Encountering East Coast Encounter

Even within the first couple of minutes of meeting, the misunderstandings happened.

Dean Kelly, in East Coast Encounter – a film by Jeff McMullen.


The sea carries this ship here, why??

From Badtjala Song; translated by Gemma Cronin, 2013.


What if there was a different encounter between British settlers and Aboriginal people?

What if this encounter – the arrival of James Cook and his crew on Australian shores in 1770 – was characterised by respect, tolerance, the welcoming and embrace of indigenous diversity?

What if this changes who we are today? What would it all look like, feel like – our streets, our buildings, our terrain, our sounds?

What if we could look back at our history and be proud of it?

There are many ‘what ifs’ at the exhibition East Coast Encounter – re-imagining the 1770 encounter. Developed by the University of the Sunshine Coast, and currently on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney (before travelling to regional centres throughout Australia), East Coast Encounter presents works which re-imagine the moment of first contact between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. A variety of artistic media – including painting, sculpture, music and lyrics, photography, video, and three dimensional works – are used to challenge entrenched narratives, propose alternative viewpoints, and elevate voices which have been historically suppressed.

Entrance to the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney

Entering the museum, ready to battle the school holiday crowds. I think …

I visited East Coast Encounter on a weekday during school holidays. Parents and children were making a bee-line for the blockbuster whale exhibition, using East Coast Encounter – positioned in a long corridor along the perimeter of the museum – as a thoroughfare. The mundane realities of parenting interrupted my historical re-imagining. Some children asked questions (what’s that boat painting, mum?), forcing exhausted parents to engage with the exhibition by putting on an ad-hoc history lesson. Some children decided that the exhibition’s sculptures were (strange, yet compelling) toys to play with, much to the chagrin of their parents. And a mother, losing track of her two children, felt compelled to shout their names across the exhibition space in a high-pitched voice. Not to worry – I like my exhibitions to feel alive, even if my eardrums take a battering.

But every exhibition encounter will be different.

Here are five reasons why you should encounter East Coast Encounter.*

1. Michael Cook’s prints

Undiscovered #4 (2010), Undiscovered #7 (2010), and Broken Dreams #3 (2010) re-imagine the colonial encounter through role reversal. You see an Aboriginal man on the shore dressed in Captain’s garb, his tall ship looming on the horizon. You see an Aboriginal man – sans colonial attire, except for a British flag raised over his shoulder – walking with a crocodile across the waves. You see an Aboriginal woman wearing an ornate black dress with white floral neckline, a white pearl necklace, and a black glove; her gloved hand points to a rainbow lorikeet and a tall ship in the distance.

Is it all a game of dress-ups, an opportunity to play with identity’s transformative possibilities? Or does Michael Cook’s re-imagining have political implications? Clothing and trappings symbolised clear authority structures in 1770, but this role reversal returns authority to the dispossessed, showing the world from their perspective. What if this happened, not that?

2. Reg Mombassa’s drawings

Artist and musician Reg Mombassa is well-known for his colourful, cartoon-like drawings which interpret the Australian landscape, politics and popular culture. In Close Encounters of the First Kind (2013), a huge, imposing eye (not unlike the one he designed for the Sydney Harbour Bridge on NYE 2013) floats high above a cove where Aboriginal people stand and watch, spears in hand. But it’s not just an eye – it has appendages: an urban clutter of telegraph poles, power-lines, houses, factories, the arches of the Sydney Opera House. And, skulls.

The alien spaceship of ‘civilisation’ takes over your life. And it watches your every move.

3. Judy Watson’s paintings

Civilisation as alien and oppressing, or civilisation as systematic and reforming? In tibberwuccum (2005) and beerburrum (2005), Judy Watson creates concentric lines and shapes in shades of ochre and pink. Topographic charts spring to mind. But the blotches could also represent blood stains. Or the indigenous connection to country, through the symbolism of desert colours and track markings. There is no definitive answer – assigning a fixed meaning to these works would be like colonisation all over again.

Let’s ask Watson. (In response to beerburrum.)

I have deliberately combined two perspectives within the work, the device of Eurocentric cartography and Aboriginal colours of ochre that echo the stain of the volcanic earth, spiralling out from the centre to the edges.

4. Adam Hill’s photographs


A barbeque in a suburban park.

An Aboriginal man fishing in a bay, beside a monument. In the distance: a bridge, factories, ships.

In Adam Hill’s photographs, locations which commemorate the arrival of the First Fleet are re-framed into sites of loss, negotiation and reclamation. Titles and imagery work together to connote new perspectives. You interpret the refinery sign in a new way when given the title of the work: Refining Culture (2013). The park barbie, an Aussie icon, is reinterpreted through the title Barbiquaria (2013), referencing the 1986 satirical film BabaKiueria (Barbeque Area) in which uniformed Aboriginal people invade a beach of barbeque-loving white Australians. And the Aboriginal man fishing in a bay, photographed at Kamay/Botany Bay in Sydney, reclaims the commemorative site by highlighting historical displacement and cultural exclusion. This work also reinterprets anthemic nationalism, through the satiric misspelling in its title: We’ve boundless pains to share (2013).

5. Arone Meeks’s paintings

In Australian indigenous culture, the more you talk or paint about your story or country, the stronger this connection becomes.

Arone Meeks

In First Voyage to Possession Islan** (2012), Arone Meeks reveals the strength of connection between indigenous people and the land through a symbolic, multifaceted reclamation of the natural landscape of Possession Island (part of the Torres Strait Islands).

A life force animates the painting. Dancing bodies merge with nature, flowing with the wind and sea. A large canoe extends across the painting, above a blue, swirling sea inhabited by red jellyfish. Community, the Dreamtime, and local nuances are celebrated. And celebration is a powerful tool of repossession – just as Cook’s prints repossess through role reversal, Mombassa’s drawings repossess through imagining the indigenous response to first contact, Watson’s paintings repossess through the juxtaposition of topographic worldviews, and Hill’s photographs repossess through scrutinising modern-day commemorative sites of contact.

What if we could repossess the past, tell a different story to the one they wanted?


East Coast Encounter – re-imagining the 1770 encounter is on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney, from 9 May to 24 August 2014. Click here for regional tour dates. 

* Choosing only five works was difficult, as the extent of significant works in the exhibition far exceeds the brevity of a blog post. You will have your own favourites.

** Meeks uses local spelling.


My Top 5 Exhibition Pet Peeves (Part Two)

You learnt in Part One that pestering visitors, intrusive staff members, and high prices are three of my exhibition pet peeves.
But these are trifling matters.
What really makes my blood boil in an exhibition?

My Top 5 Exhibition Pet Peeves

5. Other people

4. Overzealous staff

3. Elitism and price warfare

2. Label fail

The label is incorrect. The label has a spelling mistake. The label is too wordy, overly opinionated, patronising, or just really boring to read.

There are many things that can go wrong when creating an exhibition label. The label producer may not be aware of these problems, or may only become aware after the label has been printed and fixed to a wall. Any publisher, writer, illustrator, or student printing a lengthy assignment knows all too well the gut-wrenching feeling when one tiny error necessitates an entire reprint.

Should a factual error or spelling mistake be left as is, even though it may reflect badly on the exhibiting institution? Or should the label be reprinted? Another option is to add an amendment or note explaining the mishap. This could either be seen as honest and forthright, or unprofessional and a bit convoluted. (For more on this and other label dilemmas, I recommend Eugene Dillenburg’s illustrated discussion on ‘interesting labels’.)

No-one likes to be lectured at through an exhibition label, or told what to think and feel in response to a work. Visitors prefer to reach their own conclusions, especially in an art exhibition where works should be open to individual interpretation. This is why many art galleries adopt a minimalist approach to labels, providing only a basic citation.

Inability to sustain the visitor’s interest = label fail. I’m willing to take the time to read a well-written, informative label in a history exhibition. But if the label starts banging on about the minutiae of a World War I battle, interspersed with dates, descriptions of terrain and military jargon, I will bypass the label completely.

An effective label is relevant, concise, and provides an insightful background or footnote to the work.

A very effective label has a narrative quality. Because nobody will walk away from a good story.

(An invaluable resource for anyone who writes exhibition labels is Gallery Text at the V&A: A Ten Point Guide.)


Drum roll

My number one exhibition pet peeve of all time is …

1. The shop

Ah, the obligatory exhibition shop. Strategically placed at the end of the exhibition, or in close proximity to the exit door, the retail outlet banks on visitor exhaustion through the promise of instant gratification. After all the elusive ideas and abstract stimuli, finally: a tangible souvenir, compensating for a helpless void in which nothing concrete has been attained and there is no physical proof that the experience actually happened.

Non-vital objects accumulated from exhibition shops.

Non-vital objects that I’ve purchased from exhibition shops.

Exhibition consumables may or may not be directly linked to the exhibition.
For example, in a temporary outlet at the end of an Impressionist painting exhibition, you see a Monet postcard. All well and good.
But then the shop throws you a curve-ball. Also on sale: a DIY Andy Warhol pop art kit, a set of juggling balls, a harmonica on a key-chain, and a tube of eucalyptus-scented moisturiser.
Nobody needs these things. But you buy them to fill the void, convincing yourself that it’d be awesome to learn screen print portraiture, join the circus, become a travelling musician, and smell like a koala’s lunch.

But there is no real harm in taking home an exhibition memento (it is really only a pet peeve for my wallet). The objects may look like mere shelf-fodder, but memory and association imbue them with personal meaning. Exhibitions I’ve been to still linger, long after their closing date.

What are your exhibition pet peeves?

My Top 5 Exhibition Pet Peeves (Part One)

I have a bone to pick with you, exhibition. Yes I’m talking to you: dark lighting, white paint, sculpture on pedestal, flash of tourist’s camera, pretentious tour guide, old bones, new media, crying baby, form a queue please, and “It costs $25 to get in?”

I love you, but you are by no means perfect. You should be ashamed of yourself.

These are the top five things I hate about you.

5. Other people

Hell is other exhibition visitors.

It would be great to have an exhibition to myself for once; to flit from object to object without risk of an elbow to the face, or having my vision obscured because the tallest man in Australia has also decided to visit the Biennale today.

There are four sub-types of annoying exhibition visitor.

The Elbow Fiend

A serial exhibition pest. The Elbow Fiend’s constant elbow-raising shows a minimal awareness of bodily proximity and lack of respect for interpersonal boundaries. 

The Loud, Opinionated ‘Expert’

Always has an opinion deemed worthy enough to force upon other gallery participants. Highly aware of the small room’s capacity for aural reverberation and uses it to their advantage. 

The Delinquent Child

I’m all for children interacting with exhibitions, and would be the first to argue the importance of cultural institutions for child development. But an exhibition experience can be completely ruined by The Delinquent Child, especially one that insists on pirouetting over security barriers while screaming (though check first as the screams may actually be part of a contemporary art installation, which therefore makes them acceptable).

The Frontal Impediment

The equivalent of being cut off while driving, or climbing a mountain only to have your view obscured by fog. The Frontal Impediment is a visitor who swoops, out of nowhere, into that tiny space between you and the exhibit.

Next time, come prepared for these sub-types: earplugs, hula hoop around your waist to define your boundaries, protective elbow pads for retaliation against The Elbow Fiend. You may think you look ridiculous, but in the art world you will appear hip and avant-garde.

4. Overzealous staff

To guarantee an enjoyable exhibition experience, overzealous staff members must be eradicated.

Not all staff members though. Museum workers and volunteers are often angels who enrich the visitor experience, whether it is through education, guiding, curation, or pointing out when you’re walking the wrong way. When I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, an extremely helpful staff member advised me that I wasn’t supposed to walk through a century-old revolving door in the middle of the museum: “It’s an exhibit dear, not an exit”.

An overzealous staff member will always pounce if you

  • bump the security rope, or marginally overstep the line;
  • wear your backpack on your back;
  • accidently use your camera flash;
  • have a sneaky sip of water to prevent dehydration;
  • exist.
Younger me, getting too close to an exhibit.

Younger me, getting too close to an exhibit while wearing a backpack ON MY BACK. How rebellious.

If an overzealous staff member has a point to make, they will make it. Like a draconian school principal hell-bent on pedagogic domination, they will find a grievance and object to it. My boyfriend made the mistake of visiting an exhibition while wearing a 1970s camera around his neck. He had no intention of taking photographs inside the gallery, but each time he touched the camera ever so slightly, a security guard jumped in and reprimanded him.

3. Elitism and price warfare

Art, heritage and cultural engagement should be open and accessible to all. So why pay $25AUD and up to visit an exhibition? If I wanted entertainment combined with a Delinquent Child ruining my day I’d go to the cinema instead, which has also seen price rises, but not as high as some exhibitions I’ve been to. Events, talks and symposiums add additional costs, at times making them accessible only to elites. Increasingly, visitors are asked to book tickets to blockbuster exhibitions through ticketing agencies, which charge inflated fees on top of the exhibition price.

But many organisations have addressed this issue. Some museums and galleries maintain a free entry policy, digital initiatives and travelling exhibitions increase accessibility without additional cost to the visitor, and child, student and pensioner discounts are commonplace.


Stay tuned for my top 2 exhibition pet peeves …

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you have an opinion on exhibition pricing? What are your exhibition pet peeves? Have any museum or gallery experiences particularly enraged you?

Maybe you have come across one of the four sub-types. Or are you one of them? If you’re a Loud, Opinionated ‘Expert’, now is the chance to defend yourself while sharing your loud, opinionated expertise!