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 exhibition, she champions Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander vocabulary and expression.
The first exhibition to inhabit the National Gallery'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.
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 Kame Kngwarrye, 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.
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.
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.
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 at the National Gallery until 3 November 2019.