Welcome to Menagerie
Nicole Foreshew, Danie Mellor and Alisa Duff, 26 July 2012
ALISA DUFF: Hello everyone. Welcome to the National Museum of Australia and thank you for coming in today despite the rain, sleet and cold. It is wonderful so many of you could make it, and we are very pleased to see you here. My name is Alisa Duff. I am head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program here in the National Museum of Australia. I am very pleased to be able to MC this event today which is called ‘Welcome to Menagerie’. It’s the public program associated with the Menagerie: Contemporary Indigenous Sculptures exhibition which is currently on in the Focus Gallery space downstairs in the permanent First Australians gallery. If you haven’t seen the show, you are a bit putting the cart before the horse. What we have today is a discussion with one of the curators from Menagerie, Nicole Foreshew, and also one of the artists who is featured in the show, Danie Mellor, who will both speak.
Before any event we pay our acknowledgements to the traditional owners of this country, and I also pay my respects to their elders past and present.
Just a reminder that the National Museum of Australia generally records all of our public program events and we load these up onto the Internet via our website. This event is being audio and video recorded. If you are going to be asking a question later on, could you please give us your permission so that we can put your question on the website. Our website is http://www.nma.gov.au/. You can also go online and have a look at the conversation later on when the event is finished.
I would like to introduce Nicole Foreshew, who is one of the curators for this show Menagerie. She will be speaking a little about her work. Nicole will speak for about 15 minutes, then I will introduce Danie who will also speak for another 15 minutes. Then we will move to the couches and have a bit of a question and answer session before we open up to audience. While Nicole and Danie are speaking, think of any questions you might like to ask about the show, about their creative ideas for the show, their curatorial concepts, and you are welcome to ask them in the question and answer session. I will now hand over to Nicole. Thank you.
NICOLE FORESHEW: Thanks, Alisa. I, too, want to pay my respects today in a way that maintains us so that we can acknowledge the old people that have gone before us. I would also like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land. I would also like to acknowledge Danie Mellor and another colleague that I can see in the audience, Louise Hamby.
My name is Nicole Foreshew, and my great-great-grandmother is from what was known as the tin city shack area of Dubbo. My grandfather is from an inland river that was later named the Bogan in Peak Hill. Through my mother and my aunties I have a long connection with central western New South Wales. That’s where I am from. I would also like to take the opportunity to acknowledge my mum and my aunties, who couldn’t be here today, because it’s with their strength and their cultural instruction that I am able to talk about this exhibition. I will go into that point later.
I am here to talk about my role as co-curator of the Menagerie exhibition. Both my artistic and cultural practice is informed by all forms of material culture. I am always interested in the exchange between objects and people. I am also interested in the relationships between objects and people and art and museum institutions. I am interested in the different modes of ethnographic research, how artefacts or objects are collected and how it is implied that objects are used, how they have been made and of most interest is who made them. This exhibition Menagerie was an opportunity for me to extend my interest in that conversation.
I was appointed in 2008 as the co-curator with Brian Parkes, a colleague of mine who was the associate director at Object Gallery. I must also acknowledge Brian who isn’t here today. The exhibition was really born from a relationship between Object Gallery and the Australian Museum. It was a really solid relationship, and that was something I was also interested in.
But in saying that, there was already an inherited concept that I was brought into. There were ideas or preconceived notions with Menagerie. For example, there was a different title to Menagerie prior to my starting. There was also a very solid understanding of how an exhibition like this could work in a partnership between a museum and a gallery. What an amazing rewarding opportunity to work with two very significant organisations: Object Gallery is the Australian centre for craft and design and Australian Museum is one of the oldest museums in Australia.
It was with this preconceived notion that my role was Indigenous curator. I really had to think about what role I was going to take in terms of knowing there was a preconceived notion about what animals were. My responsibility was to look at all of those competing agendas in terms of making an exhibition possible.
I also inherited the concepts of a 3D form so we knew that it was a sculpture exhibition. But what I didn’t know was that there was an idea that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sculpture is only in 3D form or that it could only be seen in an identifiable animal form. With all of those ideas at the table it was a really interesting approach. It was an exciting one where we were able to all come together to formalise that partnership and make it as solid as it was.
Menagerie that you see now is the vessel of what that partnership was in terms of curating the exhibition. It is also the vessel of what those ideas were. Those objects and the 33 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists’ work is the repository of their knowledge that is in the exhibition Menagerie.
When you think about asking questions today I would encourage you to take full advantage of Danie Mellor being here because his work Red, White and Blue was the pivotal work for this exhibition. It allowed the conversation between the museum and the gallery to happen. It allowed the gates to open for contemporary Aboriginal artists to engage in a dialogue with a museum in the context of design within Australia. Please take advantage of his being here.
Danie’s work sits alongside 52 objects from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists selected from every state and territory in Australia. Some of the questions that I would think about if I were you would be: how does a work like Danie’s work and his contemporaries enter into the dialogue of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art practice? In what context are works selected, who selects them and how they are acquired? What context are the objects being exhibited in? Who and how many people have seen and engaged with the works in the exhibition on their journey?
Menagerie was fortunate enough to travel from Dubbo to here and it had an extensive national tour. After this exhibition in Canberra about 400,000 people would have seen Menagerie in a range of different contexts from regional galleries to museums, and in some cases engagement with the community was also an important factor within that regional tour. It gave the opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists within regional areas to mobilise their art practice and engage in a sculpture practice and repatriate the knowledge of their own area and supported that making within that particular area.
When we ask ourselves why exhibitions are put together, why tours are made and what that means in an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander context, that is particularly important for New South Wales. At Dubbo Regional Gallery there was a small exhibition [Dhaga Ngiyanhi Ngan.Girra / Where we all meet] while Menagerie was on allowed that community to come in and look at those art works and start to talk about animals within an Aboriginal context but also a local context. Within that show there were things that weren’t in Menagerie such as single feathers and ochre. So there were different applications made within a regional context. So Menagerie enabled and mobilised art practice within areas that may not have been able to have that previously.
It is the relationship between the objects and people where the opportunities arise. That is what I was talking about with how a local art practice can be supported through the Menagerie exhibition. It is also about how the space for these works are able to sit so that they are in constantly changing social environments and I would even go to the point of saying political environments because of different institutions and where museums are at today in terms of how they engage with us.
I will go into Menagerie now and I do have a slide show so you can all look up there. As you see it today some four years after its research and travel, I would ask you to take the time to reflect and I am going to show some images to talk about how collectively the art works speak through the artists. All of the artists in Menagerie are alive, except one artist. All of the artists were actively engaged in the curatorial process, and in some cases I was able to travel to regional city centres and remote areas that I had never experienced before. I had never been to Arnhem Land; I had never been to the Central Desert before. I was in India in the desert in Jaisalmer before I started working at Object Gallery and then my first trip through Object Gallery was in the Central Desert. It was a really exciting process.
[Talks to slide show]
This is on my way to see Badger Bates in Wilcannia – Paakantji mob. Badger Bates’ practice is at the local Wilcannia tip, New South Wales. That was us going through the banks near where Badger was brought up near local trees which is now covered by barbed wire.
Throughout the curatorial process, in asking the question how I could contribute to this project, it was really about solid documentation of contemporary practice now. It was also looking at how artists are gathering material because it is through this process that artists, creators, makers and designers are able to tell us what is happening in our environment. We were able to see what people were throwing out. We were able to see what Badger decides to recreate through his work. We were able to have a conversation with Badger around why he will choose particular objects and what the meaning of those objects are for him. What better way to do that than to go out and ask him. There is Badger. He then takes a lot of this work back to where he works in his makeshift back yard in Broken Hill.
From New South Wales we are going to Maningrida. This will give you the diversity of the travel, the research and the locations. This is important. It’s the reality of what is available in Australia, who is making what and how.
This is Marina [Murdilnga]. I was really privileged to be able to go out and be a part of the collecting process of pandanus. The Butterfly work that is in the exhibition, these are some of the roots to make the dyes for that. This shows the pandanus being designed.
This is Lena Yarinkura who made Camp dogs. This is the application of different media using stringy bark and ochre.
These are my photos. My curatorial practice is informed from my art practice which is visual.
That was another conversation that could be brought into the dialogue around curatorial in this exhibition: how do we document, where do we go and how do we do that? Gapuwiyak.
I had a conversation with Louise Hamby, who is here today, during the development of the exhibition and she introduced me to Penny Milingu Wanapuyngu. It was through Louise’s guidance and acceptance within the community that I was able to spend the day there. During that day I was able to experience the making and the development of Gunga [Pandanus] and see Penny’s sculptural work which is extremely complex. Penny’s work is quite different to what has actually been made, but her technique are all embedded into those particular works. Having the opportunity to go out there again really formalised the dialogue and thinking around her practice.
It was about seeing how artists are creating their works and what people are using to make their work. The sculpture yawkyawk was at the beginning of the exhibition that was at the Australian Museum and was one of the first works that we put in. The yawkyawk questions some of the ideas around where do we start in terms of an animal world and how do we relate to that.
When we talk about an animal world, in what world are we talking about? Some of the ideas that came to mind when I think about Owen Yalandja’s work was Noah’s Ark. Understanding the philosophy that was captured within these sculptures is from a culture and knowledge system that is very, very old. His work with his use of colour and his ability to be able to identify his sculptures in the scape before he even carves them is his knowledge. That is his currency. It is through the objects that are on display that that currency will now sit in that work.
Travelling to these places also allowed me to have conversations with artists. Owen says this about his work:
Being able to talk to artists about their work was a really important aspect of curating Menagerie in order to understand the complexity, the diversity and the level of knowledge that these artists have. I felt like the artists became informants in that they were able to tell me about the environment and they were able to talk to me through their work.
This is Rahel Kngwarria Ungwanaka’s work from Ntaria (Hermannsburg). This environment is captured within the artist’s works.
This is Johnny Young from Titjikala, Central Desert. These are the materials that he works with and his young nephew or apprentice Gavan who does all of his coiling technique together. We were accepted into people’s community. We were accepted into people’s homes and back yards.
I also had the opportunity to go to Tasmania to see Vicki West. There is an amazing collection from Tasmania here at the National Museum. Vicki works with bull kelp, which is a seaweed. She doesn’t collect directly from the beds; she only uses what is washed up.
From all that experience and from the wealth of knowledge of those particular artists, how do you put an exhibition like Menagerie together? We didn’t think it up. We went out; we saw; we heard; and we listened. We included that in the design. We looked at colour. We looked at design. That is an important conversation when talking about galleries and museums because of the range of different requirements that enable our objects to be displayed and engaged with. In the design and curatorial process you have to think about how people are going to engage with the objects too.
We developed a catalogue, which I strongly recommend. If you get an opportunity you can have a look at it down in the exhibition space or you can also purchase it. It was those photos where we spoke and sang the language of our experience as a curator in the environments to support the artist’s work and their space and ultimately their art work. That’s it. [applause]
ALISA DUFF: Thank you, Nicole. If you have any questions please make note and don’t forget we will have time to hand the mike around so that you can ask Nicole later.
I should have also said that Nicole is a Wiradjuri woman. She commenced her career as an artist utilising landforms from her mother’s Country to address the relationship between spirituality and the land. She continues to address themes of culture and identity through her work, and I think we had a good example of that today. Besides being a curator, Nicole is also an accomplished visual artist and an author. She has worked in a variety of fields including art, design, photography and education. She’s a practising artist, a curator and an independent author as well.
Now we have an introduction to Danie Mellor. We are a little bit proud because we claim Danie as a Canberra boy, so he is one of ours. Danie, as you all know, is an award-winning artist and his work speaks to intersections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures.
Danie’s kangaroo sculpture Red, White and Blue is representative of this work and it is currently on display within Menagerie. These spectacular sculptures are illustrative of Danie’s experience working across a variety of print mediums such as printmaking, drawing, painting and sculpture.
Danie is the recipient of the 2008 National Works on Paper John Tallis Acquisitive Award, the main prize winner of the 2009 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award, and the 2010 Adelaide Perry Prize for Drawing. Next year in 2013 Danie has been invited to participate in the first international survey of Indigenous art at the National Gallery of Canada so he will be making several new works for that show. At the moment, besides doing all of that, he is also a senior lecturer in theoretical enquiry at the Sydney College of the Arts at the University of Sydney. So now I introduce Danie.
DANIE MELLOR: Hello everybody. Thanks so much for coming along today and thank you, Alisa, for that introduction and thank you, Nicole, for your presentation as well. As I begin I will acknowledge the traditional custodians of this country and pay my respects to elders past and present.
I have been in Canberra for some time, and Canberra has been very kind to me. It’s been a fantastic place to both study, work and research to produce art. There is a climate here that is really conducive to all those kinds of things. It’s been a happy time.
Today I will speak about the work I have in the Menagerie exhibition. But in the lead-up to that I will also discuss some of the work I have made and research I have done over the years leading up to that particular sculptural piece. That will provide more of a holistic overview of my research and practice and what interests me as an artist and also explain some of the invisible things that are part of that particular sculpture Red, White and Blue.
My thanks go to Nicole as well as the Australian Museum and the Object Gallery for having my work in the exhibition. It was great to be part of really such an ambitious project. To have that many venues, presentations, events and people visiting is a real credit to the organisation and benchmarks the success of the show as well.
[Talks to slideshow]
Let’s start with some of the things that might be important. I have included some old photographic archive images from my family. My mother’s family are Indigenous from the Atherton Tablelands. Grandma and Great-Gran were descended from the Mamu and Ngagen people. My father’s family were cane farmers in Mackay, which is where I was born. Part of my Dad’s family, my Great-Grandad immigrated from California. He was a cowboy who bought a farm in Mackay and was completely hopeless at farming, apparently. He would much rather have been riding around breaking in horses and doing stunts as part of a Wyrth’s Wild West Circus travelling around Australia. So we have a very interesting mix in our family.
In some ways I draw on that quite extensively in making my work and also bringing into the picture different elements of Australian history. There is always a focus on the Indigenous experience and perspective in terms of translating that particular aspect of Australian history, but it also speaks about a more global experience for Indigenous people.
If we go back a decade or so when I was first beginning to research some of the material culture from the Atherton Tablelands, rainforest shields were a very important part of that.
Here is a picture of a cabinet of shields from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford where I spent some research time. Part of my interest as an artist is researching museum holdings - rainforest shields included. One of the reasons I found it very interesting to be involved with Menagerie was the crossover between the museum environment - the museum context of the Australian Museum which was the first museum in Australia - and also Object Gallery which dealt very much with design. So for me to have work in an exhibition that was organised by those two institutions gave it a semiotic inroad in some ways. To have my work read within a museum context, as it is today in the show here, I find quite interesting and I was very pleased that the work itself would be held in the Australian Museum collection.
I guess we start to look at the work proper in the sense that this is a response to all of the cabinets that I was looking at in these old museums both in Australia and in the UK. This particular work [Fig. 1 – 100 (this particular collection made sense)] spoke very much about this idea of material culture, important cultural items and iconic symbols within this country - that is, the boomerangs and also the shields themselves.
Work in installation pieces like this [Fig. 1 – 100] dealt with this idea of classification and conventions of display, how things would be shown within the museum environment. What I guess interested me these were shown in a contemporary art institution. This is an installation shown here from Primavera at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2005. There was a dialogue I was able to enter into through my research with particular institutions like the MCA and also the National Gallery of Australia in that it gave the work a particular kind of reading.
Other elements of my work that I was very interested in, coming back to kangaroos, was how Australia, its country, people and the landscape was pictured. In a sense the first sweeping gaze of artists who came here in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, what impression the land would give, what impression would animals, flora, fauna and people have made on them. I was very interested about that ‘roving and curious’ eye.
This is a well-known picture of a kangaroo, which was ultimately painted by [George] Stubbs back in England. I began to become very interested also, since I was a printmaker at that stage, about a global or a visual language that could talk about this idea of commoditising country and story in a kind of way. I found the connection between notions of Empire and the blue and white engravings that appear on Spode dinnerware to be interesting. As we know the blue and white engraving that were produced by Spode and Wedgwood were kind of appropriated from that tradition of blue and white China painting. This industrialisation of that imagery and process spoke to me in an interesting way as a very colonised depiction of country. The actual process that was perfected was done so by Spode in Stoke on Trent at the time in the late eighteenth century that Australia was being colonised and settled. There were these interesting parallels between the technique at a local level in Stoke on Trent, and what was happening globally and what was happening in Australia particularly.
I began to experiment very much with this idea of the language of blue and white and to begin to think about how then can I bring a discussion about culture into this whole sort of mix. One of the plates from Spode’s collections was this kangaroo plate. They are awkwardly drawn kangaroos in what looks like this very oriental sort of enclosure. Story has it that it’s either a Beijing zoo or it’s a pastoral scene in England, which would also make sense because there was that craze for Chinoiserie and Japonisme, so Orientalism was very much on the rise in England at that time. The story goes that these two kangaroos we see on the plate were taken from Australia - they were immigrants - and brought to these grounds, this zoo, to start a family. They arrived; they lived quite happily. What they forgot to do was check whether they were boys and girls and took two boys. So these guys were living in a foreign environment – a very poignant story – and died a long way from their country.
This began to spark some ideas about how to begin talking about what people were seeing what was believed to be exotic and what important role the object and the symbol could play. I began to make and mosaic these sculptural figures, three of which appear in the show of course. The whole idea was this iconic symbol or representation of culture in some sort of way. It has an important role to play in both the Aboriginal mythology-spirituality story but, as we know, it’s a common iconic symbol which is adopted now both commercially and in terms of Australia’s identity as well. A kangaroo is never just a kangaroo; it’s a very loaded symbol.
That work progressed in different sorts of ways. Again, I am talking very much about this connection with China to some extent with this antique bird cage [The Collector], also the notion of the museum display, how things were taxidermied put together, in a sense how theatre played a very important role in constructing a story or a narrative. Bella, the little jack russell there, is very much alive. She is not a part of that - she just stuck her nose in it.
Other works began to look at material culture including different sorts of objects that were sourced from community and also online, such as Charles Kerry’s photograph of an Aboriginal man from the Kuranda area in North Queensland [Hunter and Gatherer] and the little joey – this idea of pushing a trolley, this commoditisation, of buying into culture and these different conversations that were had around the work.
Blue and white became critically important not just with the kangaroo sculptures at the time I was making them, but also in terms of how I could begin to narrate a pictorial story that spoke about this idea of transformed landscape and the position of Aboriginal people within that - how did settlement and colonisation affect those people that were here?
My work moved from being very specifically located in the Atherton Tablelands and responding to material objects from that area and environment, to speaking more about a global experience that we could say in a sense ‘befell’ Indigenous people and Indigenous culture around the world. While I am talking about an Australian history and some of the challenges that are part of that, we can begin to relate this in a universal sense to people in many different countries.
Here is a work that was shown recently at the National Gallery at unDisclosed called Welcome to the Lucky Country of 2009. It’s quite lyrical. There is a story underlying this in the sense that we have an Aboriginal family on the left overlooking what seems to be maybe a cove in Sydney, the landscape or country gradually being transformed and the blue representative of that. The unusual alp-like mountains that you can see in the mid ground are actually a direct copy of engravings that a European artist did of the Hinchinbrook Passage up in North Queensland. The Hinchinbrook Passage does not look like that but it is this whole idea of romanticising an environment, of bringing a leading eye to the picture and portraying that to audiences. Here is the Hinchinbrook Passage on the left and there is the engraving up the top on the right. This idea of exaggeration, of looking at things and then transforming them, became very important part of the dialogue in my work. Other elements of the work began to deal with this idea of decoration but also the idea of premonition, this idea of bringing a particular effect and impact to this country as well.
Part of my PhD thesis dealt with Aboriginal photography, the Aboriginal subject in colonial photography, and the theatre and spectacle around that, particularly with Johnny Lindt’s works. They are beautiful images and incredibly crafted photographs, but the way that people were posed in the studio gives us no real idea or indication of who they are, where they come from, their cultural affiliation and these sorts of things.
So there are gaps in the conversation when we begin to look at the documented pictorial history of Australia. Some of the work that I have been doing recently deals with that. It asks the question of how country was changed and what environment people now find themselves in, and it begins to refer to this idea of theatre and spectacle. In a sense the landscapes are collaged, they are put together in such a way they suggest a natural environment but in fact they are not always. In some ways this is also reflected in a work like this [Paradise Generations], but perhaps there is more a focus on this idea of transmission of knowledge, of story. These two guys are by the banks of a river painting a rainforest shield. There are many people – Nicole, you are one of them - who have been very lucky in being able to be taught certain knowledges that relate to environment and also to history. To be part of that process is a real privilege and a very magical one.
In that sense with my work, what comes to the fore is this idea of something being passed on, that there is a story here which is then held for future generations. I am very lucky that the work I do is often held in collections so in a sense I know there is going to be this longevity of what we could call presence so the work will be there to be referred to. There are stories embedded within those images which relate very specifically to cultural knowledge but also to Australia’s history as well.
That brings us to Red, White and Blue. It’s a fairly easy piece to read in some ways. When you understand some of the processes that I have been involved with through my research, it might add a little more dimension to it. Red, white and blue, as we know, are the tri colours that often were part of colonising countries such as the Union Jack, the French and also one or two others using them. But also what was important here was this idea of ‘hear no, see no and speak no’.
In that sense while there is that story of the three wise monkeys who are almost passive observers, I saw this as being representative in some ways as a kind of business plan which was executed through the declaration of terra nullius. It abnegated and actually resolved not to acknowledge the fact that there was a continuing tradition and presence of Aboriginal people here. The challenges of that particular colonial settlement and the process are things that talk about in relation to a work like Red, White and Blue - not just because artwork is some ways should inspire a conversation but it is something that we share as a country, it actually is our history. So to begin talking about that quite openly is very important.
Red, White and Blue is probably one of the more overtly political works that I have made in the sense that it does stem from this understanding or realisation about the particular process of colonisation in Australia. The work itself: they are kind of like sculptural forms that have mosaic-ed china on top of that. I use a combination of different Spode platters and plates along with taxidermied fur that appears in the ears and also on the paws of their hands. There might be some questions about that as we go. I will hand over to Alisa now and finish off. Thank you everyone. [applause]
ALISA DUFF: That was very good. It is very good to work with Danie. He takes directions very well. I am going to invite Nicole to join us on the couch now. I am going to ask a couple of questions and then the microphones will be available for you to ask questions as well.
I will start by asking Nicole a question. You talk about the process of curating as being moving from quite administrative or a type of administration to really falling in love almost with your subject matter and devising these curatorial concepts. At what point do you engage the artists or how do you develop that relationship along the way?
NICOLE FORESHEW: Danie’s talk is a testament to the importance of talking with artists about their work. I think it is an amazing skill for artists even to be able to articulate. Danie, another art you have is not just through your making but being able to talk about the concepts around your work. There is an important conversation to be had with artists about their work. I guess that’s the strength of the partnership that was brought together with this exhibition and having the opportunity to work with my co-curator from Object Gallery as well.
ALISA DUFF: Danie, I will ask you a very obvious question now: do you consider yourself to be a political artist?
DANIE MELLOR: That is very loaded question! No, I don’t. But the work that I make is political and not simply by default. The work that I make is not overtly political, the reason being there are artists who are far more accomplished at it than I could be. The work that I make is not immediately political in the sense that it doesn’t engage specifically with a political language but it is politicised. In many ways when you begin to engage both with this idea of country and also the tradition of landscape in Australia, the work is part of a discussion and a dialogue which is very important in understanding how history has unfolded in Australia - and that in itself is quite a political process. The work that I make sits very comfortably within that dialogue and narrative, but I don’t try to make it obviously political. There are political elements which are very important about it that should be discussed that relate to history and the narrative of landscape, but in terms of making political statements - no.
ALISA DUFF: Now we will open the question and answer session up to the audience.
QUESTION: I have a question for Danie. First of all, thank you so much for presenting us with such an engaging insight into practising your research. I see considerable parallels between your practice and some of the things that Brook Andrew has been working on over the years, particularly when you are talking about researching the history of representations and also linking that national story to a global stage and looking at that history within a global perspective. I was really struck by your work Hunter gatherer and particularly your work with the imagery of Charles Kerry - or what has been attributed to Charles Kerry - of the supposedly man from the Barron River area. I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit on how your work with archives, and especially with such archival imagery, brings you into contact with Indigenous cultural protocol knowing that Brook Andrew’s Sexy and Dangerous image has evoked a lot of debate surrounding cultural protocol. I was interested in hearing from you how you have dealt with issues of protocol and how you have conceptualised those things while making your work, because I presume that must have been important in your journey here.
DANIE MELLOR: If we address the question about protocol and working with that. Protocol is set up so there are certain cultural safeguards. People will move into an area of research or use of material usually with the permission and consent of a group of people, a community or individuals who are considered responsible and have custodianship or ownership of material or designs and so on. The key to engaging with any kind of protocol from a research point of view is simply to ask. It is really just a series of conversations that you have.
When it comes to cultural material, that’s the most important thing I would suggest. The work that I do is done in consultation and in conversation with people from the rainforest area. It’s been a very rewarding process. Admittedly it is something that takes time, but I think that time in which the process unfolds is really important as part of the maturity you develop as an artist and also as a researcher. Over that time - as people here will know who have been engaged in community consultation - there is a degree of trust that develops and that is very important as part of that whole narrative and dialogue that you have with historical objects and also with imagery as well.
QUESTION: Thank you to both of you. I could ask you questions all afternoon but I will control myself. I should introduce myself: I am Louise Hamby from the Australian National University. I would like to first ask a question for Nicole. One thing that seemed to underlie your earlier discussions had to do with not only the curatorial process but also the whole concept of what was an animal, how was an animal represented and how is that different if I am representing an animal or if the two of you are doing it.
Would you have liked to have seen in the Menagerie exhibition other kinds of representations of perhaps more ancestral figures a bit like the Maningrida work? But perhaps in other ways because then you mentioned this other exhibition which I found very interesting. I would like a bit more comment on if you personally had more control curatorially, what else would you like to have included along with the work that is already there?
NICOLE FORESHEW: Thank you, Louise. I guess in some ways I could look at that as an opportunity now that I can speak from, because it was the relationship with people in a curatorial context and who you were working with at that time that is important firstly. The museum was an amazing opportunity for me to step into that context and be engaging with objects and narratives in the whole context of the museum, because that isn’t my background. It provided an opportunity to have this conversation now where I think that my practice and my inquiry, my research, my opportunities and my experiences will inevitably enable me to be able to learn from those relationships and understanding people in a creative curatorial context.
So yes I asked the questions. I felt I was a facilitator in the process of my role as curator. I didn’t have a necessary agenda but I felt my role was to come in and facilitate a discussion between artists, museums and galleries. But I was also interested in allowing that dialogue to unfold and become organic without really coming in, but I will say I did come in a bit heavy with Danie’s work. While my understanding of the curatorial process is about unpacking that, describing that and making decisions for the audience to understand what it means to have a sculpture and to have an animal represented from an Aboriginal context, what was important for me at that time was to allow discussion to happen. Through that discussion then art works like Danie’s work really allowed that conversation to question: Do we have ceremonial objects? Do we have objects created by Aboriginal artists today that look at the philosophies around how we even represent ourselves now, how we talk about animals in that context?
Danie’s work doesn’t just talk about animals; Danie’s work talks about a whole range of things. The unique thing about curatorial in this process is that I will be able to keep going back to Danie’s work and all of the works in Menagerie, and future generations will be able to go back to this work, and keep on asking ourselves those questions. The uniqueness of the project is through that inquiry. It is why museums exist, you would hope. The reason is why exhibitions happen is because we are asking questions - or we should be.
Really my role was to ask the question, facilitate that and negotiate that based on my experience, my networks and my relationships with Aboriginal curators and colleagues and people. Yes, I would have loved to have gone in there and been an expert and asserting ‘Yes, I know what this means,’ but I didn’t because I didn’t know what it meant. I knew what it meant for myself, but I think as a curator your responsibility is providing a platform for people to come together and have a dialogue with their own practice.
It wasn’t about asserting a particular formula of what an animal is in an Aboriginal context. But Owen’s work was particularly important to raise that question up front in his contemporary philosophy that is built on a very old, old concept but it is very different from the New South Wales context for myself. I talked about Dubbo and what the significance of that exhibition was - because particularly ochre being used in those works is very much related to animals. It is through - I wouldn’t say sediment - the environment in that particular place that you will find mega fauna and that you will find all of that. It is trying to frame a conversation that can be had in different ways. I look forward to more exhibitions that will have dialogue.
ALISA DUFF: The time is running out so we might have two more questions. You are welcome to ask our guests more questions privately as well.
QUESTION: My name is Dirk von Berens and the first education officer, once upon a time, in the South Australian Museum of Natural History and Ethnology. I am quite interested Danie in why your first opening photograph was the rainforest shields in Oxford. That says a lot to me in a sense - and I am just wondering whether you could confirm or otherwise elaborate on it - that to understand your own culture you had to go overseas to collections that were made a long time ago and that here in Australia some of that tradition was fractured and you were attempting to re-achieve it. Is that fair?
DANIE MELLOR: To some extent, yes. There are some remarkable holdings of Indigenous material culture from Australia in European and also British collections. The small ones outside London are the Pitt Rivers and also the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge where I also visited. The reason I went to so many museums - and Australia does have some very good holdings of rainforest shields as well - was part of a research project that I undertook through my PhD study.
It was quite balanced in some ways. I would visit museums and gain an important insight from a curatorial perspective and also from a museological perspective in terms of how they would treat, regard, view and read the objects. But that was parallelled by some intensive research which involved going to community and speaking with elders over the same number of years, and for a longer period even because those relationships were sustained and very much part of family etc. It made historical sense to visit museums and to see those works there, because they are not in community any more. But it was equally vitally important to engage in a very human way with people who have had direct experience of corroborees from the 1940s and 1950s where these objects were still being used and made and traded. There is a lived experience that is very different from the institutional one.
The part of the project and the process that I found very interesting was marrying those two experiences that were part of my research. What was more meaningful? The relationships were more meaningful of course because you are dealing with a different set of knowledge and a different emphasis on object, rather than simply through institutional collections. But it was the engagement with the environment and where my family had come from and where you feel a real affinity for people in that place which was just amazing.
ALISA DUFF: I will also just note that here at the National Museum of Australia we have a collection of shields on show in Open Collections that our members of the public are welcome to visit at any time. The last question.
QUESTION: Congratulations, I just love the exhibition and I think the dialogue speaks to different ages and is on all levels. It’s very exciting to look at. I wanted to go back to your talk, Nicole, where you started off telling us about Menagerie having another original name. Are you allowed to talk about that?
NICOLE FORESHEW: In every exhibition process at some point you have to have a describer or descriptor which will be common amongst your colleagues and also institutions. I probably won’t mention what the name was, although I do think it is important, but I would rather respect that process that happens within that with my colleagues.
What I guess I can talk about is the fact that Menagerie is a very important title. It was one in which I had conversations with the Director of the Australian Museum about. When we talk about opportunities or challenges in working in all of those contexts, they are amazing opportunities to be able to work with amazing people in a range of different fields and come together as a collective and then key decision making around how you will title this. I think Menagerie sums it up really well, particularly given that it has travelled far and wide and it will be continue at the Australian Museum’s collection. It will stay there and will be visited ongoing. Sorry I couldn’t tell you the other.
ALISA DUFF: We are going to wrap the questions up now. I would like to draw your attention to the wonderful catalogue which is available for purchase in the National Museum of Australia shop. It has a number of essays and beautifully photographed pictures of all of the art work as well.
I would like to thank our guests for coming back to Canberra in Danie’s case and for coming to Canberra in Nicole’s case. It’s been a pleasure to have you both here to share your knowledge, wisdom and experience with us today. Thank you to members of audience. It’s been a pleasure for us to have you here at your national institution to talk about the work that we do here. Thank you for making the time to come and see us today. [applause].
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Date published: 10 August 2012