A cultural reckoning: largest-ever survey of First Nations Australian art opens in New Zealand

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More than 150 artworks – and some of the country’s biggest names – are represented in an exhibition that’s equal parts poignant and powerful

There was a telling moment during the recent opening of a landmark First Nations Australian art exhibition in Aotearoa/New Zealand: a speaker commented that Australia is racist and the entire room laughed.

On a panel exploring indigenising creative practices, South Australian artist Yhonnie Scarce described her home state as being known for its racism – but then, a beat later, went on to list all other states as having the same reputation, prompting laughter from the crowd.

If that’s what Australia is known for abroad, a cultural reckoning is quietly taking place – and some are further along in the journey than others, says Nathan Pohio, the senior curator of Māori collections at the Auckland Art Gallery.

Touring exhibition Ever Present – which has already shown at the Art Gallery of Western Australia and Singapore’s National Gallery – is the largest overview of art by First Peoples of Australia to show in Aotearoa, with panel discussions, artists talks and workshops accompanying the opening weekend.

“One of the themes of this exhibition is self-determination through action,” Pohio says. “There’s this decolonial action taking place internationally with Indigenous people around the world.

“There’s something in the air at the moment … that reckoning. People are just being honest about it and are talking about it and it is a particularly powerful idea.”

Batik works by various artists.
Batik works by various artists. Photograph: David St George

The rich – and at times confronting – exhibition brings together more than 150 works by First Nations artists from diverse nations, backgrounds and experiences, including some the country’s most influential names, such as Brook Andrew, Richard Bell, Vernon Ah Kee, Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Archie Moore and Albert Namatjira.

The show takes up most of the first floor of Auckland Art Gallery, beginning in two intimate spaces exploring ancestors and ancestral creators, before opening out through the gallery’s wide halls and dark rooms.

One powerful exhibit is Ah Kee’s Tall Man, a video work that plays out across a large long screen split into panels, to explore the death in police custody of Cameron Doomadgee in 2004 and the outpouring of rage and grief it provoked in Palm Island.

Grainy vision of the 2004 Palm Island protests and its aftermath is intercut with a triptych of police body-worn camera vision, news media and personal videos shot by community members. An elder’s plea: “What’s it gonna take to stop deaths in custody? Our boys in custody? It’s still going on!”

The work remains as painfully relevant today as when it debuted in 2010.

Ah Kee’s work takes centre stage for a reason, Pohio says. “It’s been confronting and challenging quite a lot of our visitors, but people have been really engaging with the piece.”

Vernan Ah Kee’s 2010 work Tall Man remains ‘painfully relevant’.
Vernan Ah Kee’s 2010 work Tall Man remains ‘painfully relevant’. Photograph: David St George

Scarce and fellow artist Damien Shen have travelled to Auckland for the opening, to speak with a public that seems hungry to engage with the exhibition and its themes. A young staff member at a vintage store in central Auckland tells the Guardian he visited the gallery with his parents: “It was great – I had no idea there were so many different styles.”

Shen’s work explores his Ngarrindjeri, Kaurna and Chinese heritage and his familial and cultural ties, through two photographs that are part of a series of a dozen.

The work features the artist and his beloved uncle, respected Adelaide elder Uncle Moogy, photographed by collaborator Richard Lyons.

Ventral aspect of two males (2014) by Damien Shen, photographed by Richard Lyons.
Ventral aspect of two males (2014) by Damien Shen, photographed by Richard Lyons. Photograph: Damien Shen/Richard Lyons

Uncle Moogy is shown practising his culture and handing it down, with both men painted in the striking markings of their Ngarrindjeri heritage: it was the first time Shen had been painted in the way of his ancestors. His works also hark back to anthropologists and ethnographers such as Norman Tindale, who photographed and studied thousands of First Nations families during the 1920s and 30s, an era in which Indigenous people’s remains were taken from country to be studied and exhibited. Shen’s family were among those who worked to repatriate them.

“[These photographs] were deliberately shot in the old ethnographic style,” Shen says. “But also part of the narrative arc captures the contemporary world of Uncle Moogy, retaining and reviving culture each and every day he gets out of bed.”

He said the work is about his power and choice as a First Nations artist. “These works are very personal. They sat in my private collection for a long time before I showed anyone.”

Silence part 1 + 2 (detail), 2014.
Detail of Silence part 1 + 2 (2014), by Yhonnie Scarce

Scarce’s glass work examines Australia’s often exploitative relationship with First Nations people in a visceral way: as test subjects, lab rats and flora and fauna to be poked and prodded through medical experiments, including the forced sterilisation of Aboriginal women.

“For me, it’s about calling out the perpetrator and holding them accountable for their disrespectful behaviour towards us. The rest of the world needs to know about it,” the Kokatha/Nukunu artist says.

Her glossy black glass shapes seem to echo disembodied body parts, with a delicate sliver of a tail recalling that of a dead lab rat, encased in a glass case. The objects represent the flesh of her ancestors who have been stabbed with sterile medical scissors, forceps brutally pinching the “skin” of the glass.

Yhonnie Scarce.
‘I’m not afraid to talk about the hard stuff’: Yhonnie Scarce. Photograph: National Gallery of Australia

Scarce says her work is not always easily understood: “When I first started making my work, people used to ask me whether I needed counselling. Non-white Australians were saying, ‘It’s really intense. I think there’s something wrong with you.’

“I don’t need counselling. My counselling or my trauma work is making artwork and giving our ancestors a voice, because they were being told to shut up all the time,” Scarce says. “I’m not afraid to talk about the hard stuff.”

She hopes the viewer is challenged but also comes away with an appreciation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who continue to persevere, thrive and survive on and off their traditional lands.

“We’re human beings. There’s such an element of strength and beauty in us. And it comes from our ancestors.”

The work in the show was drawn from the Wesfarmers collection of Australian art and the National Gallery of Australia’s collection, under the curation of Tina Baum from the NGA. It moves through various themes, including culture and ceremony, community and family, and innovation and identity.

“Time collapses, it’s not linear. It’s not one way, it’s cyclical, it’s everywhere. Many of the works fit into many of the other themes,” says Baum, a Gulumirrgin, Wardaman and Karajarri woman. “I think people have been really surprised at the diversity, the excellence and just the sheer beauty of these works.

Installation view of Ever Present.
‘There’s a fascination and desire to learn,’ the Auckland Art Gallery director Kirsten Lacy says. Photograph: David St George

“For me it was important to start with resistance. That fight that we had from the very beginning. Yes, there was colonisation, but there was resistance and there still is resistance.

“Art is a form of resistance. When you see these works, you can see that artists are really using it in such beautiful, poignant ways.”

The director of the Auckland Art Gallery, Kirsten Lacy, says tens of thousands have already visited the show since its soft launch on 28 July.

“I think there’s a fascination and desire to learn. [First Nations Australian culture is] so different to New Zealand, in the volume of language groups, nations, the scale of the country and the variance of its topography,” Lacy says.

“First Nations people in Australia have never ceded country and have been present for 65,000 years. There’s a lot of interest in seeing these cultures side by side and coming together in dialogue.”

  • Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia is on now at the Auckland Art Gallery until 29 October. Guardian Australia travelled to New Zealand as a guest of the National Gallery of Australia