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My Country

June 2013

  • Wendy Cavenett

My Country: I Still Call Australia Home, Contemporary Art from Black Australia

“Now two rivers run their course, separated for so long. I’m dreaming of a brighter day when the waters will be one.” – Treaty, Yothu Yindi (in collaboration with Paul Kelly and Midnight Oil)

Stand in the foyer of Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), and witness the vast site-specific work, Trust the 2%ers by contemporary Victorian artist, Reko Rennie. Covering a wall 15 metres high, the brightly-coloured, diamond-pattern mural references the Indigenous population – approximately two per cent of Australians – and aptly announces the landmark exhibition, My Country: I Still Call Australia Home, Contemporary Art from Black Australia.  

As its title suggests, this is an exhibition embedded with many layers of meaning, its three curatorial themes of My Country, My History and My Life offering a powerful construct for more than 300 works by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from all states and territories.

“Every work in this exhibition relates in some way to the idea of country,” says curator Bruce McLean. “In fact, the title My Country has many meanings – the way Indigenous people relate to place… the Dorothea Mackellar [1904-penned] poem about country, and the Peter Allen song, of course, I Still Call Australia Home. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are claiming their space within that national construct, because we still call Australia home. This is still our country.”

McLean continues: “The show is also about contributing Indigenous versions of history to the national dialogue, so these stories are not just Indigenous stories, they’re Australian stories, and they appeal to people to look at them as such – to see our shared history through a different pair of eyes.”

Displayed in a series of linking spaces, My Country is a big exhibition made intimate thanks to the conversations between more than 100 Indigenous artists (including Vernon Ah Kee, Doreen Reid Nakamarra, Judy Watson, Mirdidingkingathi Juwarrnda, and Sally Gabor) using a variety of mediums such as photography, sculpture, video art, painting and instillation.

Move through the gallery and there is Warwick Thorton’s lone figure hanging from a neon-lit cross in his 3D film projection, Stranded (2011). The Long Gallery features a selection of desert paintings that offer a unique representation of Australia’s interior, and the second site-specific work by Megan Cope – a descendant from the Quandamooka region (North Stradbroke Island) in SE Queensland – is a large-scale map located in the River Room, which explores ideas of time, environment and toponymy.

“The works in this exhibition speak to each other,” says McLean, and these conversations present challenging narratives for the viewer to consider – reconciliation, the response to the national apology, the responsibility to country, and the critical engagement with contemporary politics and race relations amongst them. Strong also is the pride in which these artists tell their stories, and their willingness to engage others – to invite all people to consider that “brighter day” when two rivers will be one.

Back in the gallery, it is Archie Moore’s intricate Sacred rights (The first intervention) from 2008 – a folded book page in the shape of a church sitting atop an open book – that catches one’s attention, and then it’s Ruby Tjangawa Williamson’s collaborative painting, Ngayuku ngura (My country) Puli murpu (Mountain range) 2012, depicting, says the artist, desert country “alive and full of colour”.

Keep moving and you hear the soft voices of Indigenous people, the sounds of their whispers, their incantations mixing with the written words, I forgive you, each letter formed by emu feathers and attached to MDF board – a statement, writes Victorian artist, Bindi Cole, “open to everyone” – while Michael Cook’s series of Civilised inkjet prints play with our history’s contradictions and complex narratives.

“I am amazed at the strength of the work in this exhibition,” McLean says, “and by the courage of the artists who tell their stories. There are many synergies and conversations that I hope our audience will engage with.”

McLean, a Wirri/Birri-Gubba man with heritage from the central coast of Queensland, says Indigenous art has always been part of his life – from his mother’s work as an arts facilitator to his time spent at the Queensland Aboriginal Creations store (the government outlet for works produced in local and northern Queensland Aboriginal communities) while studying at university. In 2002, he joined the QAGOMA as a trainee, working on the landmark exhibition, Story Place: Contemporary Art of Cape York and the Rainforest (2003).

“The experience of art is just remarkable,” McLean says. “When it comes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, there are many very important stories embedded within the art, and what’s just as important is the way that those stories are told. I believe art gives people a way to really engage with those stories. A lot of people wouldn’t want to read about them in a book – it’s like a history lesson, but when they’re looking at Indigenous art, which is really visually engaging – it’s a beautiful painting, it’s also sculpture and really potent instillations – people are drawn in by the art itself, and for me, My Country is about that power and passion and history through art that really gives people a sense of pride and a deeper understanding of our shared history.”

My Country: I Still Call Australia Home, Contemporary Art from Black Australia shows at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane until October 7.



1. Warwick Thornton. Kaytej people Stranded (still) 2011. Commissioned by the 2011 Adelaide Film Festival Investment Fund. Purchased 2011. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation. Image courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery
2. Fiona Foley. 1964. Badtjala people, Wondunna clan. The Oyster Fishermen #1 2011. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery
3. Thaiday Sr, Ken. Torres Strait Islander, Meriam Mir people. Australia  b.1950. Photo by: Natasha Harth
4. Arthur Koo-ekka Pambegan Jr. QLD 1936–2010. Wik-Mungkan people. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery




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