Defying Empire

The Artists, the Director of the NGA and the curator of Defying Empire

At the media preview of “Defying Empire”, Tina Baum, the NGA Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, said it took over two years to put this exhibition together.

This show brings together a range of diverse artists from across Australia, Baum said. There are painters, glass artists, weavers, artists who work with fabric, multimedia artists and a variety of visual storytellers in this exhibition.

Putting this together has taught Baum a lot about the way the artists practice their art. She also became infused with energy from meeting so many varied and exciting artists.

While having worked on other Triennials, Baum said this was a great honour for her as this is the first time she had led the Triennial as the curator. Getting the balance between the artists and the art right, and finding emerging and established artists, then blending their artworks to form an exhibition like this takes a great drive and commitment.

Baum also said that this show is important for indigenous artists as it places the artists and their works in the international sphere. This Triennial highlights just how much indigenous art is at the heart of art in Australia. It also challenges stereotypes and helps puts the agenda of Aboriginal issues and their art back into the national landscape.

Gerard Vaughan, the NGA Director who also spoke at the preview, said this art is about accessing indigenous stories not with a whisper, but with a powerful voice. That account clearly shows in many of the artworks in this exhibition. There are some strong political and social statements along with many bright and dynamic works.

“Thunder Raining Poison” by Yhonnie Scarce, is one of those dynamic artworks that have a strong social and cultural voice. The work relates to the nuclear bomb tests that took place in the 1950s at Maralinga in South Australia. It’s a large-scale glass artwork that speaks about the clouds formed from the testing of the weapons.

There is a connection between the bomb testing and the artist; those bomb clouds travelled over Kokatha Country, which is her grandfather’s Country. Scarce loves creating glass art because as she said, it’s the perfect way to represent her people because she uses her breath to blow the glass and that connects her to the history of her people.

There is no doubt that within this exhibition, coinciding as it does with the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum, that the current voice of Aboriginal artists is clear about how it feels about the past injustices and today’s treatment of Australia’s first people.

Any person will feel the defiance and the battle against tyranny in this exhibition, and as equally important, the artworks speak with an original and booming voice of creativity, community and a strong sense of position in a contemporary world. 

This exhibition bears witness to history, to culture, to political and social issues, and it shows us just how important and how good contemporary indigenous art is in Australia.