From Down Under to Cambridge

December 18, 2015
Index Magazine

From Down Under to Cambridge

Vernon Ah Kee, many lies, 2004. Vinyl cut text. Collection of the artist; courtesy of Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Installation view, Avoiding Myth & Message: Australian Artists and the Literary World, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, 2009. Image courtesy of the artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. © The artist. Photo: Jenni Carter.

For Indigenous Australians, the Everywhen (also known as the Dreaming) represents the unity between the ancestral past and the present. When the museums’ Everywhen exhibition opens in February, visitors will get a chance to explore this concept for themselves through more than 60 works that have rarely—if ever—been seen outside Australia. Stephen Gilchrist, the Australian Studies Visiting Curator for the exhibition, is excited to share these works with a broader audience, he said, “to ensure that contemporary Indigenous artists’ way of seeing, being, and knowing the world can be understood by those not born into it.”

Gilchrist advocates “reinserting Indigenous people within museum practices.” And while Everywhen has indeed brought Indigenous Australia to the Harvard Art Museums, it has also brought the museums to Indigenous Australia: while preparing for the exhibition, researchers from Harvard visited remote Indigenous art centers, where they interviewed artists. For Gilchrist, such firsthand accounts “supply valuable information about a work from the artist’s point of view, and are unequalled in importance from a conservation and art historical perspective.”

The exhibition, on view February 5 through September 18, will showcase works by dozens of artists from across Australia. These range from the unsigned 1970s pencil drawings of the early Papunya Tula artists—credited with founding the contemporary Indigenous art movement—to recent photographs by the visual and performance artist Christian Thompson. Many works in the exhibition are vibrant abstract paintings (the style for which Indigenous artists are best known) made with both traditional natural and contemporary synthetic materials.

To offer context for these contemporary works, the exhibition also will feature a number of historical Indigenous works loaned from Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, including carved pearl shells, fiber weavings, and wooden food trays. Although it is often impossible to know the name of the individuals who made these specific objects, research carried out in preparation for the exhibition has shed new light on their creation and the lives of the Indigenous artists who made them. Research in the museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies has also yielded some groundbreaking discoveries, which will be explored more fully in an upcoming Index story.

The Peabody collaboration is one of several partnerships that have greatly enriched this project. Harvard’s Committee on Australian Studies provided major financial support and essential expert guidance for the exhibition at every stage of its development. Planned programming to accompany the show will draw on these and other partners, including several academic departments across campus and performing arts organizations.

Everywhen asks complicated questions about the agency of contemporary Indigenous artists and how their works are situated within today’s global society—what curator Stephen Gilchrist has described as the ‘politics of intercultural translation,’” said Deborah Martin Kao, the museums’ chief curator and interim co-director. “The realization of this immensely important and complex project has wholly depended on the significant collaborations we have developed with our university partners and on the deep expertise they bring from a wide span of disciplines.”