists together, like the works with Margaret Preston and then other contemporary artists and other previous artists and sort of looking at appropriation. It's a very, very clever juxtaposition and I really want to thank the National Gallery for bringing those works to our attention and encourage you all to see it for months and years ahead.
ELSPETH: I note that it's already quarter to 7, so maybe I'll ask one final question of you both and then we'll go to some audience questions. When Cara and I were speaking, we really kind of wanted to know what is it that you want your work to do. What do you want audiences to kind of take away from it? Judy?
JUDY: Well, I'll bring that back into the institution a little bit too. So with the institutions, as an artist and trying to do research and all the rest of it, I would like institutions to open up and allow the artists and other activists, art activists or whatever, to come in. Open those gates. Let them through. Uncle Sam Watson talked about how it was really important that the artists and musicians, the singers, everybody else were able to come in as he saw them as 'the bards and the seers', bringing those messages, really important messages, through into the future. So I think ‑ I would love to see these spaces open for generations to come to really activate them and also to have disparate histories of work vying together. And I hope that ‑ I think as we said at the beginning ‑ that people will go away from this history lesson, which I think this work is in a way, wanting to know more about their own histories and look at that and challenge themselves and challenge everybody else and also go out and get involved with art, make work, have fun.
HELEN: I agree. I think my hope would be that people come away from experiencing that exhibition with questions and a willingness to sit with discomfort and incommensurability. I think that's an important aspect of the exhibition from my point of view, just those ‑ bringing together our really different subject positions and going: sometimes they bring things out in each other and sometimes they're jarring into each other or their energies are really different, and that it doesn't mean you have to shut that down and take the echo chamber approach. But, yeah, I think it would be great if people came away wanting to do their own digging. I think both of us do a lot of digging as part of our practices and encourage others to do likewise.
ELSPETH: It's so important. I even think about when I went to school, high school. I grew up in rural South Australia and I think we did one unit on Australian history in high school but I think that's changing. It seems to be changing. This seems to be ‑ I don't know if you agree ‑ kind of an exciting moment. There does seem to be real change, not only in the art world but I think socially, culturally, more broadly. So thank you to you both for drawing these kind of lessons on history, these memories, whether they're personal, familial, archival, to our attention.
So we have about 10 minutes left so we might go to some audience questions. So there are a couple here on the screen. How did you bring your bodies of work together and did you have a chance to see the works together before they were exhibited? Who wants to start?
HELEN: I'm happy to start. So the works weren't physically in the same space until the install. Because of COVID, we were both ‑ there were occasions when we were like, "Oh, we can both be in Sydney at the same time" and we could meet in person and have a conversation in the real, which is always preferable, but we never could get to each other's studios during the production of this work because of COVID. So, yeah, it was just physically bringing them into the space. For me, it was like: oh, gosh, my works are, like, really massive and I feel self‑conscious about that, but also that's what they are. And what about you?
JUDY: Well, we saw each other's work online a bit, it was like little tastes of it. It was like, "I want to see more." And so to actually see it, after just seeing little bits of it in progress, was great and I look forward to seeing it in other spaces too.
HELEN: Yeah, I'm quite excited about that too, that this show's travelling to some different venues, and I think it's going to be really nice to be able to iterate it in different ways and play with the relationships between the works in different spaces.
ELSPETH: As I said to you both earlier, I will really miss the works. I've loved spending time with them and they're works that reward. I think that's another one ‑ something else that links your practices, that your art isn't easy. It's kind of ‑ it's layered. You described it earlier sort of as a palimpsest and you need to kind of spend time with it. And what I loved about this particular configuration, as you say, it will change as the work kind of travels around to different venues, but I loved that it was so immersive and that it kind of ‑ it not only implicated you in the kind of histories that it told but it also held you in a way, and I kind of loved that, so thank you.
There was another question here. I'm sorry ‑ what was it like as two artists with distinct practices to kind of work in this way? I mean, as we've said in the intro, you worked remotely but you were kind of in conversation for a long time. What did you learn from each other, I guess?
JUDY: Well, I trained as a printmaker and I see the layering of printmaking as something which I can almost read in Helen's work. It's almost like ‑ with the layering and peeling back, it's almost like a reductive sort of print in a way too, where you sort of start and then you pull it back and pull it back. So it's something that doesn't feel like it's very different to what I do. In some ways, I can understand that layering and that attention to detail, even though that's not necessarily the way that I make the work.
HELEN: Yeah. I feel the same. I mean, I've been a fan of Judy's practice for many years and really interested in the way ‑ I think there are lots of similarities in our works in basic material senses, of working unstretched and working on the floor, which is like a practical necessity for me, and working with these different registers of image that intersect and intervene on each other as well. And I think that having those ‑ having certain similarities like that but then seeing how they produce these really different outcomes is a really interesting part of the process for me.
JUDY: I think as artists, there's always something about meeting together in terms of materiality and trying to understand, and also being very receptive to, or seduced by, that materiality. So I've really enjoyed seeing that within your work.
HELEN: Likewise. That was like the one thing we can thank COVID for: having all those tantalising images from a distance on the screen and then being able to be with the work physically and see all the nuances in the surfaces of your works and the details and the coherency of them as well. That was really such a lovely thing when we finally made it up here.
ELSPETH: There's another question here: as a primary school teacher ‑ so I assume this question is from a primary school teacher ‑ what would you like children to know about art? And I guess I would extend that question a little bit, not only about art but kind of the stories that you're telling.
JUDY: Well, I think there's being a project developed which is Art Steps with the National Gallery and so I think both of us would love to see children be very playful and go through some of the layering processes that we have gone through but find their own way. But really it's very much about being playful and not being too constricted, and relating that perhaps to your immediate environment. We were looking at plants and things like that, thinking about the plants. For people who are local here, you can walk around and maybe even see around the National Gallery with the plantings, or wherever the students are based, and that's one thing, but there's so many other things. There's maps in my work. Primary school teacher, show your children what's the Aboriginal Country they are on. Let them talk about that. Maybe let them do mapping of how they get to school. There's so many ways that they can learn about who they are and where they fit.
HELEN: I agree. I also ‑ I think ‑ I'd like children to know about art, that it's ‑ that they don't have to ‑ there's no right or wrong when it comes to art, that art can be a question or art can just be an exploration, that there doesn't have to be a fixed meaning, and that when you encounter an artwork, what emerges is between you and the work and it's different for every person.
JUDY: I've found primary school students are the best in terms of asking them, "Well, what do you think about this?", and instead of being told by the teacher, they'll tell you straight what it is and it's so honest and so wonderful. I really hope that they are allowed to keep that wonder and honesty going.
ELSPETH: Thank you so much. It's always such a pleasure to listen to you both. As I said, you're artists who I, and I'm sure we all, deeply admire. Your work is so intelligent and important, I think particularly at this moment in time of reckoning and everything that's kind of happening culturally in this country or, rather, series of First Nations Countries. So thank you to you both. As you've already indicated, the work will be travelling to a number of galleries all across Australia. First up will be Naarm, or Melbourne, at MUMA, so really looking forward to seeing the work there too. So will you join me in thanking Judy and Helen ‑‑
JUDY: Oh, and before, happy birthday to Cara.
ELSPETH: Oh, happy birthday to Cara.
JUDY: Okay, can everyone sing along.
ALL: (Singing) Happy birthday to Cara, happy birthday to you, happy birthday, dear Cara, happy birthday to you! Hip, hip!
ELSPETH: Thank you, everyone. Thank you.