Earlier this year we encouraged readers to go to an exhibition of work by Indigenous artist Sally Gabori at NGV Australia. Sophisticated, thoughtful and vivid, her imposing, large paintings offered a different perspective on Australia and land compared with usual Western art traditions. Now the rest of the third floor is dedicated to work by other Indigenous women. And it’s glorious for the same reasons: these are perspectives we don’t often see, let alone all together.
Who’s Afraid of Colour? covers a huge range of materials and mediums, from traditional woven bags and paintings on bark and jewellery, to photography, sculpture and video. These are all used to channel the full spectrum of the experiences of Indigenous women: everything from historical perspectives, to anger at contemporary attitudes.
Every piece comes from the NGV’s vast permanent collection. Curator Judith Ryan put the show together over about five months, but as senior curator of Indigenous art, she’s been instrumental in acquiring each of the featured works for the gallery over 25 years.
“Indigenous women have really come into their own since about 1990,” Ryan says. “We’ve been waiting for the right moment to bring it all together.
“We wanted to show the diversity and daring that makes Aboriginal women’s art singular and extraordinary.”
Diversity is the word. The show is about loudly asserting identity in its many forms, and there’s such a range of work here, it’s hard to take it all in.
Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s paintings are dense brown, ochre and green renderings of country. Julie Gough’s Chase is an installation work about the European invasion and its aftermath. It incorporates video work; a sculpture made from tea tree branches; and an early 20th-century colonial-style painting from the NGV archives of Captain Cook coming ashore to a green, open country, marginalised black figures wielding spears in the background.
“Every wall has something that you can really connect to,” says artist Bindi Cole Chocka. “Everything from white skin to dark skin.”
Chocka has a few pieces in the show. The earliest is her Not Really Aboriginal photographic series from 2008. It features members of her family – all light-skinned – with their faces painted black. The most recent is We All Need Forgiveness, a video piece made up of 30 screens showing close-ups of a diverse, non-Indigenous range of people looking straight to camera and sincerely offering forgiveness.
Chocka knows about having her Aboriginal identity disputed. In 2011 she was one of a group who sued newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt for racial discrimination when he claimed she and other light-skinned Indigenous people were only claiming Aboriginal heritage for personal gain.
As we speak, the echo of 30 voices simultaneously saying “I forgive you” with real conviction – some of them are crying – is hard to ignore. Chocka says this piece, compared with Not Really Aboriginal, demonstrates her changing attitude.
“For as long as you lay blame on people, you’re stuck in the trauma and pain of the past,” she says. “I Forgive You is more about not being a victim, and not being beholden to the past. I started exploring forgiveness when Kevin Rudd said sorry. Forgiving means you’re no longer disempowered by events.”
At the beginning of her career, Chocka was interested in asserting her identity. “This,” she says pointing at the portraits of her family in blackface, “is very angry. I didn’t see it that way at the time, but it’s very pointed.
“In trying to assert who I was, I was compounding the thing I was trying to break through.”
This is one perspective, and it’s not necessarily echoed throughout the show. Destiny Deacon’s photographs of black dolls in dilapidated and compromised scenarios, with names such as Blak lik me and Dance little lady, for example, are an unwavering look at current Indigenous representation.
It’s a reminder there’s no single voice or attitude that represents the Aboriginal community. It’s diverse, and it’s rich, and it’s colourful – far from black and white.
Who’s Afraid of Colour? is at NGV Australia, Federation Square, until April 17.