Drone footage of Sean Cordeiro and Claire Healey near Newman, Martumili; supplied
Eighteen months ago, leading independent artists (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) began an ambitious plan to hold residencies in remote and regional Aboriginal art centres across Australia. Over one hundred artists took part from the Western Desert to Arnhem land and the Mornington Peninsula.
The collaborations birthed In Cahoots: Artists collaborate across Country, now showing at the Fremantle Arts Centre. The diversity of topics, techniques and objects used to showcase community and individual stories is extraordinary. In Cahoots is an atmospheric, inspiring exploration of what can be achieved when cultures collaborate.
If I’m honest, I entered the exhibition feeling a little disrespectful. Although my eyes had been opened a little thanks to the When the Sky Fell: Legacies of the 1967 Referendum exhibition (PICA, July-August 2017). I still have a lot to learn about Aboriginal art. But then I realised that was the point.
Artists from diverse backgrounds were challenged to create pieces from found objects within their area. In doing so they shared techniques, stories and learnt from each other. The independent artists conducting the residencies visited the communities on a minimum of two occasions. This meant they gained a deeper understanding of the artist’s lives, rather than being dropped in for a one-hour workshop.
In making their journeys the visiting artists braved washed out roads, flat tyres and extreme weather to learn and share cultures. The least I could do was devote an afternoon to perusing this expansive exhibition.
My favourite space was the darkened exhibition by Baluk Arts from the Mornington Peninsula. Each piece on show hovered off the ground thanks to a counter-balanced system using stones. The effect was ethereal. Stunning pieces made from kelp, clay, rubber, wood, cuttlefish and feathers hovered in the darkness. I was particularly drawn to two pieces.
Gillian Garvie’s piece Waa has my heart, depicts a crow as the nurturing protector of her heart. It was the first piece to catch my eye and one I continued to think about well after the exhibition; simple and powerful.
Waa has my heart, Gillian Garvie, Oaten Hay, wood, copper, wire, wood, clay and resin, 32 x 42 x 17 cm, 2017. Photograph by Daryl Gordon. Courtesy and copyright the artist, Baluk Arts and Fremantle Arts Centre.
Finding Place by Lisa Waup portrays her place at the centre of the family. The detail had me lingering for longer than I should. Dominic Bramall-White’s North East Vessel and Kirsty Bell’s ME also deserve a mention.
There was something so special about the atmosphere in this space. Even after seeing all the other pieces in the exhibition I returned, just so I could take the feeling away with me.
My second favourite area was Blood Portrait, the confronting work from Arnhem Land by Ishmael Marika and Curtis Taylor. At first I marveled at the straightness of the red lines that drew my eye downward to the darker red pooling on the skirting board. How steady his hand must have been, I thought.
Blood Portrait, Curtis Taylor with Ishmael Marika; Photography by Rebecca Mansell. Courtesy and copyright the artists, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Arts Centre and Fremantle Arts Centre.
The unwavering straightness of the lines was only amplified when I found out that no instruments had been used. The fine line ‘paint’ effect was the combination of real blood and gravity. Taylor had drawn on ceremonial activities to literally put himself into his art, a wall dripping with his own blood. I’d never seen anything like this and doubt I ever will again. It was strangely mesmerising.
Also in this room was a sculptural work containing 100 spears, made by five different spear makers, all coming to a central point. I wasn’t surprised to hear that this was the most difficult piece to hang.
Assorted works by Curtis Taylor with Ishmael Marika, Spear makers: Wilson Mandijalu, Wanyubi Marika, Desmond Taylor, Wokka Taylor and Yilpirr Wanambi 2017. Photography by Rebecca Mansell. Courtesy and copyright the artists, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Arts Centre and Fremantle Arts Centre.
On my way to another room two artists told me about their piece at the end of the corridor called ‘the big hairy chair’. Created by a group of artists from Fitzroy Crossing and the Wollongong region, The Jangarra Armchair took pride of place at the back of the room.
Made of wooden coolamons and human hair the chair represented the story of a hairy ‘’man killer’. Children would be told the story of a man who emerges from behind large ant hills, a neat way to keep them away from dangerous situations.
Also in this room was Collision, a stunning collection of a bench, armchair and vessel. Made from rusted car panels the interesting shapes were the direct result of a collision. Artist Johnny Nargoodah added soaked leather to covert the twisted metal into a chair. The saddle inspired seat wouldn’t look out of place in a London museum. A place to sit and ponder over a Master perhaps, although it would be a shame to sit on it.
Car bodies were a recurring theme across several spaces. Martumili Artists from the Pilbara combined car doors with weaving to create almost alien looking figures. They would definitely help keep the dust out of your eyes, though I don’t know how the dog would feel sticking his head through one. Rachel Handley’s large car wheel rim basket was equally gorgeous.
Sean Cordeiro, Claire Healy and Kumpaya Girgiba, Baby boomer tourist gets partially trampled by a camel, 2017, wool, Minarri desert grass and car doors Photograph: Bo Wong.Courtesy and copyright the artists, Martumili Artists and Fremantle Arts Centre
Weaving was also used by Blackstone Papulankutja Artists along with painting and mirrors to add ‘sparkle’ to concentric the circles. These pieces provide a moment of reflection as you walk down the corridor.
The main gallery space was reserved for an installation by 45 Warakurna Artists from the Ngaanyatjarra Lands. The wall was an explosion of images from everyday life. A local home was depicted complete with water tank, and the family dog. There were horses, camels, people, patrol cars, helicopters, a church and the no doubt necessary, fan. Also included was a cheeky photographic exhibition highlighting what happens when superheroes go bush.
Installation view of assorted works by 45 Warakurna Artists from the Ngaanyatjarra Lands. 2017. Photography by Rebecca Mansell. Courtesy and copyright the artists, Warakurna Artists and Fremantle Arts Centre.
Congratulations go out to all the artists involved, and to the Fremantle Arts Centre for producing such a stunning, thought provoking exhibition.
Make sure you buy a copy of the program, which includes essays from the artists explaining the collaboration from their viewpoint. One such explanation came from Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro who said the collaboration initially ‘felt strangely like an arranged marriage. Neither party had meet before but a few attractive photos had been seen.’
If the pieces and stories behind In Cahoots are anything to go by, I predict a happy marriage with many healthy cross-cultural offspring.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
In Cahoots: Artists collaborate across Country
24 November 2017 - 28 January 2018
Fremantle Arts Centre, Western Australia
Curator: Erin Coates, Fremantle Arts Centre
Participating art centres and artists include:
- Baluk Arts (VIC): Kirsty Bell, Dominic Bramall-White, Gillian Garvie, Glenn Foster, Tallara Gray, Robert Kelly, Beverley Meldrum, Rebecca Robinson, Nanette Shaw, Douglas Smith, Lisa Waup and Shane Wright WITH Neil Aldum (WA)
- Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Arts Centre (NT): Ishmael Marika WITH Curtis Taylor (WA)
- Mangkaja Arts (WA): Elsie Dickens, Yangkarni Penny K-Lyons, Myarn Lawford, Rita Minga, Eva Nargoodah, Illium Nargoodah, Johnny Nargoodah, Gene Tighe and Duane Shaw WITH Trent Jansen (NSW)
- Martumili Artists (WA): Kumpaya Girgiba, Rachel Handley,
Thelma Judson and Nancy Karnu Taylor WITH Claire Healy & Sean Cordeiro (NSW)
- Papulankutja Artists (WA): Lynette Brown, Nora Davidson, Pamela Hogan, Freda Lane, Angilyiya Mitchell, Anawari Mitchell and Jennifer Mitchell WITH Louise Haselton (SA)
- Warakurna Artists (WA): Nancy Carnegie Tjungupi, Lena Dawson Palitja, Andrea Giles, Norma Giles, Sheila Giles, Trudy Holland, Dianne Holland, Joyce James, Clarabelle Kendae, Francine Newberry, Nancy Nyanyarna Jackson, Polly Pawuya Butler-Jackson, Eunice Porter Yunurupa, Kristabell Porter, Delilah Shepherd, Dwayne Shepherd, Katherine Shepherd, Selina Shepherd, Dallas Smythe, Noreen Smythe, Dorothy Ward, Rocky William Porter, Billy Willy, Tracy Yates, Judith Yinyika Chambers and the children of Warakurna WITH Tony Albert (QLD)
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What the stars mean?
- Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
- Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
- Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
- Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
- Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
- Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
- One star: Awful, to be avoided
- Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level