Recent events in the Australian visual arts have thrown into sharp relief the deeply flawed thinking about the participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and communities in contemporary art. These events also demonstrate, even more clearly, the arts-wide issue of the lack of Indigenous arts workers in institutional positions that can foster these conversations, particularly in a structural way.
In March 2021, Spanish artist Santiago Sierra was curated into the Dark Mofo program, part of Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) winter festival. His intent was to immerse a Union Jack flag into the donated blood of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a comment on colonialism. The commissioned work, the artist, Dark Mofo and Mona all became the focal point for an unheralded backlash from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as well as other non-Indigenous people, including Mona’s own staff. These individuals railed against what was perceived as trauma tourism, and the re-colonising of Indigenous peoples’ own histories and representations.
Whether this was accidental, a benign misinterpretation, or strategic and deliberate controversy from the artist at the expense of an historically excluded and manipulated minority group, is up for debate. What is certain, however, is that if there had been any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander staff working for, or having oversight over the program, or an Indigenous advisory group connected with Mona, the proposed commission would not have gotten off the discussion table.
In 2015 I contributed an essay for Next Wave Festival titled A Call to Arms, in which I anecdotally stated the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander curators and arts workers in Australia: at this time, in what was and is a multi-million-dollar industry, there were only around 20 Indigenous curators and 100 paid Indigenous arts workers in the country. While some improvements across development and staffing have been made with a variety of leadership programs—most notably the Wesfarmers Leadership Program via the National Gallery of Australia, and the British Council’s arts leadership program, formerly known as Accelerate and now Intersect—in real terms the numbers of Indigenous curators and arts workers has not increased significantly. And these numbers have not increased in line with the growth of Indigenous artists’ commercial and artistic output.
In the words of Aboriginal artist Richard Bell: “Aboriginal art, it’s a white thing.” One could submit that the low ratio of Indigenous arts workers and curators, in proportion to work by and about us, is fundamentally an issue around power: the desire to keep it and the fear of losing it. Discussing Bell’s artwork Uz vs Them, writer Tristan Griffin observes how Bell offers up a boxing ring metaphor to depict the struggle over existing socio-political power between white and black. This struggle has long been recognised by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, who have fought for the right to represent themselves in ways that are embedded in agency, truth, healing and social justice.
Overwhelmingly, however, those who are directing and owning (in the capitalist sense of the word) Indigenous representation are mostly white. The exception to this rule is the communally managed Boomalli artist space, based in Sydney, and a significant number of remote community art centres across Australia where the managing boards are all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community- elected members. (Mostly, however, the studio coordinators and managers are white.) There is huge resistance, acknowledged and unacknowledged, about handing over the reins so to speak—transferring power back into our hands.
It is not often that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander curators and arts workers speak openly about power—about the myriad impacts it has upon our professional experience—because it can quite literally put our jobs at risk. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists can and do unpack this consistently and well. But as the go-betweens amidst the institution, the public, and the artist or community, Indigenous arts workers are forced into a unique— and constrained—position.
That is why it is so critical that those who are unencumbered with the cultural responsibility of answering to and prioritising community are able to hold safe spaces for us; to advocate for us when we ask you to, in the ways we ask you to (which means not speaking for us). This is our call to arms—to our white colleagues in institutional, academic and commercial spaces, to ensure we are at the table even when we physically are not.
I was genuinely heartened to see white people at Mona calling out their own. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts workers are tired of educating, of fighting, of being kept out of spaces. We need you to stand beside us and be warriors with us. Often our experiences and traumas are discounted and minimised—in the way that Sierra did after he was told in no uncertain terms that the artwork he had proposed was re-traumatising, re-colonising, and offered no opportunity for true collaboration.
We need you to fight to have our traumas and experiences acknowledged. But more than this, we need you to make space for us in positions that support change at a structural level; positions that are embedded within institutions and frameworks that make up our hierarchical arts system in Australia and overseas.
Put us on your boards. Put us in senior leadership positions. Don’t continue to keep us only at the coalface as curators and arts workers, benefitting the organisation by working sensitively and appropriately with artists and communities, while never individually having the ability to change harmful structures or procedures.
If you are in a leadership position, think about how you might succession-plan for the development and empowerment of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander colleague to move into your position, while you (inevitably) move further up. True leadership is about bringing people with you. It benefits literally every white arts organisation to have black people in positions of power because the checks and balances are then in place to ensure that projects like the ill-fated Union Flag are discussed in programming committees with the appropriate Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander representation, and decisions made accordingly.
Having black people in your organisation ensures a level of ethical behaviour and rigour in programming and curation that you will not see otherwise. This is good for our entire arts ecosystem, and this is this author’s call to arms to you, dear reader.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.