Home arts visual arts Shadowlife




May 2013

  • Natalie King

In contemporary art practice it’s important to see the dark matter surrounding cultural objects from Australia or the Pacific, the cultural context of the object, now it’s been removed to a western art gallery and context. It’s a mistake to focus on, to see the light; the object, and its complete cultural aesthetic. Daniel Boyd, 2011.

Wungguli, an Arnhem Land Djambarrpuyngu word, means spirit and shadow and came to describe the photographic image. Dreaming tells us that the shadow is your soul. A person can never desert its shadow and a shadow cannot leave its human cast. An object has no shadow at midday when the sun is directly overhead. A new shadow then begins to grow and take form.

The exhibition Shadowlife embraces moving image and photography with all its directness, theatricality and immediacy by confronting stereotypes and acting out scenarios. Co-curated with Djon Mundine (Bundjalung people of northern New South Wales), Shadowlife addresses these moments of intensity through the work of Aboriginal artists (and one non-Indigenous collaborator). Each artist is a storyteller, taking us into their personal world of role-playing, self-representation and affirmation.  

Fiona Foley reinterprets the hidden history of enforced opium addiction within the Queensland Aboriginal community in the 1850s in a poetic video of swaying poppies called Bliss, that belies their sinister usage. A short film by Ivan Sen, Dust, narrates a dust storm and the tense, emotional aftermath on a group of teenagers. Collaborative duo, Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser, cast their dishevelled golliwogs, photographs and projection in harsh, yellow light in the installation Colour Blinded.

Michael Riley’s series They call me nigarr was reprinted especially for Shadowlife, depicting David Prosser wearing an expensive Armani suit with derogatory slogans across his portrait. Male beauty is portrayed in Gary Lee’s intimate portraits of young men on the cusp of adulthood whereas Brenda Croft reinterprets found photographs of her father in a tender lament in the photographic series Man about town. Bindi Cole’s video projection, Seventy times seven, is filmed at close range with members of the Aboriginal community declaring with searing emotion “I forgive you” as a release from the burden of anger and pain.

When Shadowlife began as a project in 2009, a number of these artists were just emerging and were still evolving their practices. Our curatorial methodology is an ongoing conversation and evolving narrative. Interested in agile curatorial platforms and exhibitions that are adaptive, we deliberately added four moving image works to Shadowlife as a way to refresh and update the exhibition especially for Bendigo Art Gallery following on from the successful tour throughout Asia. Another iteration of Shadowlife was presented as a screening program at Federation Square and ACMI as part of the inaugural Melbourne Indigenous Arts Festival and in the Video Lounge at the India Art Fair in 2011.

An Asialink and Bendigo Art Gallery touring exhibition, Shadowlife travelled to Bangkok Art & Cultural Centre, Thailand, Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, Taiwan and Nanyang Academy of Fine Art, Singapore in 2012. For each venue, the exhibition was configured in response to the particularities of the galleries from the light-filled curved walls in Bangkok to vast spaces in Taiwan. Moreover, newer works have been added to the final presentation at Bendigo Art Gallery including moving image projections by Daniel Boyd, Jennifer Deger & Susan Marrawakumirr, and Nicole Foreshew.

Daniel Boyd presents an immersive galaxy of shadows in his video work Middle. When the British came to what is now Sydney they saw light dance across the physical landscape but failed to see the dark matter – the cultural, social, and spiritual Aboriginal space. Nicole Foreshew deploys dancing members of her family performing with a large piece of fabric stained with natural plant dyes. These women twirl, rotate and perform in a hypnotic ritual. The fabric was dyed and painted by Foreshew using local vegetable plant and dyes. She establishes a ‘whole of life cycle’ of artistic practice of great depth and emotion.

Personal and poignant, Jennifer Deger & Susan Marawakumirr’s video is a tribute to the loss of Deger’s brother and Susan’s husband told through song and family photos from Christmas celebrations. At former Christian missions, missionaries would organise a holiday around Christmas Day with games and festivities. The Methodist Church set up a mission in Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island in the 1950s. Many Yolngu now call themselves Christian but also participate in a traditional spiritual practice. Gapuweyak (sweet but slightly salty water), where Susan lives, was named after two missionary wife’s names – Eve and Ella. Christian Christmas just happens to coincide with the coming of the monsoon rains – a time of change and renewal, and a time of intense Aboriginal ritual life.


Natalie King is a curator and writer as well as the inaugural Director of Utopia@Asialink, a pan-Asian incubator and the co-curator, with Djon Mundine, of Shadowlife.

Shadowlife is an Asialink/Bendigo Art Gallery exhibition, showing at Bendigo Art Gallery until July 28.



1. Brenda Croft. Man about town
2. Bindi Cole. Warre Beal Yallock.




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