A talented group of Indigenous and First Nations curators has been simultaneously educating the public, honouring ancestors and challenging traditional art institutions. In celebration of five changemakers in this space, we asked prominent Indigenous artists to create a unique piece of portraiture for each.
For decades, Indigenous people around the world have challenged art museums and galleries to reconsider their engagement with Indigenous materials, ideas, concepts and narratives. The challenge has been to build meaningful and respectful relationships with the communities whose cultural materials these spaces have historically benefited from exhibiting. Since the beginning, art galleries have nearly always been spaces that amplified the voices of a predominantly white few.
In recent years however, particularly since the internet, there has been greater accountability for these spaces to ensure more inclusive stories are being told and that the true diversity of the art world is reflected in what they put on their walls. Groups like the anonymous Guerrilla Girls have built a global reputation as a sort of industry watchdog, holding museums accountable for their gender disparity and racial whitewashing. And while activist artists like the Guerrilla Girls are extremely important, for Aboriginal people this concept of accountability has been around since well before viral posts online.
No Aboriginal person works in isolation. Community relationships and knowledge are ingrained in everything we do. While museums work to create policies and protocols that ensure community consultation is respected, Aboriginal people have been consulting with each other over cups of tea in the backyard pretty much our whole lives. Over the following pages, some of the extraordinary work by curators who are making waves in the art world today will be celebrated, but we must always recognise and acknowledge that we are building on a legacy that our Elders fought for. And that no one person can take credit for the societal changes that are happening around us.
Senior curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections and Exhibitions, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.
In 2017, Clothilde Bullen, a Wardandi (Nyoongar) Aboriginal woman with English/French heritage, joined Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art Australia after curating with the Art Gallery of Western Australia for more than a decade. Bullen has published extensively and curated a number of independent shows, as well as serving on arts boards in the government and private sector. And yet, despite her considerable achievements as both a curator and writer, she insists what is most important to her is building capacity and sustainability in the sector; creating and holding space for the next generation of arts workers and leaders.
Bullen is particularly proud of two things. The first is the development of an Indigenous writer/mentor program – the Indigenous Voices Program – in conjunction with Art Monthly Australasia and supported by the Power Institute at the University of Sydney; the other is being a member of the development committee for the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) Indigenous Arts Leadership and Fellowship program supported by Wesfarmers Arts. The program supports Indigenous arts professionals to deepen their understanding of the art sector and build their network of support. From that program a significant alumni of Indigenous arts workers have emerged who are all making their own extraordinary contributions to the arts around Australia.
“I am so proud to help develop that [NGA/Wesfarmers] program, which sisters like Tina Baum have continued to evolve over the past 10 years,” says Bullen. “It is absolutely critical that institutions create sustainable pathways for other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the arts to ensure authentic representation and interpretation of ourselves across all forms of our cultural material is mandatory to addressing the imposed identities and histories placed upon us by the dominant culture in this country. It is not just an economic imperative for our arts workers and communities but a political one also.”
The painting of Clothilde Bullen is by Thea Anamara Perkins, an Arrernte and Kalkadoon woman and emerging artist whose practice incorporates both painting and installation and explores her Indigenous identity as well as conceptual investigations into art-making itself.
– Myles Russell-Cook | Curator, Indigenous Art, National Gallery of Victoria