This summer, in association with the 2019 Sydney Festival, Cement Fondu presents the work of the renowned American artist Adrian Piper alongside the work of Amrita Hepi, a first nations dancer, choreographer and artist from Bundjalung (Aus) and Ngapuhi (NZ) territories.
The Ropes: Amrita Hepi x Adrian Piper will be the second time the Sydney gallery pairs the work of an emerging Australian artist with an established international counterpart. Cement Fondu directors Josephine Skinner and Megan Monte hope that programs like this will create opportunities for Australian artists to exhibit alongside international peers beyond the scope of large group shows.
Amrita Hepi is a rising star in contemporary Australian performance art. Her medium is dance and movement, and she has trained from a young age. She has exhibited and performed at Sydney Opera House, Next Wave Festival, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and with the Indigenous dance company Marrugeku in Europe.
Hepi’s work represents and champions different cultures, perspectives and experiences, with a particular focus on the experience of women of colour and on decolonisation through the prism of history. As a woman of Aboriginal and Māori descent, Hepi is unafraid of challenging the status quo. “I’m doing the thing I need to do, to say what I need to,” she says.
The Pace, 2018, her immersive three-channel video installation in The Ropes, contrasts Hepi’s ongoing interest in movement and her heritage (by way of weaving, in this instance) against the traditional notion that skipping and weaving are neither sport nor art. “Historically, weaving has been women’s work, and skipping was usually relegated to slave and minority communities,” Hepi says. But these practices are powerful tools beyond mere ‘past times.’ The Pace relays these transformative experiences of movement, community and support.
Late last year Hepi spent five weeks at a residency in Washington DC courtesy of the Australian Embassy and the 2018 NAIDOC week campaign, Because of Her We Can. While there she combed through the archival footage and imagery in the extensive Smithsonian and National Museum of the American Indian collections, looking at the history of skipping and beyond.
The Pace is a result of that residency, along with preliminary research conducted earlier at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and in northern New South Wales, where she studied the art of weaving with different communities. The work can be described as a weaving itself – a combination of archival and found footage spliced with performances of Hepi re-enacting different skipping moves.
Hepi is no stranger to Adrian Piper’s work, and can recall feeling both thrilled and slightly intimidated at the prospect of being paired with the prolific artist she has admired for a long time. “Piper has explored everything to the nth degree to get her message across,” Hepi says.
Piper has in the past manifested her interest in identity, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, politics and more through drawing, photography, performance, and video. It is her performative and rhythmic works that have been carefully selected to complement Hepi’s work for this exhibition.
Piper’s Please, God, 1991, presents footage of young black girls dancing happily and without a care in the world. They can’t see the subtitles on the screen describing prayers for them, such as “God teach them to fight back.”
In Funk Lessons, 1983–84, Piper coaches a group of mostly white American university students to dance to funk and soul – black music genres that have been historically under-appreciated yet simultaneously pilfered or appropriated.
As part of the exhibition, visitors have the option to listen to greats like Aretha Franklin or James Brown on headphones while taking in The Ropes, and maybe even experience the power of movement first hand.