Curating in Australia

Red dirt in outback WA

Image courtesy of Short St Gallery, Broome, WA.

Published by Carly Lane, AGWA Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art    |   2 July 2020

AGWA Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, Carly Lane is one of the editors behind the publication Becoming Our Future: Global Indigenous Curatorial Practice. This book investigates international Indigenous methodologies in curatorial practice from the geographic spaces of Canada, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Australia. We're delighted to share this excerpt from the book, outlining curatorial practices specific to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Becoming Our Future is due to be published in Australia this August.

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Vernon Ah Kee works in the Six Seasons Indigenous gallery

Six Seasons gallery, AGWA installation view, 2020. (L-R) Vernon Ah Kee born in this skin 2008. State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased through the Friends of the Art Gallery, 2008. © Vernon Ah Kee. Courtesy Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Vernon Ah Kee therewasafall 2015. State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased 2016. © Vernon Ah Kee, 2015.

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Who We Are

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander curators working in Australia are a small band of passionate advocates and lovers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, art, and culture. We are fully aware of the power of curating to express ourselves, our mob, our culture(s). We use our curatorial spheres of influence as arenas for cultural expression, renewal, and survival. We write and create exhibitions that define and present us as we individually and collectively know ourselves. We work tirelessly alongside artists to hear and see ourselves in the public domain and to educate the wider public about the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Our art holds significant value as a form of cultural and political expression, as well as being the first arts of Australia, a fact that is gaining traction in narratives of nationhood. And, sandwiched into all of this activity is our agenda to ensure that Aboriginal and Islander people, as human beings, are seen as inherently deserving of equality and respect, as much for our differences as for the things we have in common with wider (white) Australia. Too often Australia operates as a binary society of mainstream/marginal, male/female, black/white, which inevitably categorizes one group as lesser than the other and completely overlooks the various third spaces of coexistence. It is within this social context that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander curators, and other First Nations curators working in Australia such as Léuli Eshrāghi (Sāmoa, Pārs), attempt to secure a better position for our peoples, both now and into the future.

Digging for yams, Australian outback

Carly Lane, Bethany Wheeler and Geraldine Henrici assisting Eva (Joan) Nagomara, Helen Nagomara and Jane Gimme digging for bush potato near Wirrimanu (Balgo), 2017.

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In Becoming our Future, authors and curators Freja Carmichael, Nici Cumpston, Carly Lane, and Kimberley Moulton present just some of the projects that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander curators have initiated or helped to shape. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people we differ in age, gender, and language group, many of us hailing from one or more of the 250 (plus dialects) language groups across Australia and the Torres Strait Islands. We use various names to refer to ourselves, including Indigenous, Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, and First Nations, as well as the names of the language groups to which we belong. As curators, we span at least three generations of professionals, with each generation bringing its own passion, knowledge, and sensibility to the ever-growing field of Indigenous curatorial practice.

Where We Work

While many of us work in public institutions, such as museums, art galleries, and at festivals, which are mostly located in capital cities, there is a growing cohort of curators working independently or as curatorial fellows within major private collections. There are others still in regional and remote community art centres whose curatorial practices are beginning to be recognized as an important part of their working lives. This recognition is a recent phenomenon, representing a conscious shift in how we define a curator and curatorial practice today. The sites of culture we work in are almost everywhere: whether an Aboriginal owned and operated art centre, a university, private collection, or at all levels of government—local, regional, state, national, and sometimes international. Indigenous curators actively advocate for the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and material culture, and we do so with the implicit support of our institutions and colleagues. To varying degrees of success, we each reshape our curatorial roles beyond the standard remit of researching, collecting, and communicating art in society, to one that also incorporates social justice and self-determination.

Fiona Foley photographic work

Fiona Foley HHH #1 2004 (detail). State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia⁣⁣⁣⁣. Purchased through the Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation: TomorrowFund, 2009⁣. © Fiona Foley, 2004.

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Methodology

In my experience, and with the exception of curator and scholar Stephen Gilchrist, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander curators only occasionally examine our own curatorial practices. We are so busy storytelling, writing, and buying and exhibiting works of art that we do not take the time (or cannot afford it) to critically review the methodologies we bring to our daily work. If we did take the time, I wonder if we would categorize our curatorial practices as both conventional in structure and organic with undetermined rules. More often than not, we make our own way on the job, observing and taking in the practices and skills of those around us. We intuitively build our practice by doing what feels right, guided by our Aboriginal world views. Our curatorial methodology is an extension of our cultural ways of seeing, doing, and being in the world. But this may not be the full story of Indigenous curatorial practice in Australia. While culture offers curators a lens through which to see and protocols for how to engage, there are likely other factors that forge and fuel our individual methodologies and practice. When reading the essays by Carmichael, Cumpston, Lane, Moulton, and Eshrāghi, we ask the reader to consider the roles of passion, place, and people, and also the present as a marker of both the time and the activity the curator is engrossed in. 

Stan Brumby artist painting in Halls Creek.

Stan Brumby (dec) paints at Yarliyil Art Centre, Halls Creek, 2012.

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While culture offers curators a lens through which to see and protocols for how to engage, there are likely other factors that forge and fuel our individual methodologies and practice. When reading the essays by Carmichael, Cumpston, Lane, Moulton, and Eshrāghi, we ask the reader to consider the roles of passion, place, and people, and also the present as a marker of both the time and the activity the curator is engrossed in. What do I mean when I talk about passion, place, and people? By place, I mean geographical location, the site of culture and the micro and macro environment a curator works in. By passion, I mean the specific purpose or mission that drives a curator’s practice. By people, I mean the subgroups the curator speaks in and out to. Where is their focus? I suspect these factors are essential to understanding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander curatorial methodology today.

Note: Australian territory stretches across the traditional lands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people(s). Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture are distinct from one another, we jointly share the position of being the Indigenous/First Nations people of Australia. Together, we make up 3.3 per cent of the Australian population. Furthermore, according to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies there were over 250 Aboriginal languages and 800 dialects once spoken across Australia.

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