by Yusuf Hayat
The Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) sits comfortably amongst imposing architecture in a ‘cultural corridor’ connecting institutions of power and knowledge. Running from State Parliament the tree-lined boulevard takes in Government House, Royal South Australian Society of Arts, State Library, South Australian Museum and Elder Conservatorium of Music. The paving between Government House and the University of Adelaide, was set with 150 bronze plaques in 1986 to commemorate 150 years since the colonisation of SA in 1836.
The approach to AGSA evokes a physical phenomenological response that is interrupted only by Lindy Lee’s The Life of Stars. The columned portico of AGSA’s neo-classical façade—an echo of the Parthenon—serves as a mnemonic device that recalls the grandeur of Greece, Rome, London and all the associations embedded in the residual civilisational and colonial cultural memory. Only a few years ago, visitors to the Elder Wing of Australian Art were flanked by two sets of busts on entering Gallery 1, one pair black and the other white. On the eastern wall sat Woureddy and Trucaninny, a Nuennone man and woman from Bruny Island, and English explorers Charles Sturt and Sir George McLeay, to the west. A reminder that the politics and poetics of race and identity in Australia remains divided.
The Elder Wing has recently undergone a transformation. The creative displays of visual puns demonstrate the institution wielding its curatorial power in flamboyant fashion. The renewed display maps several open-ended propositions that defy a simplistic definition of Australian Art. In the words of director Rhana Devenport, “we’re looking across time, we’re looking across countries of origin, we’re also looking across materiality”.(1)
The aesthetically impressive, if subjectively themed, curatorial constructions have their own logic and might be considered autonomous exhibitions. The seductive presentations are at times a workout not only for the eyes but also the neck! The display starts ambitiously with occasional contemporary incursions and a refreshing democratisation of cultural traditions and artefacts that were, until now, largely kept apart. Elsewhere, a wall of paintings depicting dramatically cascading waterfalls gather momentum before the viewer reaches the frenzied energy of billowing dust in Tom Roberts’ A break away! The figure on horseback reaching out, propelling the viewer beyond the frame to Rodin and Europe. This pairing makes a claim for Australian art’s cosmopolitan credentials through an affinity with contemporaneous European art.
For the 2013 ABC TV series The Art of Australia, the late Edmund Capon, listed Hossein Valamanesh’s Longing, Belonging (1997) amongst his five favourite works of Australian art. Of the work Capon states, “What this work expresses above all is an honest affinity, with the landscape, with the artist's own heritage and with his new circumstances and environment. Without casting aside that very different and distinctive heritage he has found a harmony with his new homeland. This is a work that is inscribed with the challenges and uncertainties of relocation and, at the same time, the maintenance of inherited values.”(2)
The display in Gallery 2, entitled Longing and Belonging, co-opts language usually associated with ‘migrant’ narratives into the settler narrative. The wall text for this theme refers to the “unsettled feeling of displacement that comes from not being in one’s home country – a characteristic of the Australian experience”.
Longing and Belonging makes a claim about a general ‘Australian experience’ yet relates to a specific historical period. The wall text can, somewhat problematically, imply an equivalence between the experiences of new and emerging minority communities in ‘multicultural’ Australia with those of the dominant colonial settlers. ‘Home country’ is assumed to be an overseas location, clearly addressing a non-Aboriginal audience that is encouraged to identify with the ‘Australian experience’.
The themed displays throughout the Elder Wing introduce a prescriptive institutional framework that risks immobilising the audience’s interpretive agency. The institutions curatorial authorship is privileged in orienting audiences. In doing so, it endorses, authenticates and naturalises the narrative whilst coaxing audiences towards particular understandings. However, as Irit Rogoff states, “if you work out a thematic and then assemble things that are seemingly engaged with that thematic, those objects don’t simply sit there and illustrate passively, they start to instantiate and embody and draw out the thematic with different meanings than it may have had originally.”(3)
Included in Longing and Belonging is The first lesson by Charles Hill. The picture depicts a barefoot (perhaps Kaurna?) woman with her dog at the doorstep of, what we can guess is, the artist’s home. The woman is given bread covered in lard by a young girl. The girl’s mother has her hand on the child’s arm and is carrying a younger child in her other arm. A third child peers past the mother’s skirt – all eyes are sympathetically on the woman at the door.
The settler family perform this interaction from the raised doorstep of their home. The story being told in the selection and presentation of this painting is of the values of charity and benevolence the mother is teaching the child. Audiences are invited to identify with the positive self-image and ‘civilising’ mission of the colonial mother(land) - Britannia. There is no attempt to refute this outdated, taken-for-granted position and rescue the dignity of the Aboriginal woman, or audiences that identify with her, in The first lesson. Her displacement and disenfranchisement are overlooked, rendering her invisible yet visibly framed as unequal, needy and under-civilised; visible only in so much as she serves to affirm the settler narrative. Without counterpoint, the superior white position is presented as naturally self-evident.
Charles Hill arrived in 1854 from Coventry, England – 26 miles (a marathon!) from my home town, Leicester. Active in the Adelaide art scene, Hill went on to found an art school that in its current iteration is the School of Art at the University of South Australia. The Proclamation of South Australia 1836, painted by Charles Hill over a twenty year period (1856-1876), is possibly one of AGSA’s most historically significant paintings. The distinctive proclamation tree in Glenelg, where the proclamation is read annually on December 28, is clearly identifiable in the picture. Several figures were added in the painting although there are no witness accounts of them having been there, including the Kaurna group in the distance. The proclamation states, “firm determination to punish with exemplary severity all acts of violence or injustice which may in any manner be practiced or attempted against the natives, who are considered as much under the safeguard of the law as the as the Colonists themselves, and equally entitled to the privileges of British Subjects”.(4)
An anonymous letter to The Adelaide Times in 1851 gives some insight into how that intention translated into treatment:
“Shame Upon Us! We take their land and drive away their food by what we call civilisation, and then deny them shelter from a storm………. What can a maddened black think of our Christianity to deny him the sod on which he was born? He lived before the white fellow came on the natural produce of the soil. You grow hundreds of bushels of corn on his land but deny him the crumbs that fall from the table”.(5)
AGSA presents us with an authorised (civilised?) alternative narrative that shields us from the savageries of colonialism. In The artist and his family, also by Hill, the viewer is positioned inside the house looking onto a dinner table and out to a wide-open vista. This painting sits directly above, and to the right, of The first lesson. Christ, the icon of Christian innocence and goodness incarnate, looks down on both. The ‘crumbs that fall from the table’ in this picture appear to find their way into the The first lesson below. The artworks and accompanying text are unsettling and in stark contrast to Valamanesh’s respectfully evocative and sensitive work.
Aspects of this theme raise significant questions in relation to the appetite and capacity for de-colonising the archive. The romanticised display of colonial home-making practices resists a complex narrative that readily accommodates multiple perspectives. The display of domestic furniture adds further authenticity and a misleading aura of documentary truth to the paintings. In Is racism an environmental threat? Ghassan Hage, Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne, draws our attention to the shared etymological roots of domus and dominus, of practices of making ‘homely’ and of domination. Hage describes domestication as a “struggle to create homely spaces or, to put it more existentially, a struggle to be ‘at home in the world’. Yet, paradoxically it is also a mode of domination, control, extraction and exploitation”.(6)
The title of Schramm’s painting Civilisation versus Nature hints at the colonial drive to domesticate. According to Hage, “we still live under the domination of a white colonial domesticating assemblage”(7) Helen Molesworth, former chief curator at the LA Museum of Contemporary Art, describes the museum with its ‘familiar humanist offerings of knowledge and patrimony in the name of empathy and education’ as ‘one of the greatest holdouts of the colonialist enterprise’.(8)
Longing and Belonging empathises with settler colonial narratives. The negative stereotypical depictions transmit colonial notions of race that suggest the patina of renewal belies an entrenched institutional conservatism built on a white-self-representative-colonial substructure. Colonialism was not an event but is a process. Post-colonial theory insists social and structural processes reinforce the legacy of power and privilege in relationships between coloniser and colonised. Okwui Enwezor, the late Nigerian curator of Documenta 11, a Venice Biennale and advocate of a global contemporary art describes the ‘post-colonial constellation’ as seeking to interpret a particular historical order, to show the relationship between political, social, and cultural realities, artistic spaces and epistemological histories, highlighting not only their contestation but also their redefinition.(9)
An alternative theme in the Elder Wing re-hang might have addressed structural disadvantage and systemic discrimination as an ongoing result of dispossession and forced removal during, and since, colonisation. There are an increasing number of people reliant on financial and material assistance on a regular basis with 13% of the population living below the poverty line. That figure jumps to 31% in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.(10) The Australian Council of Social Services lists several structural causes of poverty and disadvantage including ‘many people living in poverty face discrimination in employment, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and people with a disability’.(11)
Stereotypes can form the basis of attitudes and influence social interaction as they ‘often represent cultural knowledge: knowledge shared and accepted as a norm by groups of people’.(12) They are reductive and often deeply embedded in historical (mis)representation, in which the institution is complicit.
The new hang refreshes AGSA’s collection within a burgeoning critical context of de-colonisation that examines the residual colonial substructures that underpin discursive and organisational principles. This is an opportune moment to reflect on how we might present complex narratives that destabilise colonial structures, negotiate the dialectic of (un)belonging, and, unsettle ideas of otherness. A renewal not just of the collection but also a repatriation of the historical narrative through redressing historical representations of first nations peoples. A hang in which both viewer and collection are activated to critique contemporary cultural, political and socio-economic conditions.
Irit Rogoff, Beatrice von Bismarck, “Curating/Curatorial,” in Cultures of the curatorial, ed. Beatrice von Bismarck, Jörn Schafaff, Thomas Weski (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), 22
Quoted in Kerryn Goldsworthy, “Behind every story: Recovering the past,” GriffithReview, 55, January 2017
Ghassan Hage, Is Racism an Environmental Threat? Debating Race Series (Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017), 91
Okwui Enwezor, “The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition,” in Antinomies of Art and Culture Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity, ed. Terry Smith; Okwui Enwezor; Nancy Condee (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 232
N. Balvin, Y. Kashima, “Hidden Obstacles to Reconciliation in Australia: The Persistence of Stereotypes,” in Peace Psychology in Australia, ed. D. Bretherton, N. Balvin, (Boston, MA: Springer, 2012), 201