Two things that make sense when connecting the work of Carol McGregor (Wathaurung, Kulin Nation / Scottish) and Judy Watson (Waanyi) – they are both Brisbane-based Aboriginal Australian artists, but more importantly, as women they harness shared knowledge across time and place, turning to historical material and drawing on the strength of matrilineal connections to illuminate the continuing strength of Indigenous culture.
This matrilineal passing of culture was an important focus of last year’s exhibition, Tarnanthi: Open Hands, at the Art Gallery of South Australia. Here at Artspace, and as part of a heavily weighted First Nations focus for Sydney Festival, it takes a next look from a different location.
Titled djillong dumularra (djillong meaning tongue of land and dumularra meaning flowing water) it sits beautifully in this contemporary art space – a former colonial Gunnery – the heavy organic weight of the architectural beams very much about structural narrative.
McGregor and Watson’s works are viewed as separate exhibitions.
McGregor’s work in the space is very minimal – just four works. First encountered is Wreath for Oodgeroo (2020) – a possum skin cloak hovers in the space depicting native plants found on Minjerriba (Stradbroke Island, Queensland). It is said to pay honour to black rights activist, poet, artist, environmentalist and educator Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker).
In it a tone is established. These works are politically weighty, respectful, and yet embrace a beauty and a lightness. The same could be said of Watson’s work shown.
Along the far wall, and a backdrop to the cloak, is an installation of 251 clay elements in the work Silent Sounds (2020). Formed by hand and carrying the artists’ print, they call on a memory of growing up with eucalyptus trees flooded by dam waters in Tasmania.
The gallery explains: ‘Each vessel represents a year since colonisation and what has happened to the environment over that time.’ This installation has a ghostly presence, and its sheer volume is what makes it work.
In complete contrast of scale, Cornerstone (2011-18) is a single tiny fragment of the British Museum’s edifice, cast in silver and monumental in its gesture placed on a pedestal. When visiting London in 2011, McGregor was unable to arrange access to certain collections, and in reaction, wanted to record the institutions boundaries.
Without the narrative this work would fall flat, making it an interesting choice to have to hold such a vast gallery space, and also within the kind of spectacular popular with festivals.
Also presented, again in a very minimal way (easily missed) is String Links (2020), made from spun possum fur and merino wool, it explores the passions of her grandmothers – both Aboriginal and Scottish – one a seamstress and the other a knitter.
In the other gallery, Judy Watson has been prolific in creating a huge body of new work for the exhibition. Dominating the space is her major new video commission, skulduggery (2021), which draws on 1930s correspondence between Matron Kerr from Burketown Hospital in the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum (now Wellcome Collection, London) on the trading of Australian Aboriginal ancestral remains.
It is an expansive narrative and its placement in the gallery demands one stop and engage.
As an artist you can stand up, you can resist and you can use art as a platform to discuss ideas.
– Judy Watson.
It is complimented by another video installation created last year, the skin of painting, with the remaining works in the space – largely scroll-like ochre and graphic paintings with organic gestural elements.
Among them, anchoring Watson’s narrative in a long historic engagement, is the work Shiver (1993). ‘Her fabric works – stained, dyed, layered and left with the impression of objects and bodies – bear witness to critical social issues from the destruction of cultural sites and water as a threatened resource to the current global pandemic,’ writes the gallery.
Like McGregor, these works of Watson speak of site and memory, of Indigenous histories, and emotional connections across land and people. Her works register as timeless, and timely confronting them. However, they feel a little bleached in the space, and one might wonder whether more delicate, dramatic lighting would have heightened the mood they intend to evoke.
Overall this is an odd synergy here from a conceptual position and materiality, despite the work being very different in many ways. McGregor and Watson both engage in processes of reflection, and engage with place, memory, collections and archives to reveal the impact of colonialism and discrimination against Aboriginal people, and to celebrate the strength of Aboriginal cultural practice. Does that make a good festival exhibition? I feel split on this.
On one level it makes sense to embed these important conversations into broader festival programming, which is typically full of bold bravado, premieres, roll calls (and on most years also international in flavour). However, their conceptual rigour and subtly is in fear of getting lost by a quick-paced, swipe-friendly audience.
A free brochure of commissioned writings responding to the work of McGregor and Watson accompanies the exhibition.
3½ out of 5 stars ★★★☆
djillong dumularra: Carol McGregor and Judy Watson
Presented as part of Sydney Festival programming
16 January – 5 April 2021
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