The binding chains of social connection

Greg Hooper: Saltwater Country

Alick Tipoti, Poeypiyam Angayk 2014, video

Alick Tipoti, Poeypiyam Angayk 2014, video

Alick Tipoti, Poeypiyam Angayk 2014, video

Saltwater Country: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art from the coastline, from the islands, from the beach. Places of tidal movement, silt deposition, cyclonic storms and fishing. A shoreline where people meet for the first time—perhaps in the expansion of empire or on holidays at Christmas.

Saltwater Country is social, with workshops into the Gold Coast community and Erub Island in the Torres Strait. Workshops funded through a chance meeting of one of the curators, Virginia Rigney, with Hal Morris, the CEO of the Gold Coast Waterways Authority at a talk Rigney was giving about architecture. (This being the Gold Coast the talk was held on a cruise boat.) Rigney pointed out the value of highlighting Indigenous knowledge and culture to build community engagement and the Authority came on board with funding for public programs including a five day artist camp on Stradbroke Island run by Judy Watson.

Stingrays snooze half buried in the sandy shallows all along the coast, leaving flat-loafed depressions that Watson has cast in bronze then set to float just above the gallery floor. She has also cast the detritus of the shoreline: turtle heads, kelp roots, fishing floats, chest bones. Drifting and detritus are themes for other artists as well—not surprisingly given the role of the ocean as both a slow medium for exchange and the world’s largest dump. Laurie Nilsen creates barbed wire cages for urban rubbish that finds it way from shop to trolley to car to the drains then to the mouth of the Brisbane River. Barbed wire—from his younger days as a fencer out towards Roma. Wire grew barbs in the 1870s during the colonisation of the range lands in the USA. The barbs hurt the cattle just enough so they won’t lean on the fences and break them. Country museums almost always have a small display of different types; there’s a surprising variety. It’s a strange metaphor, wrapping discarded packaging with the tool for dividing land into parcels.

Erub Arts, GhostNet Weres 2014, installation,

Erub Arts, GhostNet Weres 2014, installation,

Erub Arts, GhostNet Weres 2014, installation,

More drifting, more rubbish transformed. This time from way north. The Aru Islands are south from Papua. From here Willem Janszoon set off in the Duyfken in 1606 for the newly formed Dutch East India Company to become the first European to land in Australia, near Weipa. Nowadays maybe a fishing trawler heads out from Aru and a net gets tangled in a coral outcrop to be cut loose and drift away through the Arafura Sea. Six kilometres of plastic netting drifting along, a ghost net catching turtles for no-one then washing up on the beach at Erub Island in the Torres Strait. Erub Erwer Meta (Darnley Island Arts Centre) people take the net, free the turtles if they can, pull out the rubbish, pull apart the net, weave it into an oversized version of their traditional tool for scooping sardines in the shallows. For most people sardines come in a tin, from Portugal, Norway, Coles. For the people on Erub this is about who they are and have been, made into art and then traded to the mainland.

Also from the north is Alick Tipoti (see RealBlak, RT111) with a series of short videoed performances. Tipoti is best known for his linocuts but here we see his choreography and dance. The stage is dark and spare, the camera low, eye level for someone seated on the ground. Tipoti enters from the side, out of frame, out of darkness and into the light. He is dressed in what I take as traditional—long grass type skirt and leggings, arm bands, shell necklace and a mask that confronts the viewer with an unyielding, penetrating stare. Familiar items that can seem somewhat empty when viewed by someone with little personal cultural context in a museum but here they are transformative. It is a striking performance.

Saltwater Country next travels to the Australian Embassy in Washington and then to AAMU in Utrecht, a dedicated Museum of Contemporary Aboriginal Art set up by an ex-ambassador to Australia from the Netherlands. An exhibition traded across borders and across oceans to bring in the tourists and bring into being a binding chain of social relations.

And it is right that this exhibition starts at the Gold Coast, in a city that grew purely from the pleasures of the beach and at a venue originally called The Keith Hunt Community Entertainment and Arts Centre. Named after a-good-Labor-man who came up from Sydney in the 50s to run a snack bar on the Coast. Fish and Chips then local government. Years trying to get an arts centre off the ground. Became Mayor and the first civic leader in Australia to sign the petition calling for an Aboriginal Treaty. Front page news. 1981.

Saltwater Country, curators Virginia Rigney, Michael Aird, artists Vernon Ah Kee, Daniel Boyd, Michael Cook, Megan Cope, Erub Erwa Meta, Fiona Foley, Rosella Namok, Napolean Oui, Laurie Nilsen, Ryan Presley, Brian Robinson, Ken Thaiday, Alick Tipoti, Ian Waldron, Judy Watson, Gold Coast, City Gallery, 19 July-31 Aug

RealTime issue #123 Oct-Nov 2014 pg. 48

© Greg Hooper; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

13 October 2014