New Spaces at National Gallery of Victoria’s Triennial

By Kate Jama
NGV Triennial 2020 installation view of Phumzile Khanyile's Plastic Crowns series 2016, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Bowness Family Fund for Photography, 2019

My White mother made it a point to introduce me to galleries from a young age. It was her way of making sure that I knew that publicly funded institutions were for me. But when I entered, I saw no images reflecting my multiracial experience as a child of Somali and British heritage. 

Blackness has long been absent from Australian public galleries. And if present, it is often portrayed as the voiceless and nameless muse or servant to the Whiteness of the protagonist. Importantly, there have been some signs of change. In the recent Triennial at the National Gallery of Victoria’s, First Nations and Black African artists from here and the African continent were taking up long-withheld space within the gallery.

Walking past the NGV’s iconic water wall, I looked up to see Waddi Waddi, Ngarrindjeri and Yorta Yorta artist Glenda Nicholls’ Miwi Miloo (Good Spirit of the Murray River)A massive delicately woven fishnet with feather flowers hung high above the crowds of people entering the gallery. In the words of Nicholls, the “tools of yesterday are now the art of today.”

I pass the ground floor cafe to enter Coles Court adjoining Gallery 1. This section of the Triennial showcased predominantly Black womxn photographers from the African continent and diaspora based in Australia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and the United States. 

Walking into the gallery space, I noticed that all the works were portraiture. The subjects, including at times the artists themselves, were firmly in the centre of the frame, sitting still or in movement. Clearly, the artists were speaking back to the images that have proliferated the Western European imagination of Africa since its colonisation of the continent. 

According to Linda Tuhiwai Smith, professor of indigenous education at the University of Waikato:  

“Imperialism and colonialism are the specific formations through which the West came to ‘see’, to ‘name’, to ‘know’ First Nations people.”

Growing up as part of the Somali diaspora, colonial archival images are the few historical visual records, outside of my own family albums, available to me. Images such as the five photo collection of young Somali women titled Soomalee [i.e. Somali?] women [ca. 1858 – ca. 1862] at the State Library of Victoria. In these photos, it is heartbreakingly clear that the young women are not posing for themselves, but for a likely White man behind the camera. The gallery, like the museum, has from inception, been an institution dedicated to collecting and containing such images presented by and for a colonial gaze. 

This insatiable consumption of images from and of Africa is something that the artists exhibited at the Triennial are directly responding to. Their work also comments on the unequal power dynamic between brown and Black artists and subjects and their often-White audience.

Large and high above our gaze, Ayana V. Jackson’s subjects are frozen in various stages of movement. For Jackson, the medium of photography “frame[s] the Black body literally and figuratively.” It is acutely apparent that the Intimate Justice in the Stolen Moment series is speaking to the historical and current objectification of the Black female body in the United States. The dancers, dressed in ornate colonial dress, do not seek to make eye contact with the viewer. But regardless, the audience is watching. 

I have returned to the Triennial three times. On my final visit, I went with my friend Vicky. For us, two women from the Black African diaspora – me, Somaliland and Vicky, Seychelles – walking through the collection, we were deeply affected. Each work elicited feelings and stories about our families. We laughed, we talked loudly and we stood in knowing silence. 

We stood in front of Phumzile Khanyile’s Plastic Crowns in which the artist casually smoke a cigarette with rollers in her hair and a sewing machine in the background. Khanyile is challenging what it means to be a ‘good woman’ by stepping out of the patriarchal boundaries set and imposed upon her body, and ours. Looking at the Johannesburg-based Khanyile’s unapologetic series, we began to talk about the women in our lives and the process of unlearning our own conditioning as ‘good women.’ 

A voice calls from close behind:

“Can I take a picture of you two? Both of your hair looks so good in front of the photos.”

“Are you from NGV?”. I quip back. Being in the gallery magazine seemed to be the only faintly redeemable option for his nescient interruption.

“No, I’m from a camera club.” 

“No!” we both exclaim. “Thank you, though,” I caught myself saying. The good girl is hard to shake. 

Atong Atem’s Studio Series brought us back. Evoking the aesthetic of 1960s staged studio photography pioneered by Malian photographers Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta, the Melbourne/Narrm-based South Sudanese photographer joyously celebrates friends and family in the five works recently purchased by the NGV. Looking up, I noticed a familiar face looking back at me from the gallery wall. To my pleasant surprise, I recognise my friend as one of Atem’s photo subjects. 

I head to the second floor of the NGV. Standing in the thoroughfare of level 2 in front of Cree artist Joi T Acand’s pimiciwan pimatisowina young child points to the neon lights of Acand’s piece and asks “what does that say, Dad?” The father ignores their child’s curiosity and swiftly walks past. In all honesty, I did the same the first time I saw this sign spelled out in Cree. At first glance, not knowing what was written on the walls, it seemed easier to walk past. But that is what we settlers have been conditioned to do, right? Bypass First Nation knowledge on our way to the European collection! 

Quandamooka artist, Megan Cope, similarly uses illuminated text for her piece, Unprecedented, situated among the permanent English and European collection. By highlighting the word precedent between the prefix and suffix, Cope pushes back at colonial Australia’s systemic attempt to deny 80,000 years of First Nations’ knowledge of this continent.

On the third floor is Trawlwoolway artist Vicky West’s Reflection. Nine sculptures made from bull kelp reflect the nine nations that exist on what is now known as Tasmania. Similarly to Acand, the placements of these works, split between four display cabinets at the end of wall partitions, distract viewers from seeing the beauty of this group of sculptures.

Finally, I enter the adjacent large unlit room and am instantly met by multidisciplinary Wakka Wakka and Yaegel artist Hannah Brontë’s large scale video installation EYE HEAR U MAGIKA searingly beautiful love letter to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, Queer women, and Mothers. With resonant bass, mesmeric vocals and visuals, Brontë aims to “unblock intuitive beliefs and tune into a deep sense of knowing”. This knowing or ‘the cunning’ and ‘illpunja’ is beyond the conscious mind. It is something I have experienced only in glimpses. In the profound space Hannah has created, there is a recovery of ourselves. I feel it.