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Menagerie: Contemporary Indigenous Sculpture: exhibition opening

Frank Howarth, Agnes Shea, Alisa Duff and Andrew Sayers, 12 July 2012

ALISA DUFF: Welcome everyone to the National Museum of Australia. My name is Alisa Duff. I am the head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program here at the NMA and I will be MC today. We are here to celebrate the opening of Menagerie: contemporary Indigenous sculpture, which is here in our Focus Gallery space within the Gallery of First Australians.

Before I start, I would like to welcome you here, acknowledge the traditional owners of the Canberra region and also pay my respects to elders past and present. Shortly we will have Auntie Agnes doing an official welcome to country for us. I would also like to acknowledge Dr Andrew Leigh, who is the member for Fraser, and Andrew is here today representing Minister Crean. I would also like to pay my acknowledgments to Brendan Smyth MLA – it is lovely to see you, Brendan - and also our friends from across the car park at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS): Russ Taylor and John Paul Jahnke and member of our Indigenous advisory committee here at the National Museum of Australia Greg Leaman. It is lovely to have you all here - thank you.

Today we have a special guest from the Australian Museum, Frank Howarth, the Director of the Australian Museum who will be speaking later on, and also another partner which helped deliver this exhibition is Sandra Brown who is here representing Object Gallery. Thank you everyone for taking the time to come to cold Canberra on a Thursday morning and help us celebrate the opening of this wonderful exhibition.

Just a reminder that today’s proceedings will be audio recorded for the Museum website.

Now I would like to welcome Auntie Agnes to come to the stage and do a welcome to country for us.

AGNES SHEA: Good morning everyone. How are you on one of Canberra’s lovely fresh mornings? I am Auntie Agnes Shea and I am one of the Ngunnawal elders. I am very proud and honoured to be invited here today for this wonderful special event that is happening. I would like to start off by acknowledging our distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, all of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island friends and our non-Indigenous friends. And to anyone who may have joined us today for the first time - I extend a very special welcome to you - and those who have been here before, welcome back. As an elder, I would like to extend that welcome to all elders regardless of your cultures.

I would like to thank the Director of the National Museum, Andrew Sayers, for inviting me to come and speak today and to welcome his guests to Ngunnawal country. I would like to note that the National Museum of Australia has a long and consistent relationship with the Ngunnawal people. It is a pleasure to come today to perform this cultural important part of the opening. Although all your guests are important, I would particularly like to welcome two people who work on behalf of us all at state and territory levels: Dr Andrew Leigh MP, federal member for Fraser, and Brendan Smyth MLA. How are you? He’s a very good friend of mine and he knows I can’t keep promises. He has invited me that many times to come and have coffee with him, and I never ever kept my promise. He knows I’m like pie crusts; it’s easy broken. Anyhow ,Brendan, I will get there one day. I would also like to welcome Margo Neale, who has been principal Indigenous advisor to the Museum for many years. She’s a wonderful advocate for Aboriginal people here in the ACT and she’s a wonderful friend of mine, also her Mum and her sister.

This lovely exhibition is an example of what can be achieved when people work together: in this case two very different organisations, one large state body and one small commercial gallery - a bit like David and Goliath - worked together and created this exhibition. This is the last time people can see these lovely objects together at the same time, because this is the last venue of the tour.

The exhibition contains many objects made from fibre and natural materials that once were the only materials used by Indigenous people. These weaving skills derived from earliest times as Indigenous people made use of whatever was available in their own regions: rushes from the wetlands; bark from the forest areas; kelp from the southern oceans; and short grasses, feathers and fur from desert areas.

The show includes modern materials. Now new processes allow artists to use materials, porcelain and a variety of introduced materials, but they are used in just the same way as other generations used what they had available many years ago.

Thank you all again. I do hope you enjoy the exhibition. I would just like to finish in the words of the Ngunnawal people - ngunna yerrabi yanggu, which means ‘You’re welcome to leave your footprints on our land’ or, in other words, welcome to Ngunnawal country. Thank you. [applause]

ALISA DUFF: Thank you, Auntie Agnes. I would now like to invite the Director of the National Museum of Australia, Andrew Sayers, to say a few words.

ANDREW SAYERS: Thank you, Alisa, and thank you, Auntie Agnes. I acknowledge you and the traditional owners of the country. Thank you very much for your welcome to country.

To Frank [Howarth], my colleague from the Australian Museum, welcome to the National Museum. From Object, I have an apology from Steve Pozel, the director of Object, who unfortunately was unable to attend today’s opening.

I would like to extend particular welcome to Andrew Leigh MP, federal member for Fraser, representing today Minister Crean. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the great support we have here at the National Museum from the Federal Government and the great support for the touring of our cultural treasures around the country which is provided by the Federal Government and which is such an important part of what we do here at the National Museum and what we do in the museum world. I would also like to welcome Brendan Smyth and acknowledge Brendan’s great support of the National Museum over many years as well our colleagues from AIATSIS - welcome to the National Museum.

Menagerie is a great example of partnership. As Auntie Agnes has mentioned, it is a partnership between an old established museum at a state level and a small but very vibrant contemporary design gallery in Object. I think some of the frisson, the vibrancy, of that partnership is demonstrated in the liveliness of this particular exhibition. We really do appreciate all of the partnerships that we have here at the National Museum at very many levels across Australia. We have recently partnered with the Australian Museum in our showing of the Yiwarra Kuju: Canning Stock Route exhibition in Sydney, which was a hugely successful exhibition here at the National Museum. It looked fabulous in the newly renovated temporary exhibition spaces at the Australian Museum and was very well received there. It’s great to have this partnership.

I am often asked by journalists: what is the nature of the partnership between the National Museum and the state museums and regional museums? It works at so many levels. I think the future of museums is certainly for us to be working in partnerships to display our collections and to proceed with projects that use the expertise and the depth of our collections and to share that knowledge amongst ourselves and with the wider Australian community.

This is an interesting exhibition in the sense that it focuses on sculpture. We are accustomed to seeing lots of exhibitions of Indigenous art in Australia which focus on the two dimensional. This is quite unique in the sense that it is purely a sculptural exhibition and inhabits the space beautifully. One of the unique things about this exhibition is that it’s about animals. Recently I was talking to Neil MacGregor, the Director of the British Museum. They have an exhibition at the moment at the British Museum about the horse and it’s called The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot. I though that was a great idea for an exhibition. Neil said to me, ‘There are two subjects which cross over every audience in the British Museum: one of them is horses, and by extension animals, and the other is gardens and by extension the natural world.’ I thought that is absolutely right. One of the things that make us deeply human is our shared love of the animal world, and I think that is really demonstrated in this exhibition.

In Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities animals have a very specific and complex role to play. Animals not only nourish the physical and spiritual aspects of Indigenous lives but also have totemic importance. There is an importance beyond our simple relationship that we have on a day-to-day basis with animals. I love Menagerie. It’s a great show. It jumps around beautifully. It has a wonderful liveliness that I think is going to appeal to all generations and to people of all backgrounds. It’s great to have it here in the National Museum. Thanks. [applause]

ALISA DUFF: Thank you, Andrew. I will now invite Frank Howarth, Director of the Australian Museum, to say a few words.

FRANK HOWARTH: Thank you so much. Good morning everybody. First, can I also acknowledge the traditional owners and particularly Auntie Agnes. I have heard a number of Auntie Agnes’ welcomes to country when I have come down here from Sydney, and I do feel genuinely privileged to be in this place so thank you, Auntie Agnes. The only thing I would draw a slight exception to was the analogy used between us and Object of David and Goliath. Goliath came to a bit of a sticky ending at the end of that story. There has to be another analogy for the partnership of the bigger and older with the young and the agile where neither of them comes to a sticky ending. I will work on that, but thank you so much, Auntie Agnes.

I would like to acknowledge my friend and colleague Andrew Sayers, Dr Andrew Leigh MP, Brendan Smyth MLA and Sandra Brown from Object representing Steve Pozel. It is an enormous pleasure to be here and to see this exhibition in its Canberra incarnation.

Not long after I joined the Australian Museum about eight years ago I went to Darwin for a meeting that coincided with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, which is an amazing – ‘exposé’ is the wrong word - demonstration of the diversity and richness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander creative output, if I can put it that way. What is also interesting if you go to Darwin at that time is what I can probably best describe as ‘a feeding frenzy of buyers’ after Indigenous art of one sort or another. I think when I went there that time Janet Holmes à Court had one of the private galleries bought just as a job lot, every work in two levels of that private gallery.

The other thing that was interesting resonates a bit with what Andrew was saying a moment ago about the nature of Indigenous art, and that is about stereotypes. What was interesting in Darwin that really hit me at the time was everything that looked like an international conception - or preconception, if you like - of Indigenous art had sold. So if it was a dot painting and it had a rainbow serpent, it was out the door. What hadn’t sold was anything that looked a bit different. There were some amazingly different works there. There was quite an amount of sculpture. To me, the single most powerful work that I saw in that whole trip and it still resonates strongly with me was a work that dealt with petrol sniffing. It was the back quarter of a car with a cloth coming out of the fuel filler cap. It was an incredibly powerful work but of course that didn’t sell because it didn’t look like a stereotype of Aboriginal art.

One of the great things about Menagerie, as Andrew alluded to, is that it starts to break down stereotypes. One of the challenges that we all have in Australia, and we particularly have in cultural institutions like the Australian Museum and the National Museum of Australia, is to work on letting the world know about the richness and diversity in form and content of Indigenous art.

Leaping ahead slightly, once this exhibition gets back to us in Sydney, we are hoping that it will tour internationally as part of that attempt to educate, in a sense, international audiences about the breadth and depth of Indigenous art. One of the countries that is most interested in seeing the exhibition is Japan. It follows the amazing success of a number of - if I can put it this way – flat art exhibitions, Indigenous art exhibitions, such as the Utopia: The genius of Emily Kame Kngwarreye exhibition and others that have been to Japan. But our agents in Japan, who are fairly pragmatic about this, said, ‘The exhibition will work a lot better if you can send some flat art with it.’ Something else Andrew said, it will frighten the horses if we don’t soften the blow a bit, if we don’t meet half way that international conception of what Aboriginal art is about. We are seriously thinking about how to do that but at the same time being very honest to the diversity that is Menagerie.

There is another interestingly more significant problem that big institutions like us and the National Museum have when we talk about Indigenous culture whether more permanent exhibitions or temporary exhibitions like Menagerie, and that is how we adequately represent an Indigenous voice in those exhibitions. I have been to a number of places that do the voice of the First Peoples very well. The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington is one such. There is a sign outside the front of the museum that says something to the effect of ‘Welcome to our place. You’re in a native American place.’ And once you go to the National Museum of the American Indian, every voice you hear is a native American voice, and that is a very powerful.

I think it’s a challenge for us to tell an Indigenous story in a place like this through an Indigenous voice so that we move ahead from what has been the history of telling Indigenous stories in Australia of: You go into a museum (dominantly white) and hear us (dominantly white people) telling their stories. What we should be aiming at is: You go into a place like this and you hear an Indigenous voice telling our stories. I think the Menagerie and Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route exhibitions are signs of starting to move further on that journey.

One of the amazing things about Menagerie and one of the reasons we thought the collection was so important is the 55 hours of video of artists talking about their work and the meaning of that work that accompanies the exhibition. You will see some of it on the monitor around there. That’s an incredible archive. It’s a snapshot in time in an Indigenous voice of that artistic inspiration in 2005 and 2006 when it was put together. That makes it particularly significant.

The other significance is the partnership between the Australian Museum and Object. We, the Australian Museum, have both a richness and a baggage of history. We are large; we have a degree of inertia. Object is a much more agile and in many ways more innovative organisation because of its very nature. We started to work with Object when I arrived at the museum, I think. It was partly because Steve Pozel and I are both friends. At that point it hadn’t occurred to the museum to work with an organisation that was into contemporary craft and design. At that point about seven years ago Object did a wonderful exhibition called Woven forms. What that resonated with me at the Australian Museum, as I was getting to know the incredible collections the Australian Museum has, was that it was full of Indigenous woven forms. We then created a small parallel exhibition from the Museum’s own collection of woven forms. That led on to discussions of other partnerships and that led on to the partnership between us and Object. An incredible thanks to two people who made the exhibition happen: Nicole Foreshew, who was Object’s Indigenous curator at the time; and Brian Parkes, who was deputy director of Object at the time and now director of the Jam Factory in Adelaide. They brought an incredible inspiration in how Object put this together, and that combined with the Australian Museum’s exhibition production expertise, if I can put it that way, and ability to manage touring exhibitions with Object and a few other things led to Menagerie as you see it now.

Menagerie is nothing if not diverse, as Andrew said and as Auntie Agnes said, it represents an incredible array of materials, of artistic expression of stories and of subjects. The range of materials from this beautiful barbed wire emu over here to - I was warned before I came ‘don’t talk about favourites’, but if you see a small Tasmanian devil around there that looks like it’s made of leather - it is actually made of kelp and is a most beautiful little object, but I didn’t say that. Even more importantly to many of us, the exhibition represents a connection between people, place and country. It challenges why it is a non-Indigenous view that separates nature and culture. In fact, in a way at the Australian Museum we are guilty of that and we are not guilty. We describe ourselves as a museum of nature and culture. I think Object blurs those boundaries in the best possible way.

I also want to acknowledge the importance of the Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route exhibition. As Andrew said, that is another exhibition along with Menagerie that challenges stereotypes. I don’t think we have ever received as positive a reception from individual visitors as we had when we had Yiwarra Kuju at the Australian Museum. It tells a similar story and even in many ways represents what I hope will grow as a working partnership between the Australian Museum and the National Museum of Australia - both confusingly similarly named – but, as I keep telling Andrew, one has been around for a lot longer than the other. It’s a very positive partnership between the two organisations.

In closing, I hope Menagerie and Yiwarra Kuju are leading to an ongoing change in institutions like ours where increasingly it will be an Indigenous voice, an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander voice, who is talking to visitors. It will be a real person; it won’t be so much that institutional voice; and I think that will challenge how we do things quite a lot but in the best possible way.

It’s an incredible pleasure to declare the exhibition open as it wouldn’t have happened without the partnership with Object. It wouldn’t have happened without the amazing support of the Visions of Australia Program which enabled the exhibition to tour as widely as it did. It is coming to the end of its two and a half years of touring. We fondly hope that it will tour internationally. It’s an amazing exhibition in its own right but it also will help break down that stereotype of Indigenous art. I think it will be the start of many collaborations: an ongoing collaboration with Object; an ongoing collaboration with the National Museum of Australia; but most importantly an ongoing expression of the depth and breadth of Indigenous creativity. Thank you so much. [applause]

ALISA DUFF: Thank you, Frank. We won’t talk about favourites, but mine is the red mud crab around the corner, and that is not just because my cousin Brian Robinson made it.

If you are around and are interested to learn more about the exhibition, on 26 July we have a free public program called ‘Welcome to the Menagerie’ that will be an interview between one of the Indigenous curators Nicole Foreshew and Danie Mellor, who is one of the artists represented in this show. Danie is also a local boy so we are very proud here in Canberra. You can book online through the website so reserve your seat that way.

I would like to draw your attention to this wonderful catalogue on Menagerie: contemporary Indigenous sculpture. So if you are interested to learn more about the show, there are some beautiful essays in here, including the complete listing of all of the artworks featured in the show and some artist biographies as well. This is for sale in our shop in the Main Hall. Finally, would you like to have morning tea with us to celebrate the opening of Menagerie? If so, please join us in the Hall. We will be having a public program associated with the opening of the Tjanpi Weavers sculpture so please come along and join us there. Thank you [applause].

Date published: 16 July 2012