When curator Paola Balla’s exhibition Executed opened in 2015 at City Gallery, the responses were united: this was a moving show people were unlikely to forget. It told the little-known story of two Aboriginal men who, in 1842, were the first Indigenous people to be executed in Victoria.

In Sovereignty, Balla and ACCA’s artistic director, Max Delany, now focus on a much broader but no less moving narrative about nationhood. Balla, a Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman who is a PhD candidate and researcher at Victoria University, puts it bluntly: “Sovereignty is on the table.”

The show features new commissions as well as recent and historical works by more than 30 local Indigenous artists, celebrating the continuing vitality of First Nations’ communities.

New work by artists including Brook Andrew, Vicki Couzens, Destiny Deacon and Virginia Fraser, Gary Foley, Steaphan Paton and Steven Rhall go up with key historical pieces such as Wurundjeri leader and activist William Barak’s painting Ceremony, c. 1880–90.

In his powerful essay for Sovereignty, Tony Birch says the colonial project of dispossession and legal disenfranchisement has failed. The works of artists in this exhibition are testament to this failure, he says, and sovereign rights cannot be granted to Indigenous people by colonial society because sovereignty was never ceded. It flows through all aspects of Indigenous life: Country, nations, ecology, kinship systems, family, the body, the heart and the mind.

Balla says one of the most powerful works is a series of Super 8 films made by Bill Onus in 1946. Titled Aborigines in the Community, the footage captures the lives of the Indigenous communities of Fitzroy, Healesville and elsewhere. “It is a beautiful portrait of life in the everyday,” Balla says. “It is not the colonial gaze on our community.”

Australian Centre for Contemporary Art
17 December – 26 March

Preview Words by Andrew Stephens