As a five-year-old living in the inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern, Dennis Golding was given a Batman costume. At home after school, he’d dash proudly into the street, thrilled to show off as a superhero in a majestic cape. Years later, though, he found himself yearning for invisibility: police attention on the Indigenous community in Redfern (known as The Block) was intense. “There was a common shared experience among the kids growing up on The Block that we wanted, in some ways, to be invisible and hide even though we didn’t do anything wrong. But that constant monitoring and surveillance made you think you were doing something wrong.”
Golding, a Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay man, has since emerged as an artist and curator, and one of his best-known images shows him from behind, adorned in a shimmering silver cape. From his video Empowering Identity, 2018, the cape is emblazoned with a circular motif; it billows as he stands looking out between the heads of Sydney Harbour.
Exploring empowerment—for himself and others—is at the heart of much of his solo and collaborative work, which has even extended to making Indigenous-themed NRL jerseys. Some of his latest ventures include a community-based exhibition at Carriageworks, being a finalist in the 2021 NATSIAA (Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards), and continuing investigations into decolonising Victorian-era objects. He’s also been announced as an exhibiting artist in the 2022 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art.
The Carriageworks show comes from Golding being appointed the Solid Ground artist-in-residence at the Alexandria Park Community School, where there are many Indigenous students from kindergarten through to year 12. Golding mentored these students in cape-making workshops, and dozens of the created capes have been installed as a “whole-school portrait” for The Future is Here at Carriageworks. Made with brilliantly coloured satin, the capes include acrylic-painted motifs that refer to each student’s imagined superpower.
“The idea was for them to interpret their own history—themselves, friends, family members, even pets—as their own superheroes,” Golding says. “It was fun. There was a common theme in how the kids started to interpret icons using references to Country. That was really beautiful because they connected to Country through a motif that could be an animal or a plant or a language. In many of these stories produced from the kids [there] was an animal, a totem.”
The show speaks to many of Golding’s investigations expressed through his solo shows, collaborations and curatorial work. A UNSW Art & Design graduate, he is especially interested in the urban Aboriginal experience and how it relates to family heritage and Country. Growing up in Redfern, he and his immediate family moved between the houses of various Aunties and Uncles—most of whom have since been evicted amid the effects of gentrification and redevelopment. Golding has thus worked with a particularly symbolic item from those houses he occupied: the iron lacework featured on Victorian terrace houses.
His recent 2020 Artspace show Cast In, Cast Out re-imagined panels of lacework as traditional shields. The panels, cast in epoxy resin, “de-colonise the originals” so that Golding is in control of them rather than the lacework occupying the original function as fence, gate, boundary-marker, or a symbol of colonial power and occupation. At his current show Make Yourself at Home, at Sydney’s Cement Fondu, he will explore (with his Re-Right Collective collaborator Carmen Glynn-Braun) how their families were removed to the city from Country.
This theme is also evident in Golding’s 2021 NATSIAA finalist work, Back Home From Home, an installation which shows Golding holding one of the lacework panels while standing on his family’s Kamilaroi Country in northwest New South Wales, between Moree and Collarenebri. His grandfather has moved back to the area after spending 45 years in Redfern: Golding took the lacework panel to him and then did the photoshoot. “It is a nod to his story, to how he has contributed to our experience of growing up in Sydney and being connected to Country as well,” Golding says. “There are fragments of memories through that cast-iron object.” Likewise, Golding recalls his grandmother re-painting her small two-bedroom Redfern terrace house to “make it her own”: the lacework became blue, the brick walls peach. “These cast-iron objects were an architectural design embedded in the housing, but something we touched and saw every day.”
On the curatorial front, Golding enjoys the opportunity to enhance the stories of First Nations people and empower representations of Indigenous cultural identity. His first engagement was curatorial work at Adelaide’s Tarnanthi Festival in 2017, and this year he helped redesign the Indigenous material collection at the Bank Art Museum Moree. “As a curator, you are the holder and carer of knowledge,” he says. “Rather than just hanging work up, it is about forging a relationship with the artist, and how they represent a whole community. At Moree, it was a great opportunity to expand my curatorial practice and write about the objects, and be aware of cultural sensitivities and sacredness and cultural protocols around display, and honouring them.”
This article was originally published in the November/December 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.