Being Present: Indigenous Contemporary Art and Cultural Practices in the Museum
We'll reward everybody who came on such a cold, miserable night by starting on time. And thank you all for coming out tonight. Can I ask people to turn their mobiles off or down, as well, before we start?
And this is the fourth in the Humanities Department's seminar series, History, Culture, and Collections. And it's our second evening talk. Yes. So it's a trial this year to sort of see how this goes.
Mainly because-- well, for other reasons. But it's also a good trial to see who's willing to still come along in the evenings. And we've had great attendance so far at both of them. So thank you all very much for coming along.
First of all I'd like to acknowledge the traditional owners of Melbourne, the people of the Boonwurrung- and Woiwurrung-speaking clans of the Kulin nation. And tonight, our speaker is a Yorta Yorta woman, Kimberley Moulton, who I know is very well known to almost everybody here. Kimberley is the curator for the Southeastern Australian collections at the Museum Victoria.
But in her previous life at the museum was of course in the Bunjilaka team here up in the front-of-house team. But Kimberley in recent years has been very, very acknowledged in her interests and her skills and in developing herself as curator. And tonight her talk will particularly focus on the curatorial fellowship that she undertook last year at the Kluge-Ruhe Museum at the University of Virginia in the USA. So I'll hand it over to Kimberley. Thanks.
Thanks, Lindy. I'd like to acknowledge country, before I begin-- the people of the Boonwurrung and the Woiwurung. I acknowledge ancestors, elders, and future generations.
So my name's Kimberley. I'm a Yorta Yorta woman. And as Lindy was saying, prior to my role now as standing curator of Southeastern Aboriginal collections, I worked at Bunjilaka. And I developed over 16 exhibitions with the Victorian Aboriginal community in my time there, which was about seven years. I was also an assistant curator on the First Peoples redevelopment. OK.
So these are photos of my grandmother and great-grandmother. My sister's in the audience-- so our family.
And I come from the James and Cooper family, a long line of strong educators, artists, and activists. I see working in the space of Aboriginal cultural heritage and contemporary art as continuing these legacies and supporting my community. My presence and work within the space of the museum is a personal form of continuing culture and self-determination.
I'm also the tangible form of continuity of culture. My cultural understandings may be different to that of my ancestors, an outcome of the legacy of invasion. However, I carry with pride the strength of my Yorta Yorta ancestry and community I surround myself with and work with. So this leads me to also understanding my place within the museum as an employee and as a community stakeholder that has connections to this space through both bloodline and culture, to its collections, and within its history.
As I was saying, there's photographs of my nan, my great-nan, and other relations in Museum Victoria's collections. And this is something I share with hundreds of Koorie people from Victoria, and thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from across the country. Our place within the institution goes beyond the physical presence.
So I just like to share that with people because it's something very special to me-- my connection to this space. Tonight I'll be speaking about some of my experiences over the last few years-- two fellowships in particular, one which took me to the United Kingdom in 2013, and then also to the USA last year. These are my personal memories and also my observations of both the fellowships and the times in that space, but also working within a cultural space as an Aboriginal woman in big institutions, and what it means for our collections to be in this space.
I've titled my presentation "Being Present" for a number of reasons. It reflects the literal of me being present within the spaces and amongst the collections that I'm going to talk about tonight, but also looking at community engagement and access with museums and the object. How are these relationships integral to our cultural practices, connections, and healing today? And why is being present, whether through voice, the physical, or cultural material we make, within museums and galleries is important to the strength of our future generations and the vision of indigenous autonomy within these spaces.
So last year I was honoured to be the inaugural recipient of the International Curatorial Fellowship with the National Gallery of Australia through the Wesfarmers Indigenous Leadership Programme. And that was at Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection in Virginia.
So I actually started my journey with the Leadership Programme in 2010. I was another inaugural recipient that year the programme started. And I came back as a mentor in 2011.
So this programme-- this is a photo of us from 2010. Some of you might recognise some of these people. And this programme was developed to develop skills and networks for Aboriginal people in the industry, and to address the lack of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working within the arts sector. It was also to establish an alumni of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within the arts to serve as peer support networks and foster potential collaborations and partnerships.
There's a few selfies and things in this slide show. So watch out for those. So as part of-- I went through the programme in 2010 and 2011. And I've maintained my relationships with curators and the other Aboriginal people I've met in that time. And then I went for and received this International Fellowship last year.
So the Kluge-Ruhe is in Charlottesville in Virginia. And Charlottesville-- or Virginia, I should say, is one of the oldest states of the 13 colonies to invade the Americas. And Charlottesville is the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson, to which his plantation, Monticello, is still there.
So I was going to Virginia and down to Charlottesville, with a very strong colonial settler history. And right smack-bang in the middle of Charlottesville is the Kluge-Ruhe, which is an Australian Aboriginal art museum. So the Kluge-Ruhe Is part of the University of Virginia. And it hosts an impressive collection of art and cultural material collected by John Kluge and Edward Ruhe between the 1950s and early 2000s. And then they're continuing to collect today.
They have a really strong residency programme they've been running for about 10 years now of Australian Aboriginal artists going over to the museum. And also now they have this curatorial residency that they'll run every two years with the NGA. They also have, impressively, a board that is made up of Australian Aboriginal people and Native American people.
So this is my first day at the Kluge-Ruhe. I'm very excited. And as you walk into the space, these are just two artists-- Reko Rennie, a Melbourne-based artist you may know, and also Judy Watson, a Queenslander artist-- who have had residencies there.
That's just another image. That's a little cottage I got to stay in. So the artist residency-- there's a cottage just to the side of the Kluge-Ruhe where we stay and work from as well.
So the Kluge-Ruhe has four gallery spaces, a research library, and as I said before, a collection from the '60s that's continuing to grow. And from their Artist Residency Programme they're collecting as well. So they're collecting, most recently, Nici Cumpston, Reko Rennie, Judy Watson, Richard Bell. So there's a lot of contemporary artists that they're putting into their collection.
So my project when I got to the Kluge-Ruhe was to curate an exhibition by acclaimed Yolngu artist Djambawa Marawili. So part of my project there was to curate his works. But it was also to design the exhibition, the hang, writing, do floor talks, work with new people in that space, and also work on their current public programming and education around Aboriginal art and culture.
And this was all in the space of seven weeks. So there was a lot of work to do in a very short amount of time. And this is when we had just received a print from Yirrkala. I think the first week I got there of Djambawa's that the Kluge-Ruhe acquired for their collection. So we were just rolling that out.
So Djambawa is an artist, activist, and political and social visionary. He's a major contributor and leader in the Yolngu sea rights claim in 2004, which was successful in 2008. And the works that I got to work with in the space were beautiful bark paintings with ochres. And they embodied the ancestral beings of Baru the crocodile and Burrit'tji the rainbow lightning serpent. These are physical manifestations of the sovereign right over his country. He was depicting where the fresh water meets the salt water and all that runs in between.
So my first week there, along with a lot of research and getting to know everyone and a new space, was developing my methodology of working. How was I as a Yorta Yorta woman going to work with Djambawa's art? Also, how do I decolonise the space through my approach to art, my approach to voice in writing, the colour of the space, the hang?
Also another thing was how do I incorporate larger narratives of sovereignty, culture, and sea rights that extend and speak to an American audience, whilst highlighting the colonial-settler history of the area, and the quite obvious absence of native representation in this space as well? And finally, how do I ensure that cultural protocol and integrity is maintained over such a vast geographical distance?
I got to sit in the director's office while she was actually on a field trip to Australia at the time. So that's Margo Smith's office.
And Tony Albert had an exhibition when I arrived called Brothers at the Kluge-Ruhe. And he had a book in the research library. And this is the first thing I came across when I started my research.
And this is a quote that really stuck with me. It's actually a Mandela quote. "It always seems impossible until it's done." And it does, sometimes. But you get it done.
So first of all, I was looking at my positionality as a Yorta Yorta woman. How do I work in this space, this cultural space, this space in another land?
So in this cultural space of working with Djambawa's art and stories, I had to reflect on my own positionality as a Yorta Yorta woman. I was working on the country of the native Monacan people. I was working with material and stories from Arnhem land. And I was writing about a senior [INAUDIBLE] man.
I worked very closely with Djambawa, and with the Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre, up at Yirrkala, art centre workers. I spoke with my mentor, Franchesca Cubillo who's the the senior curator of indigenous art at NGA. And I skyped with my colleagues and family and friends. So these were ways that I was working through these questions I had in my head.
But I just wanted a little reflective piece of writing. So I was keeping a journal whilst I was over there, trying to unpack this myself while I was there. And this is just from that.
I've been thinking about what Paul Briggs said-- Paul is an elder and leader, a Yorta Yorta man in our community. I've been thinking about what Paul Briggs said to me last year about Nanyuk. What makes us Aboriginal is inside. It is the spiritual essence that we weave together-- many stories, values, and beliefs from our past, present, and future living culture.
I've been trying to relate my understanding of my culture which is through my family and history connections, my current community both in Melbourne and back home, and also learnings from art and my work. It all inter-relates. There is deep listening and connection between all-- [YORTA YORTA], which is "deep listening" in Yorta Yorta.
I've been trying to listen to Djambawa through his words and the audio, and through reflecting on his work and his activism. I've been trying to listen to this land. There is sadness here, and also a deep history that goes beyond the concrete and the rotundas of Jefferson. It is still beating. The animals and the waters still know it, even if the countless McDonald's and petrol stations don't.
My cultural knowledge does relate to Djambawa. I may not have ceremony or language as Djambawa has. My known sung lines and ceremonies were suffocated by the colonial regime.
And whilst our old ways have been taken, our connection and sovereignty can never be taken. And we live culture and ceremony today, but just in a new way. I have culture and I have bloodline to country that goes back tens of thousands of years. I have respect for my elders and for my community and for country.
I can connect to Djambawa's passion to keep his culture strong for the next generations, to protect his land, to share and educate people on Aboriginal culture. And every Australian, black or white, should be proud of the First Peoples of this country. I feel his frustrations at law and the failings of the government for our peoples. I also feel his pride in who he is, and value his knowledge as I do my own elders in Victoria and my Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander friends and colleagues across the country.
So that was just a little excerpt of a diary that I kept over there. And this is me just trying to unpack the space that I've just found myself in.
So the title-- where the water moves, where it rests-- comes from Djambawa's declaration in Saltwater, recognition of country and recognition of indigenous sea rights, which is a book of contributions around the time of the sea rights case. And it literally jumped out at me in the library. The book fell off the shelf.
And so I started to read through it. And I found this quote from Djambawa, which is up there. I won't read it out. And I felt that it also represented his paintings. He's painting where the saltwater the fresh water, where it moves, where it rests, where Burrit'tji the rainbow lightning serpent and Baru the crocodile stir up the water. So there's lots of ways this would work for me and obviously for Djambawa.
So part of my development of this exhibition was asking the question, how do I reference and use decolonial curatorial methodology within this space? How do I integrate this into my practice whilst engaging a predominantly white audience?
One answer, I felt, to this question was referencing only indigenous writers and researchers in my research, particularly Australian indigenous people. This led me to my colleague Stephen Gilchrist who's done a lot of work in this area but also within America. And he also sits on the board of Kluge-Ruhe.
So a few things that jumped out at me when I was talking to Stephen and also reading some of his work and writing was this statement. He says, "In Australia, indigenous art has always been wrapped up in politics. But American students don't have any misplaced guilt about this. And I feel the conversations can be much more open and critically insightful."
This is a pretty loaded statement. But it got me thinking about audience. And it was important for me to understand the barriers of language and cultural understandings and perhaps the assumptions and stereotypes that Americans may or may not have towards Aboriginal people. And this was something I had to consider.
The Kluge-Ruhe were also keen to Americanise my writing, which I did push back on. Because I felt that it was important to keep my voice as an Aboriginal curator in this space. But I also wanted to challenge people to step outside of their American understanding of the world.
But at the same time, I had to make sure that I wasn't isolating people or limiting their connection to this. So I guess my approach within this space was to create the strongest sense of Djambawa as I could. So for me that was putting audio in that space of Djambawa.
So the Mulka Project up at Yirrkala have been recording and doing all these amazing things with community. And Djambawa had recalled the song cycle of Baru. So I had that playing in the space as people entered.
I incorporated Djambawa's handwriting in the space in vinyl. I used first person quotes wherever possible, so it was Djambawa's voice always coming out first. I used images of Djambawa, and maps of country, even down to the referencing of Yirrkala waters, which was this extremely bright blue. It wasn't as-- it comes out really bright here.
And that was a bit of a gamble. I really wanted to move away from the white cube or the white space and play around with color. And after doing a lot of research and looking at the beautiful waters of Yirrkala, this color kept coming out at me. And it was kind of one of those moments where I'm like, this could work, or it could really not.
And it did. The ochres and the barks absolutely popped off this colour. And everyone loved it. So I'm glad it worked.
But also, I was not only working with Djambawa and what he wanted and what he's saying in his work. So I wanted to pull out some larger narratives. And my aim was to look at what else could be shared in this space.
Again, I referenced Stephen's work in developing my approach. And he says that curators of indigenous art need to devise installations and exhibitions that interrogate dominant interpretive binaries. These binaries can be identified in terms of temporality-- so contemporary versus traditional; race-- indigenous versus non-indigenous; discipline-- art historical versus anthropological; and intent-- ceremonial versus secular.
So with this in mind, my outcomes became to explore and hopefully engage the audience in concepts of the continuing living culture of Djambawa Marawili and the Yolngu people. I wanted people to understand relationships of land that we have, and understanding of land-- you know, scientific understanding of land.
I wanted also to communicate that culture and knowledge connection is non-linear and is also spiritual. So Yolngu way describes the beginning as-- I asked Lindy before how we say this. But it's [NON-ENGLISH], which is time before the first light, the sacred time of creation and knowledge. This is seen as ever-present, informing the past, present, and future.
I was also looking at the contemporary expression of culture through art. So look at the ways that Baru and Burrit'tji are depicted in his work. And it's understanding that the designs that Djambawa is painting, this aesthetic, is uniquely his own. So they're referencing more traditional or customary patterns and forms of expression. But he's really created his own style.
And I also wanted to look at, broadly, the diversity of Aboriginal Australia. I wanted people to understand that Aboriginal sovereignty was never sated, and that art is a form of activism. Art is also a form of evidence, and how Djambawa is leading this.
I also wanted people to walk away thinking broadly about native peoples of America and the silent layer of history that remains absent in the periphery of broader America. So these were a lot of big things that I wanted to pull out. As well as, obviously, I'm keeping the focus on Djambawa's work.
So a big part, obviously, of my fellowship was also collaboration with staff. And the staff over there are amazing. And you really get to appreciate coming from such a big institution and all that we have here. Going to a smaller art space, you really appreciate, I guess, what we do have in this space and also the knowledge of the staff.
So that was me being pretty happy with myself because I put up vinyl lettering for the first time. And we have people who do that here for us. Curators don't have to do that. But the staff are really amazing.
I had to do, obviously, floor talks and engage with an American audience in that space. And I found that the visitors to Kluge-Ruhe and everyone that came to the talks really came with an open mind and were very, very interested in what I was doing, but also in the art of Djambawa and, more broadly, Australian contemporary art and cultural heritage. I was challenged a couple of times by a few people in the audience. But these sort of dialogues are important to have.
So the final outcome was where the water moves, where it rests. And again, as I was saying before, putting Djambawa's signature on the wall and his voice in the space, his quotes and his opinions about things on the walls and in the text-- that's how I ensured that his presence was there. So this is just a little kind of a walk-through of that space so you get a sense of the works.
And this is with Francesca who was my supervisor as well. So on the opening night, we had a really large crowd, actually. And Djambawa had gifted us the sea rights flag. So we raised that at the Kluge-Ruhe.
And my first impression, actually, when I got to the Kluge-Ruhe was the Aboriginal flag was flying on the flag pole here. And it was a really welcoming sight to have that representation there.
So this fellowship with the Kluge-Ruhe was an incredible opportunity supported by this museum for me to go over there to really build up, I guess, my understanding of curating in an international context. How do you engage, in this case, with an American audience? And there was a huge amount of learnings for me as an Aboriginal woman working in America on native work but also with Djambawa's work and having to navigate the cultural complexities for me, but also researching and trying to engage an American audience in this space.
So I've had some opportunity in the past to also go to the UK. And whilst I was in America, I also did some research. Because I was not far from Washington.
So this photo is me at Cambridge in 2013. And I'm at the British Museum And that's the shield that just came out recently as part of the Encounters exhibition that Cook collected.
So my time at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington was quite amazing. They have quite an amazing collection of Southeastern Aboriginal cultural material. And this is a possum-skin cloak from the Hunter Valley region.
Now for those of you that don't know, there's only three whole cloaks left in the world. Museum Victoria have two. We have the Yorta Yorta cloak, which is on display in First Peoples, the Gunditjmara cloak from the Western District. And then there's the Hunter Valley cloak in Washington. And there are some fragments scattered throughout the world, as well, of other cloaks.
So this cloak and the collection that I saw, which was a series of reed necklaces and shields and baskets, came from an expedition in 1938, which was the US exploring expedition of the Pacific. This expedition was the largest naval attempt of exploration at the time. And they collected a huge amount of natural specimens, but also ethnographic material.
And this was quite an amazing thing to talk about with the curator, Adrienne at the time. Because it was understanding coming from these totally two different points of connection to the object and to the collection. So this collection that was part of this expedition was the founding collection for the Smithsonian, for the actual museum.
And when we were in this space looking at the cloak, she closed this drawer and she said, to the object, time to go back to sleep now. And it was in an affectionate way. But it really kind of threw me.
It was this concept of the object being asleep and dormant and the object being active. And to me, me being in that space, the object was very much alive. It's very active. My presence there is making that.
But also the fact that these objects carry cultural continuity just as we do, as we live and breathe. And then for her to say go back to sleep-- I was quite thrown by that. But that's also her point as a non-indigenous person, as a curator, as someone who's looking after these collections.
That was her affection. That was her connection to the object. So it just got me thinking.
And we had some conversations around custodianship or position. And repatriation came up also. And that's probably a whole other conversation.
But what I did talk to Adrienne about was the possibility of repatriation or even loan of this object, and the benefit to community that it would have, and the connection that we continue to have to these objects. And she didn't rule out loan. But in terms of repatriation, she was like, this-- you don't understand.
This is this American history that is part of this collection. It's the founding collection for the Smithsonian. It's very, very important to the American people.
And so it was just interesting to think about it from my perspective as an Aboriginal person going into the space, and that collection history, and the valuing of history, and the different points. How do we value history? From our standpoint as curators, as community, as non-indigenous people, as collectors, we all come to these spaces in a very different way.
So it left me with more questions than answers. But it was an amazing interaction to have within that space.
I'm just going back. So we've got the cloak and the parrying shield, close up. There are some sister baskets here, and other baskets. And then there's a reed necklace. So there were actually two bundles of reed necklaces in this collection as well, which were just beautiful.
I also got time at the National Museum of American Indian and the National Gallery. And I got a tour by Terry Snowball and Anya who are Native American curators in that space.
So another experience that I've had with museums and collections was the ACCELERATE programme that I was a recipient of in 2013. And this is with the British Council. And it's a tailored leadership programme, again.
And my research focus was looking at the role that contemporary art and community access play in reframing historical material. So how does responding to new bodies to work as a contemporary artist, I guess, revoice the object and give new narrative, often to objects that have very little known information about them, other than the collector?
So I went over to London with four other people-- my cousin Andrea James, who's a playwright; Solomon Booth, who's an artist; Ron Bradfield, who's manager of Artsource for Western Australia; and Michael Cook, who's also another artist. I got the opportunity to go to Cambridge University of Anthropology and Archaeology, to the Saffron Walden Museum, to the Tate Liverpool, to the British Museum, to the Serpentine Gallery in London, and also Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University.
I was going over there initially to look at how art plays a role in these spaces. But also, while I was there, that shifted a little bit to having conversations with the curators and the collection managers on their connection to the collection that they're responsible for, to their understanding of living culture, to the understanding that these objects continue to breathe, and continue to mean something even though removed, and so far, across the seas. And I also went to places like the Tate and the Serpentine Gallery to look at how they're engaging with youth.
And I also went to the Transatlantic Slavery Museum in Liverpool to look at how they engage youth with, I guess, harder histories. And how do you educate and talk about that?
So the Pitt Rivers Museum is known as sort of like a museum of a museum. It's the most incredible place you'll probably ever go. And if you love museums, you've got to go there. And the collection is just out of this world.
And the museum itself was created by Pitt Rivers. And he was collecting. And he invented this concept of typology which for me was problematic when I was in that space.
So I got to see both the collections on display and then the collections that are in the archives. But to me, placing everything together-- so all the shields from across the world were together. All the baskets from across the world were together.
It was problematic because it left me with no understanding of the object. There was little or no interpretation of most things. And it homogenised that ethnography of indigenous peoples into the one category.
A lot of these objects-- the collection at the time was about relics of the past. And this kind of display reinforces that, to me. I think that it would reinforce that to other people.
This is a collection at Pitt Rivers Museum. And also this one on the bottom photo is from the Saffron Walden Museum. It's where collections are just all shoved into the one kind of small case.
And you've got photos of Aranda people next to Southeastern baskets. And so it's sending the wrong message. And it's also placing us within the historical past.
A lot of the time I came across notions of, I guess, what is authentic. And this is something that we still struggle with today as Aboriginal people, both through identity politics, and also through our representation of art, and also the acquisition and collection of our cultural material being made today, and also art in a sense.
So what is authentic? What is it to be black? What is it to be a proper shield or whatever?
So this, I think-- you can really go back to this collection. And these labels were from a shield which was in the Cambridge collection. And here's a reference to these objects being a good specimen, a good example, of how these people were living and what they were making.
And this particular label had a good specimen with some damage, because it's-- sorry. Not some damage. It's a good specimen because it's unimpaired by the white man's tool.
So once Aboriginal people had glass and steel, obviously we were using that because it was easier and better for what we needed to do. But it's this sense of once they were using a Western material to also make their cultural material, that shifted. That authenticity shifted. So that was really interesting to me, reading these old labels and going through the mindset of the day, which in some cases hasn't completely shifted, either, in terms of looking at authenticity.
Having access to collections-- so the privilege of having the opportunity to go overseas-- I have the privilege now of working with the collection for Museum Victoria. But viewing these out of country-- and some of these objects also were incredibly rare, I suppose you would say. You get to connect on a different level when you can sit in a room alone with the cultural material that your ancestors have made 100-200 years ago.
And you start to see how they were being used. And this is just an example of a kangaroo tooth engraver. And then I was looking at a shield. And you can see where the teeth make the mark.
Another sort of problem I came across at the Pitt Rivers Museum and this kind of putting objects together was a case called "Magic, Witchcraft, and Trial by Ordeal," which held many fascinating objects. There were amulets, dried frogs that you could wear to ward off witches, and different things used in magic from across the country. But what was also in there were message sticks and other material used by Wotjobaluk people.
And being placed within this sort of esoteric case of magic and witchcraft removes the cultural meaning and the cultural significance that these objects have and the role that they once played. And they were just sort of scattered through. And they were sitting next to this silvered vial here of a witch from Sussex that was collected in 15-something or other.
So it was really interesting being in this space. In every case, or nearly every case, there was Aboriginal material. And how it was placed and what it was placed next to brought up a lot of questions for me.
And I think Pitt Rivers is an extraordinary place. And it leaves a lot of awe and wonder. However, it left quite an unsatisfactory experience for me, as well, coming out not knowing much about anything. But there was also the mixing and the confusion, I think, that this display had for me.
This was a kangaroo tooth necklace that was at Pitt Rivers Museum from the Western District. And the sound it made was just amazing. It was like stone on the end of the teeth. So these are the kind of just incredible objects that are there.
And Pitt Rivers Museum were incredibly open to access. I thought perhaps going to the UK I was going to have a lot of trouble getting in these places. But it was actually the opposite. Everyone was very open in terms of me coming in and viewing these objects. And a lot of people have done research.
So what can shift these misrepresentations of culture is community access, voice, and collaboration. And from my time in the UK, I came to the conclusion that repatriation may not presently be an option for these objects. It's happening with our ancestors' remains. But for the actual physical objects and cultural material in these spaces, there's a long way to go.
And I think what can shift is the self-representation of Aboriginal people in these spaces. So that's voice. And it could be as simple as a didactic panel. Or it could be a more detailed narrative.
But it's about collaborating and indigenous people working in these spaces. And I think with technology today, it's completely doable. And like I was saying with the Saffron Walden case and that mix of Aranda material and photos associated with Southeastern baskets, it could be as easy as someone like myself or an Aboriginal student studying and doing that as part of a project-- rewriting that material and putting it into a context that's both culturally appropriate but also correct.
Linda Tuhiwai Smith-- I'm sure you're probably familiar with her Decolonizing Methodologies. Get that book if you haven't read it. It's kind of groundbreaking for me.
So shifting this misrepresentation and Aboriginal community and artists involved in museums and the curatorial development leads to empowerment. It leads to a space of self-representation, a revival of cultural practise, and intervention within space. It reawakens the object through new narrative and connection.
And relooking at methods of repatriation-- so looking at digital repatriation, but also the exchange potentially in the future of contemporary made objects for the historical. So there's lots of ways we can be empowering ourselves in these spaces as First Peoples. And speaking of First Peoples, it can be seen in action really here at Melbourne Museum with First Peoples exhibition.
And here we've got [INAUDIBLE] Esther Kirby and Titta Secombe. They were a part of our Yulendj group, which means knowledge. And Yulendj was a group of 16 community elders from across the state that came in and worked and co-curated First Peoples with us.
And it's a testament to the people that worked on that project-- Caroline Martin and Genevieve Grieves, Amanda Reynolds, Rosemary Wrench. There's a lot of people that worked on that project. But it's the valuing of indigenous knowledge systems, having Aboriginal people in the space, waking up historical material that have, as I said before, little information. But with a new story it can have a new life. And it has new ways of seeing and understanding.
And this is what artists and community can do within the museum space. And it has been done for many years. But I think First Peoples and being a part of that and seeing that process was really amazing.
So artists on an international scale that have been working within the museum space-- One is Christian Thompson. And I was lucky enough that while I was at Oxford, Christian was there at the time. And he was developing or had just developed this work called We Bury Our Own. And this was his response to the Pitt Rivers photographic collection.
So he'd worked really closely with Chris Morton, who's the curator there at Pitt Rivers. And he developed this body of work that was inspired by but also in dialogue with the Australian photographic collection at Pitt Rivers. He also unpacked ideas around spiritual repatriation. So if we can't get these objects or photos home-- there is actually a photo at the moment getting these photos home, or repatriating the photos. In his work, how does he give that back or send that back home?
So he came up with this whole series called We Bury Our Own. Some of them-- there's two images there. You can look at that whole series online. And if you go to the Pitt Rivers website, there's a huge amount of information about his time there.
He was there as part of the Charlie Perkins Fellowship. He's the first Aboriginal person to attend Oxford and get his PhD through Oxford. And he actually was the first person, I think, in the Great Hall for the portraits of all the men from Oxford.
They were taken down. And his work was put up. And that was the first time in hundreds of years, I think, that that had happened-- that those portraits had been removed. So he's quite remarkable in his work over there.
Another person that I was able to see was Julie Gough. And Julie is an amazing Tasmanian Aboriginal woman. And when I was at Cambridge her exhibition The Lost World (part 2) was on.
And this is an exhibition where she was looking at digital repatriation. So in these three cases here you can see stone tools. So Cambridge have a huge collection of stone tools that are quite specifically provenanced to areas in Tasmania. And so she got them out of the boxes and she put them in this space.
She suspended one hanging over a map of Tasmania. And then below, in the bottom of those cases, there were hundreds of mariner shells referencing the necklaces that Tasmanian Aboriginal women made and make. And then in the final cabinet, there was a live video stream between Cambridge and Tasmania, where a photograph of one of the objects was just slowly disintegrated into the earth.
She also had a video where she took photos of all of these stone tools. And then she went back to country and placed these photos where they were from, again just to kind of go back into the earth. So it speaks also to this idea around spiritual repatriation, but it's digital repatriation and Julie's way of doing that. And Cambridge worked very closely with Julie.
Two minutes. OK. Sorry. Activating the Archive-- Genevieve Grieves, [INAUDIBLE] woman. She was the lead curator of First Peoples. So it was looking at the archive and activating that in different ways.
Maree Clarke, who we've worked with many times-- she actually used Kopi from our collection, which are ceremonial mourning caps. And she created a whole body of work called Ritual and Ceremony where she interviewed 78 Aboriginal men and women from Victoria on how they mourn. And what are their rituals around that today, when we've essentially lost a lot of our practises around mourning?
And she made each one of those people a Kopi cap, and painted them up in mourning, which is the white ochre around the face. And she took their photos. So it was this whole process.
And we actually acquired that for First Peoples. And that's in the Encounters section as a memorial, which you can check out. But Marie used our archive and engaged with these collections in our space for a long time before creating her exhibition.
Uncle Albert, Steven Payton-- they have an incredible show, Bronze Canoe. Again, we acquired this canoe from them. I'll go back quickly. These are just slides of artists that we've worked with at the museum that have engaged and connected to collections, and I feel breathe a new life into them.
This is Deanne. I worked her when I was at Bunjilaka. And she connected to a lot of Southeastern baskets, particularly from her area. And then she went on to create this whole new body of work in response, which was just beautiful. And importantly, she was working with Koorie kids-- so the importance of the cultural strengthening that comes from working with these collections.
So just to finish, indigenous arts and maker practise not only shifts the non-indigenous hegemonic lens that material in museums are often viewed through, but it breathes new life into them and provides a counterpoint of discussion. Access to collections particularly with children and community strengthens cultural identity and understandings.
Through arts practise and also valuing indigenous knowledge systems, the definition of the authentic indigenous culture or cultural material, or what is labelled as traditional, is broken down. Living cultural practice is about continuing culture, not about what is true to the traditional methods of making. To label practise within the binary of traditional and contemporary leads, I think, to suggest that there has been a break in that continuation of the lived culture, which is incorrect.
I see myself as a link between my community and the museum, but also my heritage, as I am intrinsically always present within this space. Having images of my grandmothers and family in its collections, and the cultural material of my ancestors in its halls, the presence of my connection to this institution and collection is both in the tangible and intangible. And that will continue to exist long after I'm gone. This is the power of the museum and collections. Thank you.
This is my favourite photo of all time, working with VACCA, the Victoria Aboriginal Child Care Agency. And they came into the collection.
Thanks very much [INAUDIBLE]. We've got time for some questions.
You mentioned when you were giving a talk in Virginia that you were challenged on a number of occasions. I was wondering what you meant by that, and what the challenge was.
I was talking about my practise and I suppose indigenous autonomy in the sector, and also referencing why I was on that fellowship and what Wesfarmers is about. And there was a woman that actually had come up to me before I even started. And she was quite in my face, and wanted to know lots of things, and was writing notes. And she said that she was an anthropologist. And she had studied Aboriginal people while her husband studied over here, et cetera.
And I said, you know, it's really-- I strongly believe, and I'm an advocate for, Aboriginal people representing cultural, curating, and collection management in institutions. It's time for us to have autonomy over our culture in this space. We have education. We have the ability. We have the cultural knowledge.
But I also clearly stated, in collaboration with non Aboriginal people. I'd worked on First Peoples with Amanda Reynolds and Rosemary Wrench, who are both amazing curators-- but in terms of Aboriginal people having that voice in the space and valuing knowledge. And she really took that the wrong way. And she said that-- she kind of had a go at me about being there and that she shouldn't be in the role that she's in and then this shouldn't exist, in your opinion, to me.
Which I responded to saying the Kluge-Ruhe have an incredible relationship with Aboriginal people. They have an active residency programme. Their board is made up of Aboriginal people, native people. The fact that I was even there was a good sign.
And then she went on to say that I was racist against white people. So you know, this is-- I just had to unpack that with her. And it can be very hard as an Aboriginal person in that space, when you get something like that thrown at you, not to react.
So it's just trying to be really articulate and unpack that a little bit more with her. And that was my reaction, which was about an hour after the cheese and wine section of the event, where I had to do that with her. But it's part of the game.
Hi. I was just wondering-- you mentioned, when you were working at the Kluge-Ruhe-- I just was wondering whether there were any spaces for First Nation people in America in that Virginia Charleston area. Because it sounds like it's a really amazing institution for Australian indigenous people there. But I was wondering whether the American public were interested in the history of their own area. Or were they just more interested in these ideas that you're putting forward when it was dislocated from the space that they inhabited?
Yeah. There was something that was really obvious to me after I was there for a while. Well, first of all, there were no native people that I knew of that I could contact in that space. Being a university, they do have a native students association. But because it was holiday break, they weren't there.
But in terms of acknowledgement of native peoples in that town, it was absolutely not there. There was no idea or even sensitivity that there were people before Jefferson, essentially. And so that was really something that I really thought about a lot.
And in my writing-- you know, I only had a small amount of writing in the space for the catalogue. There's some there you can take if you like. But I really wanted to acknowledge the First Peoples, First Nations peoples, of Charlottesville and America.
And I actually went to Monticello, to the plantation. And the race relations are really interesting in America. Because you've got these layers.
You've got the colonial settler history. You've got black slave trade immigration. And then the First Nations people get a look in very last.
But that might have just been the area I was in, as well. I know that in other states it's different. I hope that answers your question.
Thank you very much for the talk. It was amazing. And for someone to take on what you took on in the States there, I just didn't realise the issues you were really trying to tackle. Congratulations. Because to tackle things as thoughtfully as you did on so many levels is quite extraordinary really.
In terms of sort of meeting people like you did, I think one of the things you have to learn is an exit strategy, so you can get away within two minutes. And sometimes you just have to be rude. Because quite often, those conversations really won't take that person anywhere. And you will just exhaust yourself.
So that's one thing I think you can probably take away from this lecture. That's my bit of advice. Just have an exit strategy.
It's good advice.
But in bringing all of this back home now, what do you think you'll be concentrating on now as a curator within the Southeast area?
I think for me-- I'm still reflecting on this, actually. I'm still reflecting on London a couple of years ago. But for me, I'm really focussed on-- and it has come from my experience at First Peoples and what I've learned here. But it's bringing community in as much as possible.
And it's also working across disciplines. So indigenous culture doesn't have to just stay within indigenous cultures. I'm really excited about working with the science department and working with other Humanities curators. So that's kind of an approach that I'm hoping to take.
I'll also be looking at living makers. Yes, it's important to acquire historical material. But I think there's a bit of a gap with living makers of culture. And I'm really interested in kind of unpacking the whole traditional or customary versus contemporary a little bit more. I think more can be done around that.
Because the more I think about it, the more I think that like I said before it kind of alludes to this break in culture. And I prefer just to call it culture and makers and artists and community. So I think language and the way that we've worked around language historically-- I'm interested in that space as well. So yeah.