Updated: Jan 25, 2020
It is problematic to simply argue that “indigenous craft” is art. We need to go beyond postcolonialism in curating the "colonised". To simply add "other" elements to "art" does not change its basis. The actual problem is to value art more than other creativity products that are not justified in the art theory. The dominant system is only strengthened by us including any non-Western object into a Western art space as an object for reconciliation or manifestation of "equal rights". This research article indicates that transculture is unavoidable in justifying Western models of art exhibitions involving non-Western elements. Curators have a responsibility to acknowledge the other perspectives and to be aware that the Western definition of art discourse is not the only way.
Postcolonialism is an unavoidable contemporary condition. Although the general public may not have yet grasped its core while living in it, the academic gatherings are already searching for a path to go over this aftermath of colonialism. Such a task is mainly about imagining and optimising the future of non-Western cultures, including locating their own identities in a Westernised contemporary and reworking their own relationship with the other non-Western cultures. While it is essential to point out that the West is a problematic term itself, it is undeniable that it has been the dominating socio-cultural model since the colonialised modernity (for many countries the start of modernity is marked by the invasion of a modernised\Westernised power).
This essay will thus critically analyse attempts under this framing in the field of art curatorial practice under Biennale\Triennale models. The core question is: whether the curatorial method of specific craft objects still imply postcolonial problems or whether it has successfully gone beyond this regime, leading into a more desirable future. More specifically, I will focus on analysing and comparing various cases of Australian Indigenous crafts in recent exhibitions.
First, I will investigate the well-known Ngarrindjeri Burial Baskets by weaver Yvonne Koolmatrie exhibited in the 2018 Sydney Biennale at Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). I will argue that the curatorial method was problematic, causing the political nature of the work to obscure its wider interpretations.
Then, I will investigate two cases that are more successful in connecting a transcultural conversation that leads beyond postcolonialism. The first being the PET Lamp Ramingining: Bukmukgu Guyananhawuy (Every family thinking forward) (2016), the replica commissioned by National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) Triennale in 2018. It is notable for its collaboration, localised learning and recognition of names of all collaborators. The second work the ngayirr (sacred) (2015-2017) by Nicole Foreshew from the MCA collection exhibited beside the 2018 Sydney Biennale in the same space exemplifies a unique path of transcultural identities by manifesting both cultures simultaneously.
The decision to concentrate on the Biennale\Triennale models of cultural hybrids is based on an encounter of locality and globalism that is impossible to ignore. It amplifies the variety of methods tested in transcultural communications. It is important to notice that the analysis is not about the judgement or evaluation of the craft objects themselves but about the curatorial methods.
Indigenous Art in White Cubes: A Political Tool
Many Indigenous works, especially the ones in the white cubes – museum and gallery spaces under a Western canon, have been utilised as political tools, distracting the comprehension from the work to the Indigenous identity (and often a simplified one). The good intention in this kind of practice is obvious: people would like to see the Indigenous works being equalled with contemporary arts because it Indicates common ground and reconciliation, which makes this inclusion a positive political gesture. Given the different systems of knowledge inherited in Indigenous and Western societies, to equalise the status of Indigenous works and “art” means two choices: to broaden the definition of “art”, or, to narrow down the acceptance of Indigenous works (to only include the ones that can justify their “art” status by finding a category in the existing art canon).
What I am arguing in this first section of the essay, is that while most art historians and curators intended to broaden the definition of “art” by including Indigenous works in exhibitions, they have failed to make visible their value in the Indigenous context that is outside of the art canon and therefore reduced them to a mere political tool in a limited context of postcolonial contemporary. In another word, there is no problem for an Indigenous work to be political which reflects its contemporaneity, but it should not be utilised for a West political position, acting as a postcolonial remedy.
The example I am investigating is the Burial Baskets presented in 2018 Sydney Biennale at Museum of Contemporary Art, by one of the most renowned weaver Yvonne Koolmatrie. Indigenous works cannot be understood without referencing to a whole body of knowledge in relation to history, mythology and ancestors, because they do not have a separated discourse developed purely for aesthetics. Art is in everything. Koolmatrie, together with Aunty Ellen Trevorrow, learnt the Ngarrindjeri traditional weaving in the 1981 South Australian Museum workshop from Aunty Dorothy Kartinyeri, an elder of Ngarrindjeri country. She said, “I care for the land and the people who have been here.” They call themselves the “cultural weavers” because the binding of the rushes is like a metaphor for tying the culture together through strong relationships.
The installation view (fig.1) such as the elegantly shed light, shows much of a Western display method. The contemporary reference lies in the burial ceremony that is lost, where “the body of the deceased was treated to allow the spirit to return to the land before the remains were wrapped in a burial basket and placed on a raft high up in the trees”. However, the fact that this object needs to have such a postcolonialism reference of to be accepted as contemporary art in an exhibition – meaning it falls into the topic of postcolonialism – indicates that its value realisation is limited in an existed and dominating system of knowledge. What is more visible here is a political reasoning – a demonstration of “sustaining” the culture on its exhibition label. The object can only become art by becoming a lost culture, a unfunctional object, a pure cultural item that is only for art but not for daily life.
While broadening the definition of “art” by adding Indigenous works into exhibitions seems to hold a good intention, it can just be another unintended cultural colonisation. The fact that we are fitting Indigenous crafts into the concept of art and putting them in the museums and galleries as contemporary artworks is itself problematic. This is ultimately a common postcolonial issue where objects and concepts from the “other” have to be learnt and assessed through the Western structure and ideology to be recognised/valued. While “otherness” is problematic, simply blending the “other” into one system is much more subversive. Therefore, an object made to fit in functional contexts within the producer’s own society, instead of being viewed as “fine art” in the restricted sense of European and American artworlds, can be subsequently transformed into “art” through the process of recognition and de-contextualization associated with the Western art gallery.
In such an installation, the burial baskets became merely an object of someone else’s perspective\story telling – an object of a postcolonial history. Knowing that the curator is from Japan only complicates this postcolonial fact. The actual value of the culture, the craft, the community, is not explained, experienced or conveyed; rather, in the consciousness of many viewers like me, it is the power of the authority – the gallery, the “art”, the biennale, the choice made by the curator, that defined the value of these craft objects.
This craft object has been limited in this frozen display, suppressed in the hybrid context of a biennale and distracted by political attention. Alternative methods to connect with Indigenous culture needs to be invented. Although the curator has attempted to give reference to the original context by hanging up one basket, I still found it conveying totally different image compared to the ones hanging in the tree (fig.2). Imagine, if we put a Picasso painting in a community centre and everyone come and learn the patterns and skills and share the stories of those depicted women – so not our familiar way of viewing Picasso. Unfortunately, this is how crafts can be limited in the gallery spaces and disconnected from its land and nature. They are devalued and minimalised to fit into an elite role – something that they are not. The value of Indigenous craft and the critical aspects of Indigenous culture, is the connectedness in the kinship and community, the sharing and passing on of knowledge through oral communication and practice, the co-existence with nature and the making process as a daily and gathering event – all of these are not visible\experienced in a white cube. All of these the Western culture lacks and is keen to learn.
Aiming for a Real Common Place: Localising the Learning
In this second section, a model of community engagement will be suggested as a potential path for going beyond postcolonialism. The PET Lamp Ramingining: Bukmukgu Guyananhawuy (Every family thinking forward) (fig.3), exhibited in the 2018 National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) Triennale, was a commissioned replica from its 2016 project. In 2016, Ocón and members of his studio travelled to Ramingining in Arnhem Land to work with a group of Yolngu artists at Bula’bula Arts. This community engagement connecting to the very open Indigenous country Yolngu which has been exchanging with the Asian neighbours through its history is a special one, because it brings the Spanish artist into the community to learn the culture, instead of bringing an element of the culture into a white space to make it part of a Western education system. A real connection is shown by the long list of artists name acknowledged, as well as by the transcultural artwork where both Western contemporary and Indigenous elements are equally visible and communicative – an open and vivid conversation is present, each talking only from their own perspective and knowledge, listening and learning from the other.
As a unique project, PET Lamp Ramingining: Bukmukgu Guyananhawuy (Every family thinking forward) did not start with a concern about Indigenous culture, but as a mission of sustainability design – the PET Lamp Project, focusing on the recycle and reuse of PET plastic (Polyethylene Terephthalate, e.g. bottle containers). Founded by Spanish designer Alvaro Catalán de Ocón, PET Lamp reuse PET plastic bottles, a source of land and ocean pollution, with selected traditional weaving techniques to create unique handmade lampshades. Using the bottle top to join the electrical components to the lamp shade and transforming the neck as the structure and the body of the bottle as a surface on which to weave, the design is inspired by Japanese bamboo stirrer in the tea ceremony. By repurposing the Yolngu pandanus mats to lampshades using recycled PET plastics and local materials, this project approached a global and contemporary issue (the waste from plastic PET bottles) with a local activity (the basket weaving tradition), going beyond postcolonialism.
The six weeks immersed in Ramingining of Ocón and team staying within the community with their consents and active participants has amplified a localised learning approach. It created a real common place where the modern\western perspective is de-territorialised, and the other perspectives come active, re-connecting the urbanised men to nature. Sourcing pandanus and learning about the colour palette inspired by the land and decided by the season, the creation Ocón observed was imprinted with the immediate nuture. The versatile individuality is shined in the making process where the whole piece started with the single round traditional mats creatively incorporated with PET bottles by eight different weavers. Mary, as twin sister of actor David Gulpilil, has a dual vision of the world and all her creations have a twin piece so she created two mats\lampshades.
More importantly, the kinship and family connections that are core to Indigenous cultures are not shadowed in this individuality. The lampshades, inspired by Frances Djulibing’s artwork Yukuwa (1984), were bond together to form a family tree. Beyond the traditional ancestral rules (traditional blood ties, the common totems and the territory, etc.), the guest team further developed their own interpretation of the links by binding together the individual pieces into one, as if the coloured fibres represented different kinds of relationships. Thus, the bond lampshades met the interpersonal ties as well as the imagery of a topographic map, which weaved together the two cultural groups – the hosts and the guests (fig.5).
In fact, after this truly genuine experience of cultural immersion of 45 days, the visitors established family bonds being adopted by three of the weavers (fig.6). As its name Every family thinking forward suggests, this collaborated project means a reconstruction of value and knowledge system that is for a perspective future. It also created an inter-cultural and personal connection that originates from the Indigenous kinship and goes beyond to the globe without losing the initial positioning. Such work is able to manifest its power and not being limited in the Triennale. It has realised its full value outside of the white cube and not being defined\framed by this art canon.
A Hybrid Identity: Transcultural Contemporary Art
An alternative path breaking through postcolonialism that explores a transcultural communication through art, is a customised one for the Indigenous artists who are brought up and trained in the Western system. With a truly hybrid identity, part of which is from the West, contemporary artworks of these artists can be consistently curated into a white cube without losing any cultural content because the work accommodates value from both culture. It is like a house with two doors that you can enter through either. Surely, it can still fail as any other contemporary artworks, but that is another topic on curatorship – one within the Western art canon itself, which is not the content of this essay. This kind of transcultural works is exemplified by Nicole Foreshew, a Wiradjuri woman from central-western NSW born in 1982 in her contemporary artworks. The investigated work here is ngayirr (sacred) (fig.7) in the MCA collection that is shown simultaneously next to the 2018 Sydney Biennale.
The uniqueness of this work is that while being informed by Indigenous cultures, materials and land, it is a contemporary artwork that was made to be viewed as “fine art” in the established art canon. The artist did not intend to expand the art system by sacrificing and framing an Indigenous object into “art”. Instead, she was making a special, unique and powerful contemporary artwork with techniques and know-hows that is secret and important to herself. Thus, the Indigenous contents related to the work remain free and complete outside the Western canon. Foreshew brings together nine tree limbs found on Country that have been ceremoniously transformed and covered one ends of each limb in a crystalline skin that range in colour from pale pink to deep russet. This is done by burying the limbs underground in a site of personal significance which created a crystalline skin across the limb over time as a result of a chemical reaction deep with the earth. Installed learning against the gallery wall, the individual branches evoke bodily forms, indicating the relationship between the body and the land. The transcultural communication is successful and justified here that neither of the cultures involved need to sacrifice their own identity to be accepted in another. It is a beautiful metaphor of the hybrid identity of the artist and her contemporaneity.
This essay has investigated three Indigenous crafts and critically thought about coordination between curatorship and the nature of the works themselves. The first case of Ngarrindjeri burial baskets suggested a problematic curatorial practice in 2018 Sydney Biennale. While the work itself is important and powerful as a contemporary artwork as well as beyond that – being a hand-weaved object with deep Indigenous tradition, ceremonial function and social meanings, the distracting political intention and the limitation of white cubes (i.e. to be included as merely “art”) has meant a need for alternative method in its curation. The second case of PET Lamp in NGV Triennale provides an alternative method to collaborate with Indigenous communities to address contemporary issues beyond postcolonial status through localised learning. The last work ngayirr exemplifies a unique path of transcultural identities which manifests simultaneously for both cultures. Artist brought up in both cultures like Foreshew (Indigenous and European Australian) holds a transcultural identity. This work is purely created as a contemporary art object and therefore not being limited by such Western gallery space as of the first basket case.
However, I want to raise two issues: one, the Ngarrindjeri country has lost much more than the Yolngu and that is why the way of art engagement and expression differed. I would argue that it is indeed more difficult to go beyond postcolonialism once the original context and system is largely lost because it is hard to find the identity. Two, if we are not bringing anything into the western system then how can we change it, how can we make it a broader\better one? My concern is similar to the one expressed by Simryn Gill: “Whose common place? There is a forced “shareness” in our time – share, but from whose perspective?” Ultimately, the creativity of indigenous and many other cultures should not be fed into the dominating "art" and raise this capitalist entity to become bigger.
The dominant white culture has presented a continual situation of both confrontation and indifference to the real value of Aboriginal culture. For curators, their job is similar to the one of a translator and editor: to maximise the communication of meaning intended in the artwork, to avoid hindering that communication, and to attract attentions. It is, with its authority to choose and arrange, neither about creating new meanings nor about merely fitting things into a structured space. Therefore, to be able to go beyond the stage of Orientalism and Postcolonialism means not an easy integration or inclusion of everything into an existed system, but to de-territorialise and back the power of interpretation and valuation to their own culture and knowledge. Which means, in our context, to avoid a mere inclusion of Indigenous crafts as “art”, because art ultimately is still a Western concept. Why is it not as valued if it is not art? That is the question we should keep asking ourselves, and it is always a difficult one to answer.
May, 2018 in Canberra
(This article was submitted as an assessment piece for Issues in Contemporary Craft & Design, a course run by Christina Clarke, SoAD, ANU. All Rights Reserved.)
All the images are from original sites of the galleries or organisations mentioned. Please contact the author for any copyright issue.
 Jessica Hemmings, Cultural threads: transnational textiles today (London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 12.
 Sue Rowley, Craft and contemporary theory (St. Leonards, NSW : Allen & Unwin, 1997), 165-168.
 Ibid, 160.
 Lissant Bolton, Baskets & Belonging: Indigenous Australian histories (London, England : The British Museum Press, 2011), 48.
 NGA, Keeping culture: Aboriginal art to keeping places and cultural centres (Canberra : National Gallery of Australia, 2000), 5. Also see, Rowley, Craft and contemporary theory, 161.
 “Yvonne Koolmatrie,” Biennale of Sydney, accessed 5 May, 2018, https://www.biennaleofsydney.art/artists/yvonne-koolmatrie/.
 “2018 Biennale of Sydney Labels,” MCA. Visited in person.
 Edward W. Said, Orientalism (London and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), 9, 29.
 Howard Morphy, Becoming Art: Exploring Cross-Cultural Categories (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2008), 13.
 Marcia Langton, Trepang : China & the story of Macassan-Aboriginal trade = [Hai shen : Hua ren Wangjiaxi ren, Ao Zhou tu zhu ren de gu shi] (Melbourne, Vic. : Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation - University of Melbourne, 2011), 73.
 “PET,” Ecostar Plastics, accessed 5 May, 2018, https://www.ecostarplastics.com/pet-101/pet/.
 “What is PET Lamp,” PET Lamp, accessed 5 May, 2018, http://petlamp.org/what-is-pet-lamp/.
 “Australia Project,” PET Lamp, accessed 5 May, 2018, http://petlamp.org/australia/.
 “Nicole Foreshew / BIO,” NICOLE FORESHEW, accessed 5 May, 2018, https://www.nicoleforeshew.com/about.
 “ngayirr (sacred), 2015-2017,” MCA, accessed on 5 May, 2018, https://www.mca.com.au/artists-works/works/2017.36/.
 Rowley, Craft and contemporary theory, 160-168.
 Simryn Gill, Simryn Gill ( Köln : Walther König ; New York : D.A.P. [distributor], 2008), 50-52.
 Rowley, Craft and contemporary theory, 169