On forgetting Aboriginal art

On 1 May 2015, tens of thousands of people protested the forcible closure of Aboriginal communities in the mineral-rich state of Western Australia. The support of Aboriginal land rights and political sovereignty inspired solidarity marches across Australia, Aotearoa New Zealand, Turtle Island North America, Europe and Africa. The Narrm Melbourne protest organisers, the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance, confronted structurally discriminatory federal politics by proclaiming the Declaration of Aboriginal Nationality.

In March, the Shifting Gear car design exhibition opened on the ground floor of the National Gallery of Victoria’s NGV Australia space in the Ian Potter Centre, Federation Square. Since 2001, the purpose-built ground floor galleries have been home to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and ceremonial practices. After Shifting Gear opened, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection was rehung as Indigenous Art: Moving Backwards into the Future and relocated to the third floor of the building. Logic suggests that the cars are heavy and require the space, but displacing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander presence from prime gallery space, from important cultural ceremonial space, is a genuine cultural blow.

Located at the confluence of Wurundjeri Baluk and Yalukit Wilam territories, the banks of the Birrarung/Yarra River, where NGV Australia is located, are still sacred meeting places. When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and ceremonial practices were on display in pride of place on the ground floor, visitors could easily encounter the breadth and diversity of the oldest continuing cultural practices in the world. I would imagine the move from the ground floor spaces, to the jam-packed level three gallery is less than ideal for the NGV’s two non-Aboriginal curators of Indigenous art. But it is also unacceptable for the NGV to move the works and gallery spaces without observing cultural protocols and adhering to the wishes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Cramming works into a smaller space on the third floor also renders the exhibition tokenistic, especially with much less space afforded the shields and large-scale desert paintings.

There are more changes ahead for Federation Square. Victorian Aboriginal organisation the Koorie Heritage Trust opens its feted new premises there today. The new KHT spaces at Federation Square represent a dream realised, but only if Aboriginal curators and artists come to visibility. Where is the Aboriginal voice in exhibitions at the NGV and KHT when no Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander curator is in a leadership or supporting curatorial role at either the largest public art museum or the community-run organisation?

Five years have passed since an Aboriginal voice was at the centre of exhibitions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and ceremonial practice at the NGV, when Yamatji curator Stephen Gilchrist worked at the gallery (2005-10). He recently wrote about the potential strength of an art institution when Indigenous perspectives inform the way it operates, going beyond ‘us vs them’ scenarios to create ‘culturally resonant’ spaces that can attract and interest multiethnic Australian audiences.

Wardandi curator Clothilde Bullen, until recently curator of Indigenous art at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, further believes Australian art institutions need genuine succession planning before we can see Indigenous agency embedded in their values, structure and programming.

Decolonisation in the Australian context can be defined as the end of intersecting forms of colonial oppression such as patriarchy, heterosexism, capitalism, and race-based hierarchy. Genuine Indigenous presence and agency at the centre of our public institutions will be transformative. Yorta Yorta curator at Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum, Kimberley Moulton, is unequivocal:

The problem is that Indigenous people are missing from positions within major institutions and regional galleries. … The number of Indigenous people in leadership roles within the industry is completely inadequate and this contributes to what is often absent – our voice.

Without Indigenous curators who articulate uniquely Indigenous perspectives, both the NGV and KHT are symptomatic of the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander presence and agency more broadly. The recent protests in support of Aboriginal land rights and political sovereignty are hopeful gestures. When will we move towards decolonising our public institutions? When will diverse Indigenous voices, art and ceremonial practices be embedded into their values and modus operandi?

It would be visionary to catch up with best practice, for the NGV to restore the Indigenous art galleries to their ground floor home at Federation Square overlooking that special, sacred Birrarung/Yarra River. It would be visionary to establish designated Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and Pacific curatorial, conservation and collection management positions with decent collecting and programming budgets. An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governing advisory board should be a requirement for all major art institutions, including the NGV. It’s high time our public institutions stepped up to the challenge of a decolonised, shared future.


Further reading

Stephen Gilchrist’s ‘Indigenising Curatorial Practice’, in The World is not a Foreign Land (Ian Potter Museum of Art, 2014)

C Bullen’s ‘A Call to Arms’, in Blak Wave (Next Wave Festival, 2014)

‘Indigenous Curators: Contextualising Culture, Creating Conversations’, in Blak Wave (Next Wave Festival, 2014)


Image: Mario Ray Borg

Leuli Eshraghi

Léuli Eshraghi is a Narrm Melbourne-based artist, curator and PhD candidate at MADA. His practice is centred on indigeneity, language, body sovereignty, and queer possibility. Léuli holds qualifications in Indigenous Arts Management and Cultural Studies. He is editor of Oceania Now publication on contemporary art practice and was Tautai Trust Artist in Residence 2015. leulieshraghi.com

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. I wish to correct a very important error, which I will assume is unintentional, in this article by Leuli Eshraghi’s. I am the CEO of the Koorie Heritage Trust and working with the Trust’s Board of Management, led the Trust in its relocation from the fringes of Melbourne CBD at King Street to a central meeting place for all peoples here at Federation Square.

    Giving Mr Eshraghi the benefit of the doubt, but he may not have known that I am in fact an Indigenous Australian from the Torres Strait, a proud descendent of Central and Eastern Islanders (Iama, Meriam and Erub with extended family connections to nearly all of the island of the Torres Strait). Co-incidentally, acknowledging the Pacific ancestry of Mr Ashraghi (admittedly an assumption on my part), I also trace my family tree to the Pacific islands of New Caledonia (Lifu) and Rotuma.

    In addition to a Bachelor of Laws, I hold a Bachelor of Applied Science in the Conservation of Cultural Materials. As a conservator, I have worked in the Art Gallery of Western Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria as the Head of Objects Conservation and undertook an internship in the prestigious Canadian Conservation Institute located in Ottawa, Canada. I was also the lead curator on the first national survey exhibition of contemporary Torres Strait material art and culture launched at the Cairns Regional Gallery in 1997, which toured nationally accompanied by a catalogue of which I was the lead author. More recently, in 2011, I was one of the lead in the Torres Strait Islander Project, an unprecedented collaboration between the lead cultural agencies in Brisbane. I was also the curator of the Strait Home, the State Library’s contribution to the Project. This Project itself was driven primarily by me working as the Executive Manager, Indigenous Research and Projects at the State Library of Queensland, and Tony Ellwood, then Director of the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, and who is currently Director of the National Gallery of Victoria. Although it should not matter, Tony Ellwood is also coincidentally, my partner, with a deep understanding and respect of Indigenous cultures and accepted by my family and Torres Strait Islander community.

    As an Indigenous person with over 20 years in art curatorial and museum management experience and practice nationally and internationally, and working with my exhibitions coordinator and manager here at the Koorie Heritage Trust, I am without doubt able to articulate and bring to my role the unique Indigenous perspective that Mr Eshraghi assumes is missing from the KHT as well as the Indigenous voice that Ms Moulton refers to and which Mr Eshraghi quotes to justify his argument.

    I agree with Mr Eshraghi that our new Federation Square spaces represent a dream realised. I do not understand however what he means by “if Aboriginal curators and artists come to visibility”. As an Aboriginal arts and cultural organisation, our exhibitions program revolves around supporting and promoting Aboriginal artists particularly our Koorie artists, and this is evidence by our exhibitions program. Our future exhibitions program is also premised on working with Aboriginal artists and curators as exhibition project curators to develop and deliver exhibitions.

    I am disappointed that Mr Eshraghi has published this article without the courtesy of having a conversation with me as I would have been able to correct the errors that he has now put into print. I am still happy to have this conversation with Mr Eshraghi if he chooses.

    Finally, I would be very interested to hear of Mr Eshraghi’s Indigenous Australian heritage given his critique.

  2. Tālofa lava Tom,

    Thank you for your considered response. I wish to clarify that I am not criticising or speaking about your leadership of the Koorie Heritage Trust in this article, and fully respect your Zenadh-Kes cultural practices, career and perspective. I’m lending my voice to emphasise the long advocacy by Aboriginal elders, artists, curators and community members for Victorian Aboriginal curators to be agents of change and representation within the National Gallery of Victoria, and the present Koorie Heritage Trust. The NGV has not employed an Aboriginal or Zenadh-Kes/Torres Strait Islander Australian curator for 5 years.

    This critique has been voiced by a large number of highly qualified Aboriginal curators who do not agree with the misrepresentation and lack of agency and presence that NGV Senior Curator, Judith Ryan, and KHT curator Charlotte Christie, continue by their respective positions within the Aboriginal art and ceremonial ecology of Narrm Melbourne. I know both of them well and respect their work practices; intentions and output aren’t in question here, it is a matter of the staid politics of representation and agency. What I am asserting is not new, though it is an as yet elusive structural decolonisation of European-styled visual cultural spaces. Where are the southeastern Australian First Peoples’ curatorial voices at the NGV and at the current KHT? I’m also not calling into question the involvement of incredible artistic (and curatorial in other spaces) leaders involved in the Trust’s reopening, including Maree Clarke and Robyne Latham. It is an august reopening program which everyone should be proud of. The KHT under your leadership has achieved a significant coup in materialising the dream of central visibility for southeastern and broader Aboriginal cultural practices. As I nuance above, this can be more complete, when southeastern Aboriginal curatorial voices are present, critically engaged, affirmed and strengthened.

    At no point do I question Tony Ellwood’s or your cultural competency or deep understanding of First Nations cultural practices across contemporary colonial Australia. I’m simply reiterating southeastern Aboriginal communities’ calls for decolonisation of the largest collecting and exhibiting art museum in Australia. One Indigenous employee in public programs is not a genuine art museum engagement with contemporary Indigenous art practices in this country. If Aboriginal cultural protocols and practices were respected by the NGV as an institution, we would not have seen the silent removal of the Indigenous galleries from their home to the third floor for a big-ticket eulogy car exhibition. Millennial Aboriginal presence on that site along the Birrarung yaluk is much more important than celebrating a fading automobile industry.

    I do not claim to be Indigenous Australian in this piece. I am Indigenous Sāmoan (Sā Seumanutafa) and Persian (Najafābādi), not that my global indigeneity is relevant as I have discussed this issues for years with peers in the arts sector here, including the three curatorial leaders I reference in the article. All of my writing, art and curatorial work is situated within Sāmoan, Persian and neighbouring visual cultural and intellectual practices. Living as a guest in Bunjil’s country, in unceded Wurundjeri biik, the realisation of Aboriginal agency and presence in art and political institutions alike is more than important to me, it is part of the respectful customary protocols and practices of my ancestors. I look forward to further discussions about how the NGV will implement a decolonised, share future that is responsive to Aboriginal, Zenadh-Kes/Torres Strait Islander and diasporic Indigenous Moananui / Pacific communities’ stated wishes.

    Ia manuia le soifua,

  3. An interesting article, thank you. Leaving aside the comments discussion above, the title of the relocated and rehung Indigenous collection at the NGV leapt off the screen: Moving backwards into the future.

    “Moving backwards”, when used in an metaphorical sense as it is here, denotes regression. The exhibition title taken alone then – i.e., without delving into the curatorial rationale – suggests the NGV holds a dim view of the future prospects of Indigenous people and their art. Having worked with Judith Ryan on occasions over the past 7 years, I know this not to be true.

    According to the NGV website, the exhibition tracks the development of art over time. Rather than being about regression, the exhibition is about evolving artistic practice; the NGV is celebrating this great culture, its resilience and strength in the face of adversity. It is therefore a pity that the choice of words for the title was not more judicious.

    As Australia enters yet again the battle of how to acknowledge our First Peoples into our Constitution, let us not forget the power of language in all its applications. It can empower and validate, or it can subjugate and anhiliate. Public institutions and instruments have a duty to perform the former.

  4. Thank you for being a strong voice on this Leuli Eshraghi.. I think this is a measured and thoughtful article & strengthened by the quote by Kimberley Moulton….it appears that only a few First Peoples (particularly Victorian FP) artists are given the exception of being included at the NGV, exhibition wise and is at the discretion of a non Indigenous curator …the lack of First Peoples curatorial positions & engagement & space at the NGV & the Trust does not reflect a lack of qualified, talented, or suitable First Peoples as curators but as you illuminate, the lack of the NGV to act and the need for the Trust to create identified curatorial positions, training for our Peoples to lead and create change.

    I believe the NGV is negligent in its’ responsibility to the support of, promotion of & participation with a broad range of First Peoples artists within the state it represents & in de-colonising their practice in systemic, structural & cultural & social approaches.

    Bumping the Indigenous gallery to the third floor for a car show? For what purpose? Why isn’t there an NGV First Peoples space alive with culture, dialogue, debate, critical thinking & reflection on the key critical issues that are bringing this city to a stop over the past few months? De-colonising, sovereignty, art as activism.

    There is more black art happening around & on our city streets & in municipal & community galleries than in the state institution that has the most funds, resources & reach.

    Why aren’t the Victorian Indigenous Art Awards held/hosted by the NGV or even vaguely supporting of it currently? Why wasn’t this relationship maintained from it’s inception initially ten years ago? Why isn’t Judith Ryan at the VIAA each year representing the NGV? Ten years ago when it was held at the Trust there was initial involvement, where has that gone? Can that be clarified?

    The most senior Indigenous curatorial position in the state is held by & has been held by for over what, twenty years? By Judith Ryan, who is a white woman, her identity is important in this dialogue as her continued position results in an Indigenous curator not having the opportunity to be appointed. This is not an attack on Judith, I would love to have this conversation with her, or anyone from the NGV.

    Why hasn’t there been another Indigenous curator appointed since the departure of Stephan Gilchrist five years ago? Why is this acceptable? When will the changes that are being activated for in the black arts community be reflected in the NGV?

    With due respect to Tom Mosby’s response, I did not see Leuli’s article as being a question over his direction or qualifications, but a question of curatorial autonomy over determining the ways in which our art is communicated and contextualised.

    Leuli does not need to be a Victorian Indigenous person to ask these questions, they just need to be asked. I am asking them as a Wemba Wemba & Gunditjmara woman, a Victorian Aboriginal practising artist, curator, producer, writer and educator of over 15 years experience.

    I don’t need to list my qualifications here, I’m not here to defend myself or anyone else, but the bigger picture question, if we are making contemporary art that speaks back to the coloniser, speaks of sovereignty and our rights as First Peoples to be heard, respected and acknowledged… it is that hard to answer why we have none of our own people curating and representing us at the highest level of artistic and cultural institutions in this state that benefits from us in millions of dollars worth of our art, culture, cultural heritage and lands?

    I pose the same question for Melbourne Museum, why isn’t there a Victorian Aboriginal person as Senior Curator South Eastern Aboriginal Cultures? When will these institutions, which are sites of colonial power, built on the theft, illegal trade, plundering of our human remains, art and cultural artefacts and assertion of white colonisation as the superior really listen by acting, not responding with the same answers…It’s one of the most pressing issues regarding our art and culture, if we are to operate in a western paradigm that determines that galleries and museums continue to dominate through power, position and wealth and we continue to ask them to ‘allow’ us to curate our own work we remain disempowered culturally and artistically. I would love the opportunity to work with a de-colonised and responsive and evolving state gallery that does continue the colonial gaze in deciding which Indigenous artists are selected to be shown and collected.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *