Gilchrist Talks about Everywhen

May 13, 2016
Photo: R. Leopoldina Torres. Australian Studies Visiting Curator Stephen Gilchrist leading a gallery talk about Everywhen, an exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art from Australia.

Stephen Gilchrist, the Australian Studies Visiting Curator at the Harvard Art Museums, spent the last five years thinking about, planning, and organizing Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia. A member of the Yamatji people of the Inggarda language group of Western Australia and an associate lecturer in art history at the University of Sydney, Gilchrist shared his thoughts about visitors’ perceptions of Everywhen, the significance of contemporary Indigenous Australian art being on view at Harvard, and his pride in his heritage.

What do you think surprises people about the exhibition?

I think people are surprised by the diversity—that there’s more to Indigenous art than just dots and bark painting. There’s a great range of works on paper, canvas, acetate, and glass; there’s photography, cultural objects, and installations. I hope that people are struck by the beauty that will then compel them to pose deeper questions about the works and their relationship to them. I think people are interested in the fusion of the conceptual and the perceptual that seems to appear in many of the works in the show. Quite a few people have also commented on the gender equity of the show.

What should visitors take away from the exhibition?

I want people to understand the breadth, sophistication, beauty, and politics of this art form. I think the provocation of the exhibition is really to imagine the world otherwise. There are multiple and multiplying ways of being, seeing, and knowing the world and many of the narratives that we have inherited from art and social history are at the very least incomplete. The exhibition is about time, but it is equally about power and who gets to claim it. It would be great if visitors could spend time with these unfamiliar ideas that can potentially recalibrate their understanding of Indigeneity. Indigenous people are not merely from and of the past. We are couriers and keepers of what has been, what is, and what could be. I also really hope that people see the exhibition as not art of the other but simply as a significant form of contemporary art. It deserves our attention and deserves to be seen here at the Harvard Art Museums alongside some of the great art traditions of the world.

  • Exhibition gallery featuring a variety of artworks. In center of gallery is a sculpture consisting of a black table covered with glass “specimen” cases. Black text is installed across the back wall (like a scar). On the left wall is a black-and-white photograph of two hands holding a square object and a sculpture consisting of a set of antlers with a giant necklace composed of coal. On the right, is a black, white and red abstract painting.
    of View of the Remembrance-themed gallery in the exhibition Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia on display February 5–September 18, 2016 at the Harvard Art Museums.
  • Exhibition gallery with a grouping of photographs on the back wall. On the left, is a black wall with a series of square black and white prints installed.
    of View of the Remembrance-themed gallery in the exhibition Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia on display February 5–September 18, 2016 at the Harvard Art Museums.
  • Three men stand in the corner of an art gallery in conversation in front of a white wall with black text. In the middle of the gallery is a sculpture of a black table covered with glass “specimen” cases. To their left, a large sculpture hangs from the wall, consisting of a set of antlers with a giant necklace composed of coal.
    of Photo: R. Leopoldina Torres. Artist Vernon Ah Kee stand in conversation with curator Stephen Gilchrist and conservation scientist Narayan Khandekar in the remembrance-themed gallery of Everywhen, in front of the installation of his work many lies [2004].
  • View of two exhibition galleries, which include large sculptures and large abstract paintings.
    of View of the Performance-themed gallery in the exhibition Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia on display February 5–September 18, 2016 at the Harvard Art Museums.
  • Exhibition gallery featuring large Warup drum in a glass case centered in the foreground. Behind the drum on the wall are two large scale white and brown abstract paintings by Australian indigenous artists.
    of View of the Performance-themed gallery in the exhibition Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia on display February 5–September 18, 2016 at the Harvard Art Museums.

Does that context—of being here at Harvard, in New England, set against American history—change anything about how we encounter these works of art?

I think the institutional armature of the Harvard Art Museums helps people see the exhibition in a particular kind of way. It is at least understood to be fine art, if not always contemporary art. But I hope that people also see that Indigenous art possesses its own cultural value, wherever it is exhibited. Some of the central ideas of the exhibition are time, place, history, and belonging, so I hope that visitors are simultaneously interrogating their relationship to American as well as Australian histories. There are some echoes, parallels, and reverberations.  

I think it’s also really interesting that some of the most important exhibitions of Indigenous art in the last 10 years have been at university art museums in the United States. Museums are particularly suited to grappling with the intellectual and definitional challenges of Indigenous art. It suggests that the people who visit university art museums really want to understand cultural contexts. People don’t just want surface, they want to go deeper in a sustained way. And museums can be the perfect place to do that.

Fifty percent of artists in Australia are Indigenous. What do you think accounts for that?

There are significant and complex cultural, economic, and political reasons to account for Indigenous people creating works of art for outside audiences. Of course, it is hard to generalize but I think one of main differences is that for many Indigenous people, art is simply part of everyday life. I also think that for Indigenous people, art was the language that could speak across cultural divides. It could make their respective communities valorized, visible, and undeniable.

Has working on this exhibition changed your perspective on your identity as a member of an Indigenous group?

When I came to the United States to study at NYU, I just wanted to connect with art from around the world and to spend time with the incredible collections that I couldn’t see in Australia. I saw Indigenous art and culture everywhere, probably because I knew where to look and who to ask, but I soon realized that other people didn’t. Throughout my studies, I realized that I had to use my curatorial voice to activate discussions and to agitate for change to make art museums, in particular, more culturally resonant for Indigenous peoples. I believe in the power of Indigenous art and I’m grateful for those who have also believed in my voice and the voicings of the artists. Every exhibition is a curatorial exercise in wayfinding and I think this exhibition has taught me that as I move through the world, relationships are my politics. It is about intellectual, cultural, and political engagement and who we can bring with us. 

  • Three men sit on a bench in the middle of the exhibition gallery, in front of a colorful abstract painting of red, white, yellow and pink swirls.
    of Photo: R. Leopoldina Torres. Artist Vernon Ah Kee sits in conversation with curator Stephen Gilchrist and conservation scientist Narayan Khandekar in front of Emily Kam Kngwarray’s painting Anwerlar angerr (Big yam), 1996.
  • Gallery with three tall carved bark sculptures in the center.  Hanging on the wall in the background are four colorful abstract paintings by Australian indigenous artists.
    of View of the Seasonality-themed gallery in the exhibition Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia on display February 5–September 18, 2016 at the Harvard Art Museums.
  • arge gallery with a variety of sculptures and large-scale paintings from Australian indigenous artists.
    of View of the Seasonality-themed gallery in the exhibition Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia on display February 5–September 18, 2016 at the Harvard Art Museums.
  • In the foreground of a gallery, a glass case with four wooden bowl like objects are on display. Hanging on the wall in the background are four bright abstract paintings by Australian indigenous artists.
    of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology loaned the Harvard Art Museums the four coolamons on display in the Everywhen exhibition.
  • Gallery with a large glass display case in the center featuring wooded bowls. Hanging on the walls are bright abstract paintings by Australian indigenous artists.
    of View of the Transformation-themed gallery in the exhibition Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia, on display February 5–September 18, 2016 at the Harvard Art Museums.