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 sign: THIS REFINERY IS A MAJOR HAZARDOUS FACILITY.

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.

Snapshot of emerging art: Induce Myth photomedia exhibition at Gauge Gallery

Miniature city of staples.
Man walks down stairs in the dark, looking over his shoulder.
Horizontal coloured lines.
John Lennon’s face.

What do these images have in common?

They create questions, narratives, thoughts.
They blur boundaries of reality and representation.
They were all recently on display at Induce Myth, a photomedia exhibition at Gauge Gallery in Glebe, Sydney.

Eager to see my friend’s art for the first time, I attended Induce Myth on opening night (6th May 2014). Amelia Tracey, Honours student at Sydney College of the Arts (SCA), created the exhibition with fellow artists Dylan Esguerra and John Fox.

I walked around the exhibition space, examining works while sipping from a glass of white wine (as is de rigueur at exhibition openings).
Esguerra’s staple cityscapes made me think of the fragility of the urban environment, post-9/11. An office tower is no longer a promise of security, and a city skyline can fracture in an instant.
Light and shadow are at play in Fox’s photographs, each framing a different person walking down stairs at night. What will happen next? The unknown is a threat to predictable daily ritual; the ordinary may rupture at any moment.

Tracey’s work is more abstract. Except for nods to 1960s music (Lennon’s face in There Lived a Man Who Sailed to Sea, and the title itself referencing the Beatles’ song ‘Yellow Submarine’), coloured lines and shapes could mean anything. This is the point. The central message of Induce Myth is “Using these images, let your own story emerge”. The works of all three artists encourage visitors to create their own narratives.

Here is Tracey’s narrative, in response to her work.

My work is not photography, and yet it thrives on the photographic. It does not involve painting, and yet it is aesthetically painterly. It sits in a kind of ‘in-between’ space or medium. Further, my work is always born in the digital, raising themes concerning social networking.

 

Amelia Tracey's works on display at Induce Myth. Foreground: There Lived a Man Who Sailed To Sea. Background: 27.

Artist Amelia Tracey’s works on display at Induce Myth. In foreground: There Lived a Man Who Sailed To Sea. In background: 27.

Her work There Lived a Man Who Sailed To Sea consists of two images: Lennon’s face in bright blue, orange and yellow hues, and an arrangement of coloured rectangles. In the exhibition the images were placed on a pedestal, facing opposite directions. Lennon’s face, according to Tracey, is a “digital painting” using colours extracted from the cover of the album Yellow Submarine. The rectangles appear to be randomly assigned, but are actually a “visual musical score” of the song ‘Yellow Submarine’. The score was created in Adobe Photoshop with mathematical accuracy, using the scale 1 crochet : 1000 pixels.

Tracey also uses digital colour extraction in 27, but for a different purpose. A series of five images were displayed side-by-side on the gallery wall, each representing a member of the tragic ‘27 club’ (a group of celebrity musicians who all died at age 27). Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse are depicted as rows of horizontal lines, with each musician assigned a unique colour scheme.

Tracey explains her method. 

They were created by sourcing the 27 most Googled images of each musician, and colour sampling the central pixel from each photo. The sample would then determine the colour of each stripe, and the finished work acts as a kind of non-figurative, non-traditional portrait.

27 was created using a strict formula, which Tracey applied at one moment in Internet history. Re-applying the formula at a later date would yield a different set of 27 ‘most Googled’ images, which means the colours extracted would result in a completely new work.

I interpret Tracey’s art as a re-configuration of portraiture in the social media landscape, where identity is always changing, participation is vital, and the personal – including the private lives of celebrities – can be accessed with the click of a button.

But that’s only my interpretation. What’s yours?