In 1965, the year of my birth, the apartheid that was the everyday experience of our people was protested with the Freedom Ride, which travelled through regional New South Wales, led by my father, Charles Perkins, and a group of students from the University of Sydney. It would be two years until I, along with the rest of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, would even be counted as part of Australia’s population in the national census and the Commonwealth would be able to make laws on our behalf, following the 1967 Referendum to change the Australian constitution.
I am a member of the Arrernte and Kalkadoon communities, however, as the child of a public servant and political activist, I spent many years of my childhood in Canberra. I vividly remember the original Tent Embassy, which was established in 1972 in front of what was then Parliament House and which still serves as a reminder that Australia is Aboriginal land: always was, always will be. I also remember the demonstrations, which were about land rights, about expressing and asserting the inalienable connection of our people to our Country.
These experiences have very much influenced my way of thinking and being in the world. I saw how people discussed things, how decisions were made and how collective action arose. As an adult, I see it as ceremony: whether it be a demonstration or a sit-in or the Tent Embassy, it is a performative aspect of political activation.
The work I do as a senior curator-at-large at the National Gallery of Australia is part of a political process, and I define myself more as a cultural activist than a curator. Especially as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Tent Embassy, which is sited close to the National Gallery, it is critical that the gallery and I, as a curator, adopt an inclusive approach, one founded on listening and making sure people who don’t have a voice can have one. This is something I learnt firsthand from my father. He once gave me the best advice when I was nervous about making a speech. He said: “You’ve got to just do it. It’s not about you. If you get a chance to speak for your people, you get up there and you do a good job.”
The first iteration of the National Gallery’s Indigenous Art Triennial, “Culture Warriors”, opened in 2007 to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum and the 50th anniversary of NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee). Curated by the artist Brenda L Croft (Gurindji/Malngin/Mudburra peoples), it is recognised as a landmark exhibition in the history of Australian art.
Subsequent editions consolidated this First Nations-led and -centred major survey exhibition within the cultural landscape, including “unDisclosed”, curated by Carly Lane (Kalkadoon peoples), and “Defying Empire” by the National Gallery’s curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, Tina Baum (Larrakia/Wardaman/ Karajarri peoples).
I am leading a team curating the next iteration, the “4th National Indigenous Art Triennial: Ceremony”, which opens on November 6, 2021, just a few months ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Tent Embassy. It comprises artists who haven’t yet been in a Triennial, some who are less established in their practice and even some who are first-time exhibitors in a visual arts context. It also focuses on the processes of cultural renewal happening in our communities.
With works about connection to Country, protecting Country and language revival, the Triennial reflects the diverse practices, experiences and lives of our artists as representatives of their communities. In the context of contemporary Australia and our recent history, the work of our artists is intrinsically political. The “Ceremony” exhibition draws on its location, in the nation’s capital, as a site of political agency, commissioning works that are active, works that are activist and works that activate.
Among the featured artists is Paul Girrawah House, who remembers being at the Tent Embassy as a young child with his mother, Dr Matilda House, a Ngambri and Ngunnawal Elder and Traditional Custodian. He also recalls the temporary relocation of the embassy to Kurrajong Hill prior to the construction of the new Parliament House. This site, now known as Capital Hill, is a men’s site and provides sacred red (warrugang), yellow and purple (warradagang-ngurrumirrgang- dhuray) ochres. It overlooks Lake Burley Griffin, which, on its creation in 1963, flooded a ceremony ground near what is now the National Museum of Australia.
Paul’s relationship with his matrilineal Country, and the city whose official name he says is derived from the language name Ngambri, endures despite these encroachments, as do many “old people” trees: a cultural practice of carving designs onto living trees, and creating objects from them, without harming them that is distinctive to southeastern Aboriginal communities. For “Ceremony”, under the guidance of his mother, Paul will scar several trees in the National Gallery Sculpture Garden. Titled “Murruwaygu”, it is the beginning of a project he hopes will one day encompass the entire Parliamentary Triangle. For Paul, these contemporary dendroglyphs are an assertion of the sovereign right of his people to be acknowledged, respected and honoured in a culturally appropriate way.
Language is key to the work of the Wiradjuri artist SJ Norman. For “Ceremony”, Norman will perform an iteration of “Bone Library” from the “Unsettling Suite”, where he considers the living essence of so-called “dead” First Nations languages through a live inscription. On this occasion, he will collaborate with members of the Walgalu community to engrave a complete dictionary onto the bones of what he describes as “totemic colonial beasts” (sheep and cattle).
Norman thinks about ceremony in two ways: big-‘C’ and small-‘C’, with Ceremony reflecting ritual workings that are part of a continuous lineage. “I think about what constitutes a ceremonial act and what can more broadly constitute ceremony,” he recently told me. “What lineages do different ceremonial practices belong to? And what is the fluidity between them? And sort of small-‘C’ ceremony, for me, is a very distinct space from big-‘C’ ceremony.
“I would say my work as an artist is an expression of a very personal practice of reconnecting through my body and through embodied practice with ceremonial technologies, spiritual technologies. And when we’re talking about ceremony, we are talking about a technology, a knowledge-making practice. It’s not just something we do. Ceremonial technologies I’ve been largely divested of by virtue of being a Southeastern Koori.” It is, he says, mostly an intuitive process that finds an expression in his work. “My artistic practice exists within, and draws upon, multiple lineages of ceremony,” he says.
For the ceramicist Penny Evans (Gamilaroi peoples), ceremony is about ritual and connecting to Country. “It’s about transformation, it’s about growing up, it’s about respect,” she says. “I feel that’s so important, where we all need to be practising ceremony and rituals of one form or another and getting back to ourselves — and who we are as people and how we connect to Country, where we connect. It’s so important for us to survive as a human race. Connecting to Country is the most important thing.”
Her practice is informed by time spent in the landscape and going back to Country, which is part of a broader decolonising process for the artist. For “Ceremony”, Evans will exhibit a sculptural installation titled “BURN Gudhuwa-li”, a series of burnt banksia forms that explores the cultural significance of fire and the devastating impact of failing to follow Aboriginal protocols for caring for Country. Evans’ banksia forms are anthropomorphic and suggest the inextricable connection of people and place, and the symbiotic relationship to fire developed over millennia. Fire activates the banksia pods: they spill their seeds and regenerate. The DNA of our people is represented by the pools of glaze within these pods.
To create his compellingly beautiful objects, the Ngemba carver Andy Snelgar talks about finding the song in the tree and bringing out that song as he travels through Country looking for wood from fallen trees and branches. The works Snelgar produces, with his trademark delicate fluting and incising, are all imbued with his unique sensibility and ancient heritage. His parrying shields, clubs, broad shields and spears play a central role in traditional ceremonial performance, and in his work, Snelgar expresses the ongoing significance of these objects and, by association, ceremony in the contemporary experience of Aboriginal communities in the southeast.
Another whose work involves foraging on Country for materials is Robert Fielding, an artist of Western Arrernte, Yankunytjatjara, Pakistani and Afghan descent who lives in the Mimili community on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands of South Australia. However, it is abandoned cars that Fielding is salvaging as he travels the 77-kilometre road between his home and the neighbouring community of Indulkana. “Through the process of selecting, painting and illuminating certain cars,” says Fielding, “I’m bringing back to life something long thought dead.”
Fielding’s exploration of the tension between community life and global cultural shifts are deeply personal and informed by his family history. For him, these cars are laden with memory and symbolism: they are associated with the people who owned them and the journeys they took in their homelands. As visitors to remote communities know, cars are a valuable commodity in that they enable families to attend ceremonies and visit Country. For “Ceremony”, Fielding will creatively resurrect a forgotten car wreck, with its strategic positioning commenting on the political annexing of Ngambri and Ngunnawal land.
One of the works commissioned for “Ceremony” that most obviously connects to Canberra is “Blak Parliament House” by artists from the Yarrenyty Arltere and Tangentyere art centres in Mparntwe (Alice Springs). This Aboriginal take on Australia’s political heartland, a collaboration by 16 artists led by Marlene Rubuntja, will comprise a hand-sewn version of Parliament House, complete with people having meetings and debates. Parliament House — and Canberra, generally— is seen by many as a distant place where decisions are made that directly affect the lives of our people. Taking the form of fantastical soft sculptures, it will place our people centrestage and acknowledge the role of the Tent Embassy, while paying tribute to the Traditional Custodians of this Country, such as Dr Matilda House, who have been working for our people for so many years.
At the heart of “Blak Parliament House” is advocacy for Aboriginal self- determination, a powerful demonstration of which are the town camp communities in Mparntwe, where the artists live and work. This commission is inspired by Rubuntja who said, “In 2009, I came to the art centre, I thought, ‘I’ll try this.’ And now I come every day. Then I got strong for this art centre. I love this art. In 2009, I didn’t see properly what was happening, how this art was getting me strong. In my head and heart, I grew all these ideas and I started feeling well again.”
Rubuntja hopes others will be similarly fortified by hearing her speak on behalf of the centre and the art created there. “When we first started sewing we were in kindergarten, then we started focusing properly and moving to primary school, then high school, then university — and now I’m waiting to be a professor of sewing,” she says. “Look out, world, I might sew Parliament House!”
Far west Mparntwe, the Pintupi artist Mantua Nangala is creating a painting for “Ceremony” that depicts a significant site near the saltlake Wilkinkarra (Lake Mackay). The National Gallery’s commissioning of this major triptych is a first for the Papunya Tula Artists centre and commemorates the 50th anniversary of its founding. That this collective of artists has survived and thrived against significant odds over a half century is certainly cause for celebration and, as Nangala says, “It is very important for us artists all over the Western Desert. It helps us get some money for our families. We have helped raise money for dialysis with Purple House, and lots of other things for the community. We help people every way with Papunya Tula.”
Iteration, a meditative process of mark-making through which stories and ideas are expressed, is at the heart of the paintings Nangala creates at her home in Kiwirrkura. They relate to the epic travels of the Kanaputa Women who travelled from the west, passing through the ancestral women’s sites of Mukula, Marrapinti and Yunala. Deep in the Gibson Desert, her ngurra (Country) is dominated by rows of parallel sand dunes (tali). The iterative painterly action of meticulously applying lines of dots echoes not only the tali, but also the ritualised performance of ceremony. As the artist says, “When I’m painting, I’m at home on my ngurra in my head, thinking about Marrapinti stories and songs, Minyma Tjuta [all the women] it makes me feel good, palya [good].”
The collective started in the early 1970s in the desert outpost of Papunya, a settlement established by the government to assimilate the desert peoples. It is one of the places my family visited in the early 1970s — a pivotal moment in my childhood. I sharply remember the housing (if you could call it housing) that people were living in: galvanised sheds that were blisteringly hot in summer, lean-tos and humpies, with many families sharing one outdoor tap. Seeing those conditions, which the painter and teacher Geoffrey Bardon described so cinematically, had a very deep impact on me as a child.
From those challenging beginnings, Papunya Tula has played a central role in the outstation movement, which has seen Aboriginal communities, like Kiwirrkura, established throughout the desert homelands. Art, like the cars that Fielding salvages, has been the vehicle for this journey to self-determination right across Australia. A journey that is taken in Country, on Country and for Country. Our artists eloquently express a shared journey that traverses countless generations and reveals our place in that story. Ceremony, for me, is the nexus between Country, community and culture. That’s where those things come together — and are expressed in “Ceremony”.