Artwork: by Artist Damien Shen
Year: 2014

Australian racism & the power of art

Stories and threads that sew us together and pull us apart; all at once connected and so very far away.

So many images and words prickling into focus, words and stories that I have never heard, pain I have never felt. I have been sitting in front of my computer screen lost in images and stories and no idea where to start. I feel lost and like I have been robbed of their stories. Lights flashing all around me highlighting each moment in a thousand different threads I never knew existed. Little threads suddenly put into a spotlight I didn’t seek out.

The danger of a single story, the danger of the stories I have been told of Indigenous Australian peoples.

Oh, but you see, I know all of the ‘Dreamtime’ stories. I know all about the rainbow serpent and the man with the brown skin that cooked us potatoes in a fire pit at primary school one day and showed us witchetty grubs. I know everything. I know about the ones that go ‘walk-about’ and eat grubs; gross. I know all about the ones that are provided homes and pensions from our government, the same ones that destroy those homes and don’t do anything to add to our society. And of course I know all about their ‘dot’ paintings. Never appealed to me personally, apparently they are sold like hotcakes on the international market.

I know about the ones at my high school that did drugs on the oval, the same ones that had a violent falling out with my sister, the same ones that will get more Newstart payment that I will. I know all about that.

I know all about how tedious ‘they/we’ all feel it is that every time there is any kind of ceremony or gathering the ‘traditional owners of the land’ are honoured, and I know all about how annoyed ‘we’ all were that ‘they’ were going on about making our government say ‘Sorry’; what rot!

These were their stories, told to me through the voices of my family and my community and sections of my schooling; as a child, teenager and young adult. Even further than that; where I attended a church that was doing good to ‘help’ those in remote communities – good Christian folk helping the dirty aborigines, such a charitable thing to do. ‘We’ are not like ‘them’, I am a good Christian girl just as my good Christian mother raised me to be.

Growing up for me meant unlearning so many things- so many things. It meant deconstruction many ideologies and beliefs, so many untruths threaded through my childhood and the childhood of others around me.

We were told only one story, just one. ‘So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.’ As I have come to learn, of myself and my gender and the roles I have played, we are never just one story, there is never just one thread; we are all, always many, twisted and interconnected little threads that tether us to our time and each other.

‘Stories matter, many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.’ – Adichie
Art has the power to transcend, inspire and inform. Recently, stories through their art came into focus for me. I cannot reflect on their art without seeking to understand their story and their voices. I cannot seek to understand their voices without first understanding the lies I have been told; lies that have been taken as their truth. I cannot talk about their art without understanding that there is so much more to their truth and threads than just a single story.

I feel I have no right to talk about their art, or the stories they tell through that art, before rejecting the stories I was told throughout my childhood of their lives. Stories that have been used to ‘break the dignity’ of their people and perpetuate their pain, stories I am ashamed to say I have just accepted.

I think I am racist? I certainly grew up with many people who were and continue to be. At the very least I sit squarely in the ‘white-privilege’ box, I feel so sad and ashamed. The more I read and see, the more I start to understand all these little threads. I feel I have been robbed of their truth, they have been robbed of their truth, I had no idea. Shouldn’t I? Shouldn’t I know? Somewhere along my path, along my growth, someone should have given me that education and understanding? Surely?

This really is such a massive part of our nations history and I had no idea, like football, should it not make up an obvious-in-your-face part of our culture and society?

It was just after The Rabbit Proof Fence came out, I watched it with my Grandmother, my soul felt sick and sad for days, I cried and cried, how could this have happened? What is wrong with people? How could they do this? I was assured ‘It was for their own good, we were just trying to help them’, wait? What?! Did we just watch the same story? I know you truly believe they were honestly just trying to help, but can you not see? How can those be the words you offer? How can this be? How is it that I have never seen all this pain before? All their pain…

All their stories I had never heard. Art is transcendent. Art is vital to the threads that make up the stories we tell and hear, without it I would never know their truth, me sitting in my privileged little white box would never be given the opportunity to feel or care or see or to stand… to cry and stand in solidarity.

‘through her work she aims to give “a voice to the voiceless, making the invisible visible” – listening, seeing, being and sharing…’

Thank you. Thank you for sharing your story and your voice. I am sorry. I am so sorry. Is that the wrong thing to say? I am not sure. I feel like I don’t know anything and I have so much to learn; stories and knowledge that should have been a fundamental part of my education and upbringing. I feel like their whole history has been stripped from our society, our culture and our education system, all of their pain is shaved to tell only the story the others wanted us all to know, only the story that supports and perpetuates their racism… the racism that became my single story for them. Yet I still hear people complain that they are sick of hearing about their plight, our government gives them so much, we are not being racist ‘its just our opinion’.

‘There is no single Indigenous way of being…’

I feel like I did after my marriage ended, like my whole life, my truth, the stories that made up my own dreaming was all a lie or at least a shaved, incomplete version of the truth.

We all tell stories in our own way, our own voices and our own truth. It is just that there are very few stories that gain prominence, that are given power, power provided by a very select, privileged few, by white authoritarian regimes.

I want to cry. I have no right to cry. To wear their stories like some charitable badge. Look what a good PC white woman I am.

And so I come back to where I started; their images that recently crossed my path.

Stories and threads that sew us together and pull us apart, all at once connected and so very far away.

Grandmother. An encompassing maternal energy, the only consistent, stable thread throughout my life. She gave me love and roots and ever since she passed away I have felt as if I am lost in life’s inertia with no connection to anything at all.

Grandmother. Connection. Threads. Family. Country. Before this moment I have not really understood at all what connection to Country means, connection to anything.

Grandmother. Her eyes. In images I had taken of her it is her eyes that remain. It is this that is connection and family to me, but that feeling of connection is entirely isolated between her eyes and mine. Country is such an unknown concept to me. I have never felt this, but, maybe it is something like the space between my Grandmothers eyes and mine.

Grandmother. Not mine but his. I walked into the beautiful Adelaide Town Hall and one of the first images I saw was a charcoal drawing of his grandmother. Her eyes. My own eyes prickled with tears and I felt her, I felt my own Grandmother and I felt some fragment of understanding of what that broader connection to Family and Country feels like. That sense of grounding she gave me, that sense of heritage and connection. Without her I feel like I have lost all of that.

Grandmother. Not mine but hers. STILLS Gallery in Sydney, lips and pores and text. But her Grandmother had been photographed without her eyes. Medical records, just the lower section of her face. I couldn’t feel anything; her essence and dignity had been cut out of the frame. She had been cut from her context and her Country. Without that connection she had lost all of her Country. It had been stolen.

Empathy, at its core, is putting yourself in the story of another and feeling what they felt. I imaged them to both be my Grandmother; my only connection to any notion of ‘Family and Country’. I imagined her eyes and dignity taken from her and presented as nothing more than lips for a scientific process of categorising her ‘dying race’, her essence stolen.

In my simplistic understanding, my grandmother is my own version of Country. I felt what I have felt since she passed away and her time and moments stolen from me. My understanding only some, insignificant small fraction of what it must have felt like to have your Country taken from you. To have some of the only remaining links to your grandparents held in an archive in a Museum. So grateful they are there at all but pained to think of why they came to be, the Tindale images.

My soul feels so grieved. My eyes prickle. What is this world? We are all our heritage and connections. What justified my own race to do such a vile thing? To severe the threads that connected these people to all that they are? To remove them from their Country? To continue to perpetuate racist notions and intergenerational trauma?

Thank fuck for rebellion and art and voices. Thank you for shouting even through all the attempts to muffle your sound, to stand in focus while so many still wish your heritage to be blurry.

Your heritage is a part of mine and I feel so ashamed.

Grandmother. Connection. Country. Threads. Threads that sew us together and pull us apart, all at once connected and so very far away.

Art and voices and stories. ‘My goal is to educate myself and educate others in an artistic way that challenges me and feeds my soul as I create it.’ Art can be transcendent.

Artist: Damien Shen/The People Who Belong to this Land/Grandmother

Categorise and collect. Portraits taken of his ancestors and kept in an archive: European representation and objectification of the Ngarrindjeri people. The Tindale collection; portraits that attempt to reduce its subjects to categories and labels.

Damien’s portraits in The people who belong to this land, present his family and people in beautiful contrast to the Tindale images. Their essence is felt through the eyes of each of his portraits, for me, particularly the one of his Grandmother, completed in charcoal and pastels. Using pastel highlights and charcoal shadows to create an image of tonal realism.

Threads and connection, these portraits thread us all together with the commonality within our human experience; love and family. Grandmother. They also powerfully pull us apart, showing the details of difference. In one moment, bound together and pulled apart.

Artist: Brenda L Croft/subalter/N/ative dreams-full/blood/shut/mouth/scream

A portrait of her Grandmother in the very same archive of images held in the Tindale collection. Grandmother. Taken in 1934. Not of her full face. This image is shown in large scale in a new context, a context of self-portraits of the artist, bold, confrontational and unapologetic. Look at my eyes. See me.

They seem to take back the dignity removed from her Grandmother in her image taken for the Tindale collection. They are striking and beautiful and chilling and give back the essence of their heritage. The images this portrait sits within are a powerful part of the story.

The first part of this work is a large scale reproduction of the original photograph of her grandmother from the Tindale collection. Over her mouth, in bold coloured typeface, typical of the time, reads a date of significance. Red across her lips seems an expression of the attempt to take her voice. Other words laid over the image note her given categories.

The portrait that sits next to this is another self-portrait of the artist, with an equally significant date, 30 years later to the first, the birthdate of the artist. The date sits on the portrait with the words shut, mouth and scream. Instead of silence this image seems to scream defiance, we will not be quiet.

The second image has been created using a traditional wet plate photographic process, a process that gives way to beautiful texture and details falling in and out of focus.

An image reclaimed, and given a new context, a context of brutal, beautiful truth. shut/mouth/scream.

There are so many stories, so many truths that remain unheard, and on my part, lessons to learn.

‘I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realise that there is never a single story about any place (or people), we regain a kind of paradise.’ – Adiche

Seek stories not your own.

Aj

artwork published with the permission of the artist Damien Shen: Charcoal drawing of the artists grandmother, Charlotte, shown at the adelaide town hall for the exhibition ‘The People Who Belong To This Land’. completed drawing photographed by Richard Lyons

  1. Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, The Danger Of A Single Story: Transcript. TED Ideas worth spreading, transcripts, 2009. Accessed August 2016. (https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en)
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, The Danger Of A Single Story: Transcript. TED Ideas worth spreading, transcripts, 2009. Accessed August 2016. (https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en
  5. No author noted. Press Release, Brenda L Croft, subalter/N/ative dreams, 27 July to 27 August 2016, STILLS Gallery.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Llewellyn, Jane. Profile: Damien Shen. The Adelaide Review. September, 2014. Accessed August, 2016. http://adelaidereview.com.au/arts/profile-damien-shen/
  8. No author noted. Lunchtime talk with artist Damien Shen. Event notification. July 2016. Accessed August 2016. http://www.adelaidecitycouncil.com/whats-on/event/lunchtime-talk-with-artist-damien-shen
  9. Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, The Danger Of A Single Story: Transcript. TED Ideas worth spreading, transcripts, 2009. Accessed August 2016. (https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en)

Bibliography

  • Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, The Danger Of A Single Story: Transcript. TED Ideas worth spreading, transcripts, 2009. Accessed August 2016. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en
  • No author noted. Press Release, Brenda L Croft, subalter/N/ative dreams, 27 July to 27 August 2016, STILLS Gallery. A printed copy of this was provided at the exhibition an online copy of the press release can be accessed here: http://www.stillsgallery.com.au/exhibitions/2016/croft/index.php?obj_id=press-release
  • Llewellyn, Jane. Profile: Damien Shen. The Adelaide Review. September, 2014. Accessed August, 2016. http://adelaidereview.com.au/arts/profile-damien-shen/
  • No author noted. Lunchtime talk with artist Damien Shen. Event notification. July 2016. Accessed August 2016. http://www.adelaidecitycouncil.com/whats-on/event/lunchtime-talk-with-artist-damien-shen
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