by Akumbu Uche
An art exhibition titled “Message Stick: Indigenous Identity in Urban Australia” has been touring around the world and on August 11, courtesy of the Australian High Commission and the National Gallery of Art, it stopped by in Abuja.
I like to think of myself as a patron of the arts so I made it a duty to go see it at the Transcorp Hilton Lobby.
Amidst the vivid striking colours and experimental styles on display, two paintings – lovely things I would have loved to hang on my walls – by Danie Mellor arrested my attention. Native Gold and The heart’s tale which place kangaroos, koalas and other indigenous animals on a backdrop of Chinese inspired landscapes are applications of pencil, crayon and wash to paper very much in the style of English willow pattern (itself appropriated from traditional Chinese porcelain decoration).
However, as attractive and intriguing as the 21 featured artworks all are, you could tell that they are not meant to be simply oohed and aaahed over. Forget art for art’s sake, the 11 featured artists stenciled, daubed and framed their works with strong historical, socio-political and spiritual messages.
The works are also bound together by their subversive challenge of identity. What does it mean to be Aboriginal? What is the Aboriginal’s place in Australian society? Created between 1987 and 2009, they document Australia’s past, present and dare to predict its future.
In a series of three Type C photographs by Darren Siwes – Gold Puella, Silver Puella and Bronze Puella – the Queen of England’s stamp on Australian currency is usurped by the profile of a seemingly mixed race woman. An alternative Head for the Commonwealth?
Julie Dowling’s The Ungrateful uses polymer paint, oil and gold on canvas to depict a white woman and her four dark skinned, possibly adopted children posing for a family portrait. However, their tense body language, stony facial expressions and sad eyes show that the family ties are strained.
Family ties are severed in Robert Campbell Jnr’s Please Welfare, Don’t Take My Kids – a heart wrenching depiction of white social workers abducting black children from their homes, a common but misguided practice in Australia’s past. Thanks to the vast amount of space given to natural elements and painstaking detail used in rendering humans, the sky, vegetation, and the earth, the voyeur is drawn into the indigenous world view and gets the sense that this is a celebration and not just another painting touching on the theme of the stolen generation.
Some like Christian Thompson’s photographs deal with how Australia’s indigenous peoples are perceived by outsiders. Captioned Hunting Ground 1, 2 and 3, they depict the artist not only decked out in his trademark costume (black T-shirt with a frilly net collar) but also holding eye patches that include kitsch images of a smiling Aboriginal woman, a near naked Aboriginal family and desert flowers.
Reko Rennie’s Message Stick is actually a series of four paintings – two message sticks and two spray cans yet all four blend traditional diamond pattern design with the pop spray paint colours of street art. Blurring distinctions between cultures and fusing seemingly polar identities, they seem to be saying, the traditional, the indigenous, the native, they are all threads in the Australian urban fabric.
It’s easy to see why this work lends its name to the entire collection.