Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
19 December 2015 – 1 May 2016
by HARRIET THORPE
When silence falls is a group exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, which looks at how artists approach violence. Each work in the exhibition carries a unique and often personal history of human rights violations, from massacres to ethnic cleansing, cultural displacement to missing persons. The horrific events that the works explore are made even more poignant because of the silence that surrounds them; massacres that have gone unmarked, races that have been marginalised and individuals whose rights have been ignored.
Drawn from the collection at the Art Gallery of New South Wales by Cara Pinchbeck, curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, the exhibition offers a balance between an interrogation of Australian and international history, comparing the two through the work of national and international artists. Navigating the challenging subject of contemporary history, which is often still newsworthy, the exhibition approaches Australia’s human rights record head on, making important comparisons with Pakistan, Colombia and South Africa, among others.
The exhibition starts with the crooked foundations of colonialism in Australia. A picnic with the natives – the gulf (2015) by Judy Watson (b1959, Mundubbera, Queensland) samples one of the earliest maps of the continent, made in 1801-03 by the English navigator Matthew Flinders, the first man to circumnavigate Australia and name it as a continent. The map, however, is dotted only with the locations of massacres of Aboriginals, marked on early maps by the English with the cowardly term “picnic with the natives”. The work comes from a series, The Names of Places, for which Watson compiled information on massacres across Australia, reminding us that even maps that appear to be objective can be subjective, positioned by those in power to keep the less powerful powerless.
Across the world, geographical locations have often become memorials to violent events. However, many of the works in the exhibition look at unmarked locations of trauma. In his vast panelled painting Fairy Bower Rorschach (2012), Ben Quilty (b1973, Sydney) depicts the Fairy Bower Falls at Bundanoon in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales in Australia, reputedly the location of an undocumented massacre of Aboriginal people in the early-19th century. Reflecting the natural beauty of this popular tourist spot, the painting is a visually powerful work created of folded panels that mirror the shapes of the waterfall in blue and green, consequently creating two histories that run in parallel; the beauty of the nature and the sinister history of the massacre it holds.
While holding a magnitude of sadness within them, the works in this exhibition are never negative; rather, they are contemplative, looking to communicate the universal and very human feeling of loss. For Iranian artist Hossein Valamanesh (b1949, Tehran), who emigrated to Australia in 1973, the Aboriginal settlements in the Western Desert represented a return to a familiar community. His work in the exhibition, Longing Belonging (1997), is made of a carpet that has had a hole burned into it, but the hole is filled with a fresh piece of carpet, suggesting the possibility of a positive side to cultural displacement and reaffirming the universal nature of humanity.
Many of the works document relatively contemporary events that are more poignant because they are still contested; they are still news and wrongs have not been righted. In that way, the exhibition steps towards testing how the art gallery can be used as a platform for creating awareness about political issues, from previously untold and quieter voices.
In We Can Be Heroes (2014), artists Richard Bell (b1953, Brisbane) and Emory Douglas (b1943, Michigan) bring attention to the 1968 Mexican Olympic Games when the gold and bronze medallists in the men’s 200m, African Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, stood on the podium and demonstrated against continuing racial discrimination against black people in the US by raising their fists in the Black Power salute and, in a show of solidarity, the Australian silver medallist Peter Norman joined them, wearing an “Olympic Project for Human Rights” badge. Despite setting the Australian record for the men’s 200m race, winning a silver medal and making a powerful stand for human rights, Norman returned to Australia to widespread criticism and discrimination. Race in Australia was still contested at the time; until 1967, Aboriginal people were not even counted in the national census. Norman’s bravery was finally recognised by the Australian parliament in 2012, and the artwork stands like an alternative history painting, awarding him his rightful place in Australian history.
This piece opens up the exhibition towards a more international outlook, starting with renowned artists Kara Walker (b1969, California) and William Kentridge (b1955, Johannesburg), who both readdress modern history from new perspectives through their work. Each has a distinctive stylistic approach, using the traditional cultural structures of storytelling to approach serious subject matter.
Walker’s Burning African Village Play Set with Big House and Lynching (2006) uses fictional characters from the American Antebellum south to illustrate a violent lynching. She works with generic stereotypes of figures and events to expose their very theatricality, emphasising how violent events have been fictionalised in cultural history.
Kentridge’s Second-hand reading (2013) is a flipbook film that shows a running man striding through the pages of a dictionary to a soulful piece of music sung by South African composer and musician Neo Muyanga. Sung in Sesotho, the song is beautiful, yet he sings hauntingly about a South African police massacre. Using a combination of language, images and text, the work forms a critical collage of history and it also stands as a tribute to oral traditions of recording history, that, like the dictionary, may soon become buried relics within a modern digitalised world.
These two artists, known for their specific interests in their own national and ethnic histories, are tied to them through personal experiences of battling with their own identities and place in society – Kentridge, a South African whose parents were human rights attorneys during apartheid, and Walker, an African American born in California and growing up in Georgia.
Throughout the show, further complex relationships between artists and their subject matter are confronted. A wall of abstract works by Aboriginal artists shows how artwork has been used to describe and come to terms with crimes committed against family members and ancestors. These works are accompanied by personal stories of the artists, which bring the viewer closer to the trauma.
The work of Paddy Bedford (c1922-2007, East Kimberley, Western Australia) illustrates the Bedford Downs Station Massacre, where his relatives were poisoned and burned in a pyre of trees they had been forced to fell. Using natural pigment on canvas, he illustrates the location of Bedford Downs Station in reductive symbolic forms from nature, like Quilty, marking a place as a way of understanding a violent event where memories are inextricably tied to a location. Timmy Timms (c1915-2000, Australia) depicts a large boab tree that was a marker of the Mistake Creek massacre – where, in fact, at least two massacres occurred, one in 1915 in which his grandmother and family were shot for killing a cow.
Distilling a war even further through abstraction, Tony Albert (b1981, Townsville, Queensland) and Alair Pambegan (b1968, Aurukun, Queensland) use a pattern of the Winichiam clan in their collaboration Frontier Wars (Flying Fox Story Place) to decorate a sculpture of bullet forms, a tribute to the Aboriginal people who died in the Frontier wars. The work references Albert’s public monument in Sydney, Yininmadyemi: thou didst let fall (2015), which shows a group of oversized bullets commemorating the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders men and women who served in Australia’s military. Installed in 2015, this public sculpture was a monument of respect to those who had not been thanked for their work for the nation.
Doris Salcedo (b1958, Bogotá) is an artist who plays with the concept of monumentality in her sculptures. Atrabiliarios (1992-97), instead of extending out into the gallery space, recesses back into the wall in a series of sunken vitrines. Her work is a reflection of the forced disappearances that happen in her home country of Colombia. Inside the vitrines are shoes of individuals who have disappeared after being kidnapped by militia or gangs. While the shoes are small, almost shrivelled, objects, they hold a powerful personal connection to those who have vanished, and this feeling somehow makes the work even more monumental than a vast public sculpture.
The final room steps back to look at the symbols in society that represent violence. Brutalities 9 (2014) by Vernon Ah Kee (b1967, Innisfail, Queensland) and Outlook (White) (2007) by Shane Cotton (b1964, New Zealand) present “death” in a more physical form than any of the other works in the exhibition, showing the human skull as a memento mori. Ah Kee’s gruesome face refers to the inhumane treatment of the Armenians in Turkey looking at the psychological state of humans during violent acts, while Cotton’s work is linked to the ancestral faces of New Zealand’s past.
Fiona Hall (b1953, Sydney), who represented Australia at the 56th Venice Biennale, is featured with the work Slash and Burn (1997), which is made up of 36 video boxes, 36 video tape sculptures and a wire suspension grid. The videos selected show films that glorify violence. The title of the work is the agricultural term for preparing the land for the next crop, which Hall compares to the act of ethnic cleansing. At the top of the film reels hang blackened faces and skulls showing the real consequences of the violence.
In respect of the terror caused by humans to their fellow men and women, often by the powerful to the powerless, art plays a particularly important part in the process of understanding the meaning of these events. It acts as a communicator, a therapy and a pillar of respect to those who have suffered. Each piece questions how and why fellow humans can act so destructively towards one another.
The events featured through work in the exhibition are those that are struggling to gain recognition from official bodies, remembered by the public day to day, and make us question the ethics of our own society and readdress the written history that we take for granted. It is this aspect that makes this exhibition relevant, re-documenting a modern history that is not necessarily being taught to future generations through history textbooks or being memorialised by public art and ceremony.