Urgency and care: the flag markers of contemporary exhibition making

From a longing for home to a national snapshot of the new, two exhibitions explore care and belonging from a First Nations’ view of Country – and our nation’s footprint on unceded lands.

What does home mean to you? It is a question that takes on a very nuanced answer when explored from a First Nations perspective.

‘Indigenous people see the world a little differently, and things like home and Country don’t quite translate to our Western world definitions,’ said Erin Vink, Assistant Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery of NSW and curator of the new exhibition, Longing for Home.

She added that while the Indigenous concept of ‘home’ is similar, she has also drawn on First Nations connections to home via marriage and ancestry, ‘which exist since time immemorial, and are important in the sense of the continuation of culture.’

Longing for Home presents works by six Aboriginal artists from across mainland Australia and Tasmania, who have documented a kind of personal melancholy characterised by time and space.

‘The urgency hasn’t changed, but the need to reflect on First Nations conversations has.’

Erin Vink

‘There is definitely an overwhelming sense of contemplation through most of the works,’ Vink said. ‘Especially Ricky Maynard’s [photographic] series, Portrait of a distant land,’ which documents Tasmania’s physical and social landscapes by following song lines and ochre trails, historical displacement routes, and collective oral histories of his people and Country.

Longing for Home also includes works by Daniel Boyd, Brenda L Croft, Roy Kennedy, Peter Mungkuri and Carlene West.

‘Not all artists are living off Country. While I have included Peter Mungkuri, who was born on Country and has lived there his whole life, that position is juxtaposed with Carlene West, who was displaced early on from her Country because of British nuclear testing at Maralinga, and then Daniel Boyd, who paints Pentecost Island, the Country of his great, great grandfather, even though he has never lived there.’

Peter Mungkuri Ngayuku ngura (my country) 2018. Collection Art Gallery of New South Wales. © Peter Mungkuri, Iwantja Arts.

Vink, however, says there is also beauty in that emotion of melancholy or lament.

‘I think people will have an emotional response to what they will be looking at,’ she said. ‘Some of the works are quite overt in their message of home, and some need you to look and reflect.’

This role of active reflection is also key to the Gallery’s contribution to The National 2021: New Australian Art, which will be presented, in part, at the same time.

Curator of Asian art, Matt Cox joins Vink in shaping this next edition of the multi-venue initiative (2017, 2019, and 2021), adopting a message of care and the potential of art to heal fragile natural and social ecosystems.

Through 14 artist projects – including five First Nations artists – the exhibition explores how care engenders our relationships with others and in turn, the relationships we have with sentient Country.

Extending that position, the curators have ensured a strong presence of language throughout the exhibition, from written or spoken language, to language performed by the body, as well as bi-lingual labels.

Vink said that across The National series there has definitely been an urgency from the curators.

‘We were tasked to present a survey of what is happening here and now, and a number of major things have shaped that landscape from unprecedented politics to a pandemic.’

‘The urgency hasn’t changed, but the need to reflect on First Nations conversations has,’ said Vink.

‘Almost all the artists have responded to the past year’s events, and it has made everyone aware of our place in the world, and that we are on Aboriginal land, and that is also one of the undercurrent themes of the exhibition, Longing for Home.

Vink concluded: ‘We need to be led in the discussion how best to deliver that care – and both these exhibitions offer a pathway to do that.’

Longing for Home is showing from 6 March – 22 August. Free.

The National 2021: New Australian Art is showing at the Art Gallery of NSW from 26 March – 5 September. Free.

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