First Nations photographers offer provocative and timely conversations

Riffing off photography’s traditional role as ‘witness’, HOTA showcases new appreciation of First Nations photographers as storytellers.

In recent years, there has been a lot more exposure around the pick-up of photography and photo media by First Nations artists.

This rise has been in sync with an emergence of new thinking across museums and galleries globally, one that has mandated a rethink of how stories are told, and collections are presented. For many institutions this has led to the elevating of First Nations voices.

This is not a conversation exclusive to big city galleries or global cultural edifices. A great example is the work that HOTA – Home of the Arts on the Gold Coast is doing.

ArtsHub spoke with Senior Curator Sam Creyton, who has worked with consulting Curator Jo-Anne Driessens on the current exhibition HOTA Collects: Punching Up, 21st Century Indigenous Photography.

‘We are always striving to include, in everything we do, a First Nations first approach. Punching Up is an entirely First Nations-led exhibition; Jo-Anne is a curator, a photographer, a historian, and currently works with Arts Law’s, Artist in the Blak program.

‘There is real strength in opening yourself to being First Nations-led, and it is a continuous thread across what we do – from our own programming to other shows we might take in,’ continued Creyton.

The exhibition of photographic works are by six, cross-generational, 21st century Indigenous artists: Vernon Ah Kee, Tony Albert, Michael Cook, Karla Dickens, Dr Fiona Foley and Naomi Hobson. Apart from a single loan, all the works are drawn from HOTA’s collection.

Creyton said the title for the exhibition – Punching Up – comes from a phrase understood as a subversive act, and is about critiquing and dismantling structures of power and privilege. 

She added that the phrase, ‘leans out of a comedic trope, that you “punch up”, not “punch down” to your audience to make a point. The works we are showing, we believe, do just that – they are all powerful works.’

The gallery says these artworks are motivated by dual objectives of combating stereotypes and sharing stories of contemporary Indigenous lived experience. In doing so, Creyton said the gallery has not shied from being provocative, rather they have embraced that position.

Installation view Tony Albert’s work in Punching Up, HOTA – Home of the Arts, 2022. Image supplied courtesy the artist and Sullivan + Strumpf.

After a year in their new signature gallery, Creyton said, ‘it was an opportunity for HOTA to take a slightly stronger stand, and to have a deeper conversation with some of the works in the Collection.’

She continued that the works in the exhibition touch on Aboriginal Sovereignty and independence. ‘It is not about letting go of what has happened before, but to move through those narratives to combat stereotype and share stories through the Collection.’

HOTA is not only throwing new light upon – but also building upon – these collection stories with the acquisition of three new works for this exhibition, by artists Michael Cook, Karla Dickens and Naomi Hobson, who have become important storytellers for our times.

HOTA’s Collection is almost 5000-works strong, and is renowned for its quality, which was showcased in the gallery’s opening exhibitions. Creyton says it is this depth of collecting that has allowed the gallery to present diverse viewpoints and offers a great opportunity to take a First Nations approach to exhibition making.

She added that audiences today are hungry to go on that journey with them. ‘The work has some really strong content, and initially we had some concerns around audience which was in its infancy with the new gallery. But the engagement has been fantastic, and we are finding that they are appreciating that opportunity to explore.’

‘The sector is emerging here, and it is important to acquire and show the work of First Nations photographers within that, but then also to draw from that rich thread and reshape the way we share the Collection.’

We are having conversations through artworks today that we were not having 10 years ago – that is very exciting.

Sam Creyton, HOTA Senior Curator

Creyton added of the recent rise in First Nations photography, that it acknowledges the historic power of the tool as witness, but is being used in different ways. While in the past the framing of photographic images may have worked against Indigenous communities, today ‘these artists are taking that power back to create’.

Punching Up is showing at HOTA, Home of the Arts on the Gold Coast. It is a free exhibition, and continues until 20 November 2022.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina