An interview with Jonathan Jones
by Tamara Baillie
A member of the Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi nations of south-east Australia, Sydney-based Aboriginal artist Jonathan Jones works across a range of mediums, championing local knowledge systems, grounded in research of the historical archive and builds on community aspirations. He recently presented barrangal dyara (skin and bones), a vast sculptural installation stretching across 20,000 square-metres of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden for the 32nd Kaldor Public Art Project. Despite this vast undertaking, Jonathan made time to mentor Tamara Baillie during her recent residency at Artspace, Sydney. Here they have attempted to capture some thoughts around institutions and contemporary Indigenous arts practice.
Tamara Baillie: As an indigenous artist who has also worked in art institutions, how do you feel about the way Indigenous objects are currently collected and displayed?
Jonathan Jones: I think what keeps us all going in this industry is that we know the extraordinary potential of our institutions. However the recent reality, and we see it time after time, is that they fail us, including how our objects are collected and displayed. I feel that we should understand cultural objects as our kin. We (our ancestors and current practitioners) created them, they represent us, they are extensions of our cultural knowledge and they are gifts for future generations. Understanding cultural objects in this way makes seeing the way they are handled, collected and stored troubling. When researching in museum and gallery collections you see rows and rows of objects statically laying on unforgiving white shelves in controlled temperatures with only the dull hum of florescent lights to keep them company, reminds me of visiting family and friends in hospital. In both institutions and hospitals our relations lie sick, disconnected from country and community, with toe-tags the only tell-tail sign of their life once lived. Institutions and hospitals often leave me feeling the same, and I often think that they should leave the radio playing for the objects to have something to listen to.
One of the biggest problems facing the collection and display of cultural material is the lack of creativity of our institutions. This collision between creative cultural material and uncreative institutions can be attributed to a number of reasons but at its very heart is the cultural mismatch of a western institution representing Aboriginal creativity. This more than anything stifles artworks and is a deep-seated issue of decolonisation that we need to overcome. Aboriginal artists, whether they come from the 1800’s or now, are creating works that often sit outside the white cube or the museum case. Often needing song, story or site to be activated, our works are let down by one-dimensional, one art form, western institutions.
The ongoing call for an Aboriginal centre-come-gallery-come-museum-come-institution in Sydney is a direct response to this issue and current cultural leaders such as Hetti Perkins has been calling for such a space for years. A space that can re-think the colonial frame and establish an alternative way of experiencing art and culture. Various politicians, bureaucrats and ‘big-noters’ with little to no effect have kicked around this idea at the expense of Aboriginal self-determination and sovereignty. Creating our own institutions is just part of the solution. In addition to this we also need to be looking at decolonising the existing institutions, so working both from the inside out and the outside in. We need to have the opportunity to call the shots on how our cultural objects are collected, stored and displayed, or we will be dogs waiting for scraps from the colonial table.
TB: Do you think that the path forward, towards decolonising collections and display policies, is through employing more indigenous curators within current institutions? Are there alternative strategies that you feel might work?
JJ: We are at a moment in our history when we are losing senior Aboriginal positions. I remember a time when we had Aboriginal leaders driving the industry. Hetti Perkins was the senior curator at the Art Gallery New South Wales (where I was lucky enough to work), Avril Quaill was at the National Gallery of Australia, Brenda Croft was at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, etc. all in senior roles. Today we have suffered an extraordinary die back in the senior roles. New curators have stepped up and are doing a phenomenal job but without senior positions for them to move into we are setting them up to fail, which means the institutions are failing us as a community. This is also happening at a community level. Many of the communities I've worked with in the APY Lands have often felt that institutions are not working with them and in fact have their own agenda that happily sits in opposition to them. Recently we have seen senior APY men defamed after putting an injunction on an exhibition held by a state institution representing their culture. This type of cultural harm shouldn't be emanating from our cultural institutions, particularly in this era.
Yet the potential of our cultural institutions is there. A project can shift our narrative and benefit everyone but for this to happen we need Aboriginal people in positions where they are able to make the calls and not be defined by a colonial institution. Recently I was lucky enough to work with Aboriginal curator Kelli Cole on an exhibition at the National Museum in Canberra. This project was fraught to say the least (it was born of the British Museums encounter) but having Kelli as guest curator from an art background in the museum space taking control of the artist response resulted in an exhibition which was largely ignored by the institution and we saw something interesting happen, something well beyond the capabilities of the Museum. I think this process of unraveling is something people who have been left on the periphery can do best, un-packing and re-packing, within new cultural models, which often takes the material we know and shifts it into new light so it can be seen afresh.
Also I have to say I'm lucky enough to have been trained in the industry by some of the most extraordinary leaders, people like Hetti, the late Michael Riley, Uncle Stan Grant, Aunty Yvonne Koolmatrie and other staunch forerunners, who have always shown me that projects must benefit community first. In the past few years I've been able to work on projects with communities who have been able to use the art projects to achieve their own goals and benefits. In 2015 I was able to work with my own mob in Bathurst where we created a set of film portraits of the local senior elders to commemorate 200 years of invasion in that community in an exhibition titled guwiinyguliya yirgabiyi ngay yuwingu gulbalangidyal ngunhi (they made a solitude and called it peace). The elders, standing defiant, were not only proud of their portraits but of their involvement and ability to collaborate as equals within a project and not as subject. Ceremonies were conducted in the lead up to the project, the elders lead the opening and it became an enormous healing process within a traumatic setting. More recently I've also been able to work with local Gadigal community such as Uncle Chika Madden and his grand-daughters, including Lilly Madden, to create works that has seen them connect to their language, often for the first time, which has been a huge privilege. These project which see the community you’re working with as key stakeholders, who need to benefit from any activity, is just one element of a post-colonial strategy.