Contemplating First Nations art as a tool of resistance and as offering alternative versions of Australian history, curator Tina Baum knew she was embarking on a huge endeavour with Ever Present: First Peoples Art of Australia. No surprise, then, that this exhibition— devised at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) but showing only in Western Australia and Singapore— covers enormous cultural territory, with more than 80 artists.
Baum, the NGA’s curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, says the primary aim is for audiences to go beyond stereotypes of what constitutes Indigenous art, in this case drawn from extensive NGA and Wesfarmers Arts collections. “There is a lot of resilience and strength evident,” she says. “We still have this, despite everything that has been thrown at us.”
At the spine of the show are themes about ancestors, Country, community, ceremony, trade, resistance, colonisation and innovation. “Essentially, all these cultural connections centre on who we are, our identity. They all interlink to give people a sense of the continuity, but also the disconnection because language and family were taken away.” The exhibition takes in everything from William Barak’s Corroboree, c.1885, to Albert Namatjira’s Ormiston Gorge, 1939. Further additions are Daniel Boyd’s tongue-in-cheek 2005 map Treasure Island, Gary Lee’s Shaba, 2006, and Sandra Hill’s Double Standards, 2015.
Baum says Ever Present emphasises how the striving to reconnect through language and cultural revival shows extraordinary persistence and optimism: “It is ‘ever present’ in the sense that we are still here and we have a lot to celebrate.” While some early works show artists documenting their perspectives of the colonial frontier, other works present the idea of “time before time—how we came about, our laws and country”.
This article was originally published in the January/February 2022 print edition of Art Guide Australia.