Originally published by this is tomorrow Contemporary Art Magazine, 15 October 2020
From All Points of the Southern Sky: Photography from Australia and Oceania
Southeast Museum of Photography, Daytona, Florida
22 September – December 16, 2020
Curated by Ashley Lumb
On the 26 May 2017, two hundred and fifty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates signed the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’, a profound declaration calling for a ‘First Nations Voice’ to be enshrined in the Australian Constitution. Australia remains one of the only colonial nations in the world that has failed to sign a treaty with its First Nations people. Yet, as the ‘Uluru Statement’ testifies, the cruel injustice of colonialism continues to define the everyday lives of First Nations Australians, from disproportionate rates of incarceration and detention to the alienation of Indigenous children from their families. At its centre, the Uluru Statement petitions for urgent ‘truth-telling’ about Australia’s colonial past to recognise how this dark history continues to haunt the present.
Together, the thirteen artists in ‘From all Points of the Southern Sky’ reckon with Australia’s colonial past. Curated by Ashley Lumb, this striking exhibition, which borrows its title from the Uluru Statement, offers an unsentimental portrait of a nation in turmoil. Lumb succeeds in truth-telling by spotlighting Australian artists who unravel the more sinister strands of Australia’s social fabric. While Peta Clancy and Leah King Smith use photography to reveal First Nations history, Kurt Sorensen and Jane Brown create images of Australian Gothic, marked by colonial melancholia, which depict Australia as a figment of Britain’s dark subconscious. Sorensen’s portrait series ‘Port of Call’ (2012) powerfully resurrects Australia’s legacy of incarceration by photographing the descendants of Sydney’s penal colony. Printed using the wet plate collodion process, Sorensen’s subjects linger hauntingly within their monochrome frames, suspended in a timeless limbo. Meanwhile, Tobias Titz’s ongoing ‘Polaroid Project’ (1998 – ) attempts to disavow the camera’s reductive gaze by coupling portraits of refugees and First Nations Australians with texts authored by their subjects. What started as a project to record the sentiments of these people towards the 1967 Referendum, which granted Indigenous Australians socio-political visibility, has become a more expansive series committed to cross-cultural dialogue.
These themes of race and agency are equally addressed by two video works. The first, Angela Tiatia’s ‘Inference’ (2018), explores the psychic process of colonisation. Tiatia documents the struggles of self-actualisation in a colonial world that restricts how Indigenous people can present themselves. Whilst the video begins with dancing, this uninhibited self-expression is violently interrupted by a barrage of Western imagery that imposes pejorative stereotypes upon Indigenous bodies. The second, Torika Bolatagi’s ‘Ecology/Economy’ (2013), explores how the Fijian military have been mythologised through a colonial lens. This video destabilises fixed notions of Fijian masculinity by showing a father giving a massage to his young son. Whilst there are innumerable parallels between colonialism in the Pacific and Australia, this work feels a little dislocated in an exhibition that is anchored so singularly in Australian experiences.
‘From all Points of the Southern Sky’ also focuses on the devastating effects of human-induced climate change: a phenomenon enmeshed with colonial attitudes towards the land. In January 2020, Australia’s most extreme bushfire season to date reached its devastating climax, ravaging wildlife and seizing human lives. The blackened trees and amber flames that haunt Australia’s psyche appear multiple times throughout this exhibition. Stephen Dupont, Katrin Koennig, Sonia Payes and Anne Zahalka each bear witness to the frightening realities of the Anthropocene. Whilst Dupont’s photojournalistic series ‘Black Summer’ (2020) depicts familiar scenes of destruction, Zahalka’s digitally-altered photographs of museum dioramas create uncanny images of a sunburnt country veiled by smoke and strewn with litter. Kate Robertson and Silvi Glattauer’s more sentimental portrayals of Australia’s natural beauty provide a welcome reprieve from the exhibition’s melancholy atmosphere.
As an Australian, I am compelled by Lumb’s exhibition and its willingness to confront uncomfortable truths and disavowed histories. It is a timely reflection on Australian identity that demands introspection. In the context of a Floridian gallery, I’m curious how legible this history will be to American visitors and how they will respond to the exhibition’s themes, especially in light of America’s escalating racial tensions, epitomised by heartrending scenes of police brutality. The themes of race and violence explored in this exhibition transcend national borders. Systemic racism is not endemic to Australia, nor is environmental collapse. Whilst the particularities of the American situation are unique, there are depressingly universal echoes that reverberate globally. Perhaps, for American audiences, the differences between Australia’s fraught cultural legacy and their own will make it easier for them to turn a reflexive gaze on their own unreconciled histories and embrace the spirit of ‘truth-telling’ set out in the Uluru Statement.