- Issue One: Failure
- Issue Two: Territory
- Issue Three: Bare Life
- Issue Four: Slowness
- Issue Five: Affective Framing: Cinematic Experience and Exhibition Design
- Issue Six: Aesthetics of Heterogeneity
- Issue Seven: Responding to Site Specificity
- Issue Eight: Invisibility (escaping notice)
- Issue Nine: Relations
- Issue Ten: Enchantment, Disenchantment, Reenchantment
- Issue Eleven: Heterotopias (Worlds Within Worlds)
- Issue Twelve: Thresholds
Mohammad Zaki Rezwan
A Critical Apprehension of Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia
This brief essay is a critical response to the exhibition titled Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia in the Museum of Anthropology at UBC on January 31, 2019. It attempts to address some key issues regarding the exhibition of contemporary non-western artworks from Australia. The paper looks at this exhibition as a crossroads of homogeneity and heterogeneity.
Keywords: Aboriginal, Australia, Exhibition, UBC
My visit to the exhibition titled Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia in the Museum of Anthropology at University of British Columbia was indeed an illuminating one, but not so much of a revolting one. The exhibition aims at highlighting the theme of aboriginal identity and culture from the eyes of women from aboriginal Australia with a particular focus on the aesthetic aspects revolved around the use of abstract ideas and patterns. It comprises contemporary artworks of Angelina Pwerle, Carlene West, Gulumbu Yunupingu, Lena Yarinkura, Nonggirrnga Marawili, Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, Regina Pilawuk Wilson, Wintjiya Napaltjarri, and Yukultji Napangati. All the exhibition materials (e.g. brochure and signs) repeated that all of these artists are aboriginal, self-taught women artists from different areas of Australia who are regarded as influential figures in their own communities due to their cultural and spiritual contributions. Even though they are from the same region, their artistic style and approach are diverse in nature. For instance, Nonggirrnga Marawili invents her own aesthetic styles for her artworks (Mayer 2018), while on the other hand, Yukultji Napangati focuses on telling the stories of her “mother’s country” in her artworks (Mayer 2018). Similarly, Regina Pilawuk Wilson represents the cultural values and traditions of her community, aiming to provide the next generation with a true picture of their community which came into existence before the European settlement. This exhibition is a compendium of abstract paintings integrating the use of diverse mediums such as canvas, bark, wood, digital screen, paperboard, etc.
The curator, Henry Skerritt, has been working with Australian aboriginal art and culture for a long time. His curatorial preference for contemporary artworks of aboriginal artists develop exhibition that demonstrates how aboriginal communities in Australia are agents of their own cultural evolution. For example, Regina Pilawuk Wilson’s artworks represent her cultural heritage before the arrival of the European and suggest the change which the future generation will notice in their present in comparison to their past (Mayer 2018). Likewise, Lena Yarinkura experiments with changes by inventing new ideas by using traditional methods (Mayer 2018). Gulumbu Yunupingu attempts to neutralize any internal or external factors that instigate alteration by universalizing every human being. Skerritt’s curatorial preference for selecting self-taught artists can be seen as an attempt to validate the agency of aboriginal communities, their own awareness of their cultural evolutions and their responses to any possible changes are determined by their own artistic gestures. In addition to this, labelling all the artists’ statements as “in her words” in the supporting materials (e.g. website and brochure) of this exhibition can be considered as a further endorsement to this notion including the curator’s attempt to destabilize his presence (both non-aboriginal and male) from the aboriginal women narrative. Furthermore, the curator may have also tried to minimize the influence of Western (or non-aboriginal) ideology on non-Western (or aboriginal) artworks by breaking the convention of the white cube in this exhibition. Most, if not all, walls of this exhibition are exempted from being painted white.
Though Skerritt may have tried to minimize the external influence on this exhibition, his existence is nonetheless present in his curatorial approach. Marcia Crosby , in her influential essay “Construction of the Imaginary Indian,” argues that although Western discourse has started criticizing its own ideological dominance, its execution of discourse production has failed to shift critical focus from the “self” to the indigenous people (Crosby 1991/2011, 281). This preference for the “self” can be traced from the use of “Aboriginal Australia” in the title to identify the origin of the artists of this exhibition. This particular identification may seek to naturalize these artists as Australian regardless of the fact that some of these artists may not even acknowledge Australia as a country or their land as a part of Australia. Besides, as all of these artists are not from one single community or place, the act of categorizing them all as artists from aboriginal Australia reflects the curator’s interest in the homogenization of these sporadic aboriginal communities and their diverse cultures. Moreover, the use of a bright present-day map of Australia on a dark wall of this exhibition strongly reminds one of how these diverse communities are encaged and overpowered by the settlers in their own lands. The curatorial preference in this exhibition to select only artists who are considered as “cultural leaders” (Mayer 2018) raises the issue of subalternity as well as double colonization and leads one to ask whether the voice of common aboriginal people is silenced through this partiality or not. This preference reminds of James Clifford’s warning that the western collection of non-western objects establishes “what “deserves” to be kept, remembered, and treasured” from any non-western culture (Clifford 1988, 231). Besides, most, if not all, of the artworks tend to deal with precolonial and postcolonial periods of these aboriginal communities in their lands; there is no artwork that could spark any dialogue about the colonial period in this exhibition. Nor is there a single acknowledgement or reference to colonial brutality which places the curator’s racial and sociopolitical standing as suspect.
Despite the possible homogenization of aboriginal identities, this exhibition manages to present a strong and optimistic narrative of aboriginal cultures. Following Elena Filipovic, “an exhibition isn't only the sum of its artworks, but also the relationships created between them, the dramaturgy around them, and the discourse that frames them” (Filipovic 2013, 75). This relationship is powerfully constructed between the artworks of this exhibition to mark the “infinite” state of the artists’ communities and cultures. One can perceive patterns as a symbol of infinite as they do not usually have a linear narrative with a requisite ending. The curator’s preference for most artworks in which the use of patterns dominates the visual styles expresses the rhythmic and unstoppable journey of the artists through their cultures. Nyapanyapa Yunupingu’s digital artwork Light Painting suggests this notion of infiniteness by generating infinite results from an algorithm that uses a database of her several drawings. Quite interestingly, immediately after experiencing this generative artwork, this infiniteness is further strengthened by her painting series Djorra placed on a wide wall resembling the limitless horizon of aboriginal cultures. The design1 (see fig. 1) of the gallery space of this exhibition equally contributes to the idea of infiniteness. The gallery space is designed on space-within-space concept, where the use of multiple doors (see fig. 1) on each side of the secondary space allow the visitor to have numerous pathways to experiencing the exhibits; the placement of artworks in relation to their location in the gallery space can also initiate a new dialogue for the exhibition theme. The artworks placed inside this space-within-space invokes the values of aboriginal cultures as well as their ancestral heritages. Artworks placed on the exterior walls strongly deal with nature and its forces, prompting an audience to ponder this spatial arrangement as one of the ways to suggest that nature and its forces will help the aboriginal communities to protect as well as gain infinite access to their cultures and ancestral heritages (see fig. 2).
The exhibition meticulously suggests alternative viewing experiences to the visitors. The space enables the possibility of having alternative viewing experiences where audiences produce their own narratives for artwork/s. Brian O’Doherty termed this idea “the spectator's idea of art” (O’Doherty 1996, 332), where, for example, instead of using only one color for the gallery wall, the exhibition incorporates different shades of colors (e.g. blue, green, grey, and dark grey) that reflect the diversity of aboriginal cultures in the artworks (see fig. 3). Similarly, there are few artworks for which the exhibition offers an opportunity to avail multiple viewing experiences. For instance, Regina Pilawuk Wilson’s large canvas painting Sun Mat proposes different modes of viewing experience. As I experienced, each mode of the viewing experience is capable of providing a different dimension to this artwork much like the sun, which is interpreted differently by different communities around the world.
According to Filipovic, “an exhibition… is not abstract or ahistorical, but a concrete situation located in a particular place and time” (Filipovic 2013, 8). Filipovic denies the neutrality of an exhibition by further arguing that it is a system through which an “ideology is projected” (2). Influences of UBC’s own ideological domination over this exhibition cannot be destabilized completely. As an anthropological museum, MOA has its own narrative which is shaped by its primary objectives and ideological agendas. This is why this exhibition may invoke a new narrative regardless of the contributors’ sociocultural identities. For starters, a visitor can find this exhibition as a way of justifying and naturalizing Western institutions’ “salvage paradigm” even though MOA has constantly maintained “a conscious effort to distance their institution from the colonialism inherent in early museum object-collecting practices and representational techniques” (Clapperton 2010, 10.). Additionally, as this art exhibition is housed by an anthropological museum, a visitor may perceive a narrative that blurs the boundary between art and artifact. However, it is also possible that a visitor’s interpretation of the artworks of this exhibition may even turn into diverse and unique in nature due to his/her/their previous or post interaction with other indigenous or non-indigenous collections in the museum.
Is Marking the Infinite: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia a successful exhibition? Answering this question in a straightforward manner should be avoided. Rather, I concur with the fact that the curator has designed an exhibition that rigorously unleashes numerous, if not infinite, interpretations of each artwork including the exhibition as a whole. However, it falls short in addressing and clarifying the western influence over non-western objects as well as the blurring boundary between homogeneity and heterogeneity. As this exhibition is a travelling exhibition in nature, future studies can be conducted by analyzing upcoming presentations of this exhibition at different venues to understand how an exhibition can generate different interpretations in relation to its time and place through its evolution.
1 The design may not contain the actual scaling or ratio as it is drawn during my personal observation without any official reference (e.g. floor plan) from the museum authority.
Clapperton, Jonathan Alex. “Contested Spaces, Shared Places: The Museum of Anthropology at UBC, Aboriginal Peoples, and Postcolonial Criticism.” BC Studies, no. 165 (2010): 7-30.
Clifford, James. “On Collecting and Culture,” The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art, 215-251. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Crosby, Marcia. “Construction of the Imaginary Indian” Vancouver Anthology: The Institutional Politics of Art, 277-300. Vancouver: Or Gallery/Talon Books, 1991/2011.
Filipovic, Elena. “What is an Exhibition?” Ten Fundamental Questions of Curating, 73-81. Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2013.
Mayer, Carol E., ed. In Her Words: Contemporary Women Artists from Aboriginal Australia. Vancouver, British Columbia: The Museum of Anthropology, UBC, 2018. Exhibition brochure.
O’Doherty, Brian, “The Gallery as a Gesture,” Thinking About Exhibitions, edited by Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson and Sandy Nairne, 320-340. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.
Skerritt, Henry. “About.” Henry F. Skerritt, Accessed February 2, 2019. https://henryfskerritt.com
About the Author
Mohammad Zaki Rezwan always tries to seek who he is not and what he cannot do in his life. In less ambiguous words, he has a broad and diverse range of academic and professional interests. He has taught cultural studies, film, media, communication, critical theory and postmodern literature in university for more than three years in Bangladesh. He also engaged diversely as a fiction writer, graphic designer. photographer, and hobbyist filmmaker. His stories, poem, articles, designs, illustrations, and photographs were published/exhibited in various conferences, newspapers, books, exhibitions, etc., in Bangladesh. Currently, he is researching the Rickshaw art of Bangladesh at the School for the Contemporary Arts, Simon Fraser University, Canada as a graduate student.