WHEN THE SKY FELL Clothilde Bullen

Curated by established visual arts curator Clothilde Bullen, When the Sky Fell: Legacies Of The 1967 Referendum invites you to explore the historical and ongoing impact of the YES vote through the stunning artistic expression of 26 artists from Western Australian Indigenous communities. NATALIE GILES spoke to Bullen about the exhibition, showing at PICA until August 20.

In the Australian arts landscape, where do you see the state of Indigenous art as it stands in 2017 and where do you see it moving forward in the future?

It’s been interesting in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis and changes to superannuation and secondary market laws as they relate to Indigenous art to see where the Indigenous art industry has now gone. All artists are tremendously capable of responding creatively to great change and Aboriginal artists are no exception. I think Indigenous art has become an even greater marker of identity and resistance than ever before, and in 2017 Indigenous artists are embracing a range of new media that allows them to fully express connection to place and country, the political ideas around the negotiation of history and identity, and express narrative in unconventional ways. I actually think Indigenous art in 2017 is in an extremely healthy place and more strategically directed than ever before.

What is the audience for Indigenous art and how have you seen it change over the course of your career? Are you seeing more acceptance?

I think many people are far more educated in the notion that Indigenous art is not all about dots, and that all kinds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists exist in every community whether remote, regional or urban, than ever before. I’ve seen over the last 20 years a continued appreciation for innovative and beautiful Indigenous art so that hasn’t changed, but people now are embracing new media and digital forms of expression which was not present previously. Many young people seem to be appreciating Australian Indigenous art now also and see it as broad ranging and accessible. 

I understand the exhibition is curated around a central theme of the 50th anniversary of the 1957 referendum. Can you please tell us more about this theme and the historical significance to First Nation people?

In modern history, the 1967 Referendum was considered a watershed moment – in the eyes of white Australians – for Indigenous Australians across the country.  It sought to change two references in the Constitution to include Aboriginal people in the national Census and for the Federal Government to be able to make overarching laws nationally for Indigenous Australians. But I wondered whether this moment, and the anniversary celebrations, could be unpacked and interrogated a little to discover whether the impact and the consequences of the Referendum were as clear cut and positive as they have been framed to be. As an Indigenous curator, my mandate is to work collaboratively with an artist and create a space where the narrative that the artist wishes to present is central to the positioning of the overall exhibition, and it was interesting in the case of this show where artists had very diverse responses to celebrating the anniversary of the Referendum. I think essentially the Referendum acted as a jumping point for further activism by Indigenous Australians, in the wake of not much changing after the Referendum at a grass-roots level for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

How did you select the pieces featured? Were they commissioned or existing works and how did you select them?

The works were selected in a range of ways. I contacted art centre coordinators and managers to ascertain the kinds of narratives that were important to artists, and then sought work that spoke to these themes. Sometimes work was produced by the artists in response to the theme, so it was new work.  In the case of Mervyn Prince, for example, the wall work he undertook over the week at PICA was coordinated as a response to the theme and something he was really keen to do. Often the art centres had work available at the art centre that fitted the theme and occasionally I was directed to lenders who had works in their collections that fitted the themes also. I was conscious of including a range of media and I was interested in looking at slightly more experimental work that didn’t necessarily ‘look’ the way Indigenous art might be perceived to look, in order to challenge viewers to shift their ideas about Aboriginal art.

There are 26 artists featured in total. Who of these particularly excite you and who should we be looking out for in future?

All of the artists featured excite me as they are engaging with Indigenous narratives in unique ways. Having said that, there are a number of artists who are really exciting or who move me emotionally. Sharyn Egan is a wonderful Nyoongar artist who’s multidisciplinary and conceptual approach to making work really sets her above other artists in Perth. Lindsay Malay is a third generation Warmun artist who is making work based on history and contemporary events and Eunice Porter from Warakurna narrates contemporary history in her work in a confident and whimsical way. Mervyn Street creates moving figurative and landscape work which gets to the heart of the pastoral history of this country, and John Prince Siddon’s imagination runs riot with his inspired work on found objects from Fitzroy Crossing. 

What are you hoping audiences take away from the exhibition?

I hope that audiences begin to understand that there is a hidden black history of this country we share – that Indigenous art spans all mediums and that Aboriginal people have the agency and responsibility to speak their own truth and stand in their own stories, in a way that doesn’t take from Australian identity but adds depth to our combined identity.

For more information on When The Sky Fell: Legacies Of The 1967 Referendum head to pica.org.au.

Image: Peggy Griffith’s Largen – Daybreak, 2016
Natural orchre and pigment on canvas

125 x 130 cm

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