‘Meth Kelly’ and colonial monsters: Australia’s biggest art shows get Indigenous rewrite | Art and design
Amid the marble columns of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ sandstone vestibule entrance, designed by an English colonial architect and opened in 1903, there will be cages containing a “human zoo” of face masks.
Holey, rusty buckets will hang from the classically vaulted ceiling above pairs of boxing gloves, recalling a time Aboriginal people were tent boxers but also exploited as carnival attractions.
These found objects were collected by the Wiradjuri artist Karla Dickens for her work A Dickensian Circus for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, which opens on 14 March. Curated by Brook Andrew, this year’s showing emphasises First Nations artists under the theme of nirin, a word drawn from Andrews’ Wiradjuri heritage which roughly translates as edge.
Having finished a body of work about domestic violence and rape, Dickens set out to make much lighter art about the circus – but it wasn’t as “jolly” as she had anticipated. Many Aboriginal people were involved in circus in the 19th and 20th century, but their identities were often “hidden and masked” because the Aboriginal protection boards forbade Indigenous people leaving missions without permission.
Aboriginal women in the strip tents, for instance, might pass their race off as Tahitian. Con Colleano, the “Wizard of the Wire” tightrope walker, was born in Lismore and wore a Spanish toreador outfit when performing in circuses around the world, although he was of Kamilaroi ancestry on his mother’s side. “He never said he wasn’t an Aboriginal, but he never said he was,” says Dickens.
The holey buckets reference a loss of identity as well as history and trauma. “To go forward, most Indigenous people are working with a holey bucket,” she says. The figures in the human zoo cages are all female, reflecting high modern-day incarceration rates of Indigenous women. Dickens herself says she was a “golden candidate” for prison had it not been for her art.
Before her work appears at the Biennale of Sydney, Dickens will be exhibiting at the Adelaide Biennial – another major show, this one devoted solely to Australian contemporary work. Her exhibit there, the Dickensian Country Show, continues the circus theme: a series of collage works and vintage carnival rides at the Art Gallery of South Australia. “The master’s masking in this country about our history is a bit of a carnival,” says Dickens. “It’s a dark sideshow.”
Both Australia’s major visual art shows this year are strong on First Nations artists, who are deconstructing our shared colonial history and representing it anew. Dickens speaks of feeling centred, pulled back from the edge, when she is surrounded by fellow First Nations artists and their thought-provoking critiques.
The theme of the Adelaide Biennial is “monster theatres”. “Colonisation is the monster,” says Quandamooka artist Megan Cope. “It’s a machine, it’s a process, it’s a project turning everything that is sacred and sentient into death and trauma.”
Cope’s installation, displayed next to Dickens’s sideshow in Adelaide, is made of blasted rocks sourced from a geological museum, with violin, double bass and cello strings woven around them, which musicians will play at intervals to mimic the ground-dwelling, bush-stone curlew bird whose cry is a harbinger of death on Minjerribah or North Stradbroke Island.
Cope, 38, has the Olympic Dam copper and uranium mine north-west of Adelaide in mind, as well as sand mining on Minjerribah. The latter “really did create a lot of tension, fear and anxiety in our community”, she says. “But when I asked my grandmother what she thought, she laughed at me and said, ‘Look, we were here before the mine, and we’ll be here afterwards.’”
White history and heroes are ripe for satire. At the Biennale of Sydney, in a recessed space in the main tunnel on Cockatoo Island, film-maker Warwick Thornton (Sweet Country, Samson & Delilah) will present a film installation deconstructing the oft-repeated legend of Irish-Australian bushranger Ned Kelly. Thornton will show Kelly holding up a 7-Eleven to a soundtrack of 19th century-style nationalistic poetry and 21st century autotuning.
Thornton’s gallerist, Anna Schwartz, says the title, Meth Kelly, “alludes to the challenging of a colonial mythology of the underdog”. Thornton has previously said “if Ned Kelly were alive today, he’d be a meth head holding up a 7-Eleven store”. Thornton, a Kaytej man from Alice Springs, is responding to the continual propping up of a white criminal as an empowering figure, while Aboriginal stories go ignored. In his 2017 feature film Sweet Country, white frontiersmen unwind from hunting and fighting Indigenous Australians by watching the 1906 feature film The Story of the Kelly Gang, cheering the bushrangers.
More broadly, Thornton, 49, sees Australia’s history pressed into valorising colonial conquest and masking its crimes, such as Indigenous massacres. “The problem with our frontier, and the history of Australia – it was written by the people who were actually doing the shooting,” he says. “So the copper is the one to actually write down what happened at a massacre. But he was the one with his finger on the trigger.
“No one believes the Aboriginal people about what happened. Sometimes, thankfully, some priest or some missionary wrote the truth. That’s our history.”
History continues to whitewash the crimes of the colonial past. The Scottish physician and colonial Adelaide coroner William Ramsay Smith, for instance, is credited in the Australian Dictionary of Biography as having “devoted” 30 years to a “sympathetic” study of Aboriginal people. But he was also a supplier of soft tissues and bones of Indigenous people to overseas universities, and at his death in 1937, more than 100 human skulls were found in his home.
Artist Yhonnie Scarce’s memorial work for the Adelaide Biennial will be exhibited in what was colloquially known as the dead house: an old stone mortuary in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, attached to a hospital and psychiatric asylum. The piece consists of 30 flayed bush bananas, 35cm to 55cm in length and 20cm wide, made of blown glass with a smoky white opalescent colouring, mimicking the appearance of muscle sinew and the filmy appearance on corpses.
Scarce, 47, a Kokatha and Nukunu artist born in Woomera, South Australia, says Ramsay Smith “had a very dark interest in decapitating deceased people, not just Aboriginal people but people that were vulnerable. He was known for intervening with corpses that were to be buried in the West Terrace cemetery. He was the main supplier of Aboriginal remains to universities and museums in the United Kingdom. I believe he was gaining from it financially”.
“Who knew where else he was sending these remains? He could have been sending them all over the world. It’s quite dark and macabre.”
Despite being suspended from coronial duties in 1903, following charges of misusing human bodies, Smith was cleared and his work continued. “I can’t speak for [all Aboriginal people] but from my point of view when the remains of your ancestors have been separated and sent all over the world, your spirit is not in one place and you’re not settled. It’s such disrespectful behaviour to human beings.”
The theme of Monster Theatres is apt, says Scarce. “As an Aboriginal person, we’re always being told to ‘get over it’, not to think about what happened in the past. But when you come across people who were colonising Australia who were killing Aboriginal people – people like Ramsay Smith, he was a monster,” she says.
“I think about death all the time, because I was raised to acknowledge what happened to our ancestors – so it’s not something that frightens me very much. But when you read about people like this man, he was incredibly horrible. You wonder where his brain was, playing around with these people. It’s like they were his toys. For me, that’s exactly what a monster is. He’s a serial killer in a different sense, really, waiting for people to die.”