A popular idiom is that a picture paints a thousand words. In the case of this black-and-white happy snap, a thousand stories could be told. To the unaware viewer a group of people—also black-and-white—stand smiling, one awkwardly, in front of an obscured portrait of a young woman in a white-walled room. Clothing and hairstyles indicate the timeframe as mid-1990s and there is a familiarity of many of the faces captured.
When this photograph appeared on my screen, I was transported back to April 1995 to the opening of True Colours: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Artists Raise the Flag at The Performance Space, then located in Sydney’s First Nations heartland, Redfern. The exhibition was a collaborative project between Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative (founded by Sydney-based First Nations artists in 1987) and Black British curator and critic Eddie Chambers. The collaborative project was created for INIVA (Institute for International Visual Arts), which was established by renowned cultural theorist Stuart Hall in 1993–94 in the United Kingdom.
Curated by Hetti Perkins during her tenure as exhibitions manager and curator at Boomalli, the collaboration was organised at the invitation of Chambers, under an INIVA franchise secured by Chambers to stage a series of exhibitions in the United Kingdom.
INIVA’s origins can be traced to what Chambers calls the “pronounced emergence of Black British artists in the 1980s Britain”, in much the same manner as Boomalli’s origins reside in the collective cultural actions of the first wave of urban-based Australian First Nations artists in the same period.
The two converged in True Colours in 1994, but the project’s origins dated from 1990 during a cultural exchange in Bristol. I was then Boomalli’s general manager, and was overseas having attended the 2nd International Indigenous Women’s Conference in Karasjohka, Norway, before travelling to the major Australian First Nations cultural festival, Tagari Lia: My Family, held in Glasgow and London.
In London, I visited Shaheen Merali, co-founder of Panchayat Collection (an archival collection centred on documenting activism by UK-based artists of Asian heritage), who recommended I contact Chambers in Bristol, where he was running the African and Asian Visual Artists Archives. We met in Bristol, exchanged catalogues, posters and slides, and over the next few years the Boomalli/INIVA project developed—I still remain indebted to many Black British artists and curators for their generosity in sharing ideas.
One of Chambers’s first INIVA projects was Black People and the British Flag in 1993. That year Chambers visited Boomalli at its ground floor premises—gallery, studio, stockroom and office space—in Chippendale. Formerly an automotive repair business, the building also housed First Draft artists’ studios on the upper floors.
True Colours was held the following year, opening at Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool, touring to South London Gallery and The City Gallery, Leicester, before returning to Australia where it opened at The Performance Space in 1995. While the thematic construct for True Colours was in response to Black People and the British Flag, it was also framed by the 1988 Bicentenary Protest (heightening awareness of First Nations injustice), prime minister Paul Keating’s Redfern Speech for the International Year for the World’s Indigenous Peoples in 1993, and the International Decade for the World’s Indigenous Peoples (1995—2004).
Presenting the work of eight contemporary First Nations artists—myself, Brook Andrew, Richard Bell, Destiny Deacon, Lin Onus, r e a, Judy Watson and HJ Wedge—the True Colours catalogue essay, ‘Truths, Myths and Little White Lies’, was co-authored by Perkins and me from a deliberately political historiographical standpoint, as opposed to an art historical context.
Reflecting a First Nations truth-telling to the ‘mother country’, the New South Wales Board of Studies requested permission to reproduce the essay in full in its Aboriginal studies kit. This drew howls of ‘revisionism’ from within the recently elected John Howard Liberal government—from the prime minister’s office down—echoed by dog-whistling talk-back radio commentators and conservative supporters. We were doing the talking back—on our terms, refusing to be silenced.
All of this frames the spatial, geographical and political context of this black-and-white photograph, featuring seven of the eight artists (Lin Onus was absent), standing alongside the newly elected Bob Carr, who officially opened the exhibition. This was his very first public appointment as premier and arts minister, in a role he held for over a decade as New South Wales’s longest standing premier.
Carr appears ill at ease—maybe a case of debutant’s nerves, or perhaps it wasn’t his anticipated First Nations cultural experience? He was certainly green in his dealings with Blackfellas—his office had unexpectedly faxed through his speech notes earlier in the day for me to review and approve, leaving me slightly amused.
Boomalli exhibition openings were always wonderful—a cross-section of Mob from community organisations across the inner-city, rubbing shoulders with non-Indigenous supporters from funding agencies, cultural institutions, social justice advocates and collectors. Even though they are not in the picture, I can see them in my mind’s eye, just out of frame. Heartfelt memories are tinged with the bittersweet, as so many of them are no longer here. We were not just creative colleagues, we were, and still are, friends and family—change-making innovators, provocateurs and liberators, and comrades-in-arms.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 print edition of Art Guide Australia.