Marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, PICA and Aboriginal Art Centre Hub of WA present When The Sky Fell, an exhibition that considers the stories of those affected by this significant moment in Australian history.
In 1967, more than 90 per cent of Australians famously voted for the deletion of two references in the Australian Constitution that were discriminatory towards Indigenous Australians.
When The Sky Fell was put together by Clothilde Bullen, who previously curated for the Indigenous art collection at the Art Gallery of Western Australia for more than a decade. Bullen is a Wardandi (Nyoongar) Aboriginal woman with English-French heritage and both her parents and grandparents were members of stolen generations.
“The referendum was a symbolic turning point,” says Bullen. “I see it as the stepping stone to further activism in Indigenous rights.”
Although the referendum was a big step towards equality – particularly in the eyes of the law – Bullen says the consequences of the referendum were not all positive. She felt it important to look at the grassroots effects of the decision.
“What you will see in this exhibition is a diverse range of stories,” says Bullen. “What the referendum did and didn’t do, and the historical legacy of that.”
Spanning three generations, When The Sky Fell features contemporary and traditional artworks from the perspectives of a number of Indigenous artistic communities who experienced life before and after the referendum.
With a focus on narrative, the 50th anniversary exhibition presents sculptural installations, paintings, video projections, and objects that shine a light on stories from the lives of Indigenous artists throughout history.
John Prince Siddon’s and Mervyn Street’s acrylic artworks on leather saddles are aesthetically extraordinary, but are also impressive because of the personal stories they represent. Street’s work focuses on the mustering and droving days from the 1940s and 1950s, and the cattle stock routes between Broome, Wyndham and the Canning Stock Route.
Well-known Gija artist Shirley Purdie tells her stories through painting natural ochre and pigment on canvas. Her artworks depict first contacts with colonial figures, massacres, warfare and the labour forced on communities since the incursion of pastoralists into Kija land.
“Much of the work is about country,” says Bullen. “At the heart of these narratives is a sense of place, and how place affects the diversity of community.”
To coincide with NAIDOC Week, there will be an opening celebration on Sunday July 2 including a live sand animation by Street, as well as artist talks and a traditional Indigenous dance performance from Moorditj Moort dancers.
While we’ve shifted from the many discriminatory ideas that existed before the referendum, Bullen says trans-generational trauma is still being worked through, particularly through art. When The Sky Fell shines a light on our history, and the experiences of those who lived through it.
“These are beautiful works,” says Bullen. “I hope people see past the aesthetic beauty, though, and look at the challenge of Aboriginal people wanting to speak as a people, assert their rights and say, ‘this who we are and this is where we stand’.”
When the Sky Fell runs July 2 to August 20 at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. Entry is free. There will be an opening celebration on Sunday July 2 including a Welcome to Country from respected Noongar Elder Rev. Sealin Garlett performed at 2pm.