Celebrating the strength of South East Australia’s First Nations peoples and cultures

By Anika Baset
Photograph: Andrew Curtis

Exhibition at Australian Centre for Contemporary Art
Review by Anika Baset

Sovereignty, currently showing at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, is an ambitious exhibition exploring themes of self-determination, colonisation, identity and resistance of Aboriginal Australia. Featuring a wide range of works from Indigenous Australian artists, past and present, across the distinct nations, language groups and cultures in Victoria, the exhibition takes the viewer on a journey, evoking feelings of both dismay yet hope for the future of Indigenous rights in Australia.

The temporal scope of the works and the variety of mediums represented in Sovereignty is nothing short of impressive. The exhibition covers over two centuries of Aboriginal identity and resistance, through painting, photography, short film and mixed media. It opens with three pieces from 1897 by Wurundjeri elder William Barack, who, as a young boy, witnessed the signing of the highly contested ‘Batman treaty’ between John Batman and Indigenous clan heads when Victoria was first colonised. His drawings focus on ceremonial life as a means of reinforcing and communicating Indigenous culture in Victoria.

Sovereignty then moves to Aboriginal filmmaker Bill Onus’s home movie collection from 1964. Onus’s works, although almost 70 years after Barack’s works, share the same messages, highlighting the strength and dignity of Indigenous culture in the face of colonial attempts to eradicate it completely.

The exhibition finishes with a series of activist banners, protesting events ranging as far back as the massacre of Aborigines in Victoria between 1836 and 1853 to the more recent torture of Aboriginal children at Dondale Youth Detention Centre. The visual aspect of the banners leaves the viewer keenly aware of the centuries of continual, systematic oppression of First Nations peoples in Australia.

Contrast is a key feature of the exhibition, both between works and within them. A series of black and white photographs of culturally significant trees in Wotjobaluk country, displayed against a tree bark wallpaper, captures the gentle co-existence of Indigenous life and the natural environment. The wall of bark continues, layered with a series of tombstone crosses representing the Indigenous men murdered by white settlers in a region of Southern Victoria. This violent juxtaposition is one of the many reminders of the devastating effect of colonialism on an ancient, spiritual way of life.

A traditional cape made entirely of infringement notices received by the artist, Steaphan Paton, is another striking example where contrast is used to create a sense of unease. The tension feels symbolic of the relationship between law enforcement agencies and Indigenous Australian people, as well as the reality of racialised policing.

Another example is a series of mixed medium collages by Peter Waples-Crowe where he has chaotically layered images that explore the complexity of the sometimes incompatible forces shaping Indigenous identity in contemporary Australia.

The jarring contrasts throughout Sovereignty are ultimately evocative of the unjust and violent imposition of European life on ancient Aboriginal cultures, irrevocably altering their connection to Country and connection to self. Though sharp juxtapositions, temporal scale and artistic variety, Sovereignty captures the unbearable weight of Aboriginal Australia’s 228 year struggle against colonisation. It celebrates the strength of Victoria’s Indigenous peoples and cultures, whose voices remain loud and dignified despite the persistent attempts to silence them.