Defying Empire: 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial


until 10 September 2017
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
free (yes really)

This major exhibition surveys the contemporary practice of 30 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, responding to the 50th Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum (1). The curator Tina Baum has done a fantastic job to bring together both emerging and more established artists from around Australia.

As the exhibition occupies the whole of the temporary exhibition gallery, the works (and there’s often several items from each artist) have space to breathe. The labels and the artists’ statements are well-written and help the visitor to understand each piece, whether it’s a beautiful video by Reko Rennie of a Rolls Royce Corniche doing circle work out in the dust; the ‘Aboriginalia’ of Tony Albert re-purposing the kitch of Aboriginal themed playing cards in a piece called ‘The hand your dealt’; or Jonathon Jones’ re-drawing of colonial lithographs with Indigenous motifs. There are video installations, holograms, sculpture and brilliant photography. There are also more traditional works such as Rusty Peters’ paintings of his country or the weaving of Yvonne Koolmatrie. My personal favourite is Fiona Foley’s intriguing Pontificate on this – 66 cast aluminium smoking pipes – one for each of 66 clauses in the Western Australian Aborigines Act 1905, the legislative instrument of dispossession.


The exhibition is divided into eight themes: asserting presence, bearing witness, defying empire, disrupting invisibility, forever memory, recounting and revival, resistance and refusal and rising passion.

At a time when Australia is (again) discussing the place Aboriginal history, the longest surviving culture on the planet, has in Australia’s ‘official’ story; where graffitists who tag statues of European ‘heroes’ like James Cook or Lachlan Macquarie are described by our Prime Minister as ‘stalinists’; and where the powers that be are (again) struggling to acknowledge that European settler history is one of dispossession, murder and continuing marginalisation, here are authentic voices expressing their defiance, resilience and insistence on being heard.

I urge you to come to Canberra (it’s still brisk so pack your woolies) and check out this wonderful exhibition.

1. In the 1967 referendum Australians voted overwhelmingly (over 90%) to amend the constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census and allow the Commonwealth to create laws for them.

Images: capture from video OA,RR 2017, Reko Rennie; Fiona Foley, Pontificate on this (detail), National Gallery of Australia.

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