'Everything an Aboriginal artist makes is political': Q&A with the Australian co-curator of 'Exposure'

Erin Vink, co-curator, Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology; photo Felicity Jenkins, AGNSW

Art by more than 30 Indigenous artists from six global regions is currently on view in Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology, the first large-scale international exhibition of Indigenous responses to nuclear disaster and proliferation. Curators from the United States, Canada, Greenland, Japan, Australia, and the Pacific Islands worked with the Institute of American Indian Arts’ Museum of Contemporary Native Arts’ chief curator, Manuela Well-Off-Man, to select artists for the show, which runs through July 10.

The Australian curator is Erin Vink (Ngiyampaa), 28, assistant curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, a state museum that has been collecting Australian Indigenous art — now nearly 3,000 items — since the early 20th century. The museum is currently undergoing expansion, Vink says, and soon the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander gallery will double in size. She explains that in Australia, Aboriginal people are referred to as the traditional owners that belong to the mainland of Australia and Tasmania, and Torres Strait Islanders refers to the Indigenous people from the cluster of islands stretching from the Australian peninsula of Cape York to Papua New Guinea.

Most of the Australian artwork in Exposure is in response to atomic weapons testing performed in the 1950s and ‘60s. Pieces from the country include Destruction I (2002), a 4-foot-by-3-foot dot painting by Aboriginal artists Kunmanara Queama and Hilda Moodoo (both Pitjantjatjara) depicting a multicolored atomic mushroom cloud; and Nucleus (U235) (2021), four glass bush plums by Yhonnie Scarce (Kokatha/Nukunu), that explore the political nature and aesthetic qualities of natural materials that were altered by the nuclear tests.

Vink gives an online talk about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, and the artwork she chose for Exposure, on Thursday, Oct. 21. Here, she talks to Pasatiempo about nuclear testing in Australia, explains some of the basics of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, and offers insight into anti-Indigenous racism in Australia.

Pasatiempo: When and where did atomic testing take place in Australia?

Erin Vink: There were three testing sites between 1956 and 1963. The Montebello Islands were first. That’s an archipelago off the coast of Western Australia. No inhabitants, but when I say that, there were traditional islanders removed off their country around the same time. There were two major tests at Montebello — and hundreds of smaller tests — and then the British looked towards the interior of Australia. In South Australia, at the very top of the border where it meets the Northern Territory and Western Australia, there are the APY [Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara] lands, 100,000 square kilometers. Within the APY lands, there’s about 2,000 to 2,500 people, a very small population of traditional owners that live on country. At Emu Field, they exploded two bombs, and at Maralinga was the vast majority of the other major tests.

'Everything an Aboriginal artist makes is political': Q&A with the Australian co-curator of 'Exposure'

Yhonnie Scarce (Kokatha/Nukunu peoples), Nucleus (U235) (2021), four glass and bush plums (#11-14 in the series), four stainless steel hospital carts

Pasa: What are some the ramifications of testing on these communities?

E.V.: It’s really hard to say how many lives were lost. At the time, in the APY lands, some people had started being moved to missions, but many people were living in the bush, completely untouched. There are accounts of a particular test going off, and then hours after the cloud had dispersed, rangers went in to check the crater size and found an Aboriginal family next to the crater. The Anangus — that’s the word for people from that region — recount that a black mist swept across country, bringing immediate sickness. Stomach problems, vomiting, diarrhea, eyesight being lost, boils on the skin. Ongoing health effects include infertility, eyesight problems, hearing problems. Some of these areas were completely irradiated, so the traditional owners can’t go back to their lands.

'Everything an Aboriginal artist makes is political': Q&A with the Australian co-curator of 'Exposure'

David Neel (Kwakwaka’wakw, Canada, British Columbia), Chernobyl Mask (Allusion to Bakwas/Nuclear Disaster Mask) (1993), cedar wood, cedar bark, acrylic paint, Seattle Art Museum, Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund 

Pasa: What drew you to curatorial work and your field in particular?

E.V.: I went to art school, but I discovered I was better at writing and talking about other people’s art. Even though there are Aboriginal curators who have been working in this field for 20 or 30 years, there was no university course. So, I did a normal art history and curator degree, and then it becomes a task of being mentored. There are a few curators around who aren’t Aboriginal, but most of us are, because we want our own people speaking about our own art.

Pasa: What are the fundamental genres of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art?

E.V.: In the Torres Strait Islands, they do a lot of weaving and carving, and there’s a real push to use recyclable materials. On one of the islands, they use ghost nets, or fishing nets that have been discarded at sea, to make their weavings. They still use banana leaf and things like that, and they do a lot of pottery with intricate designs. Art from the Top End of Australia, normally you’d associate that with bark painting. One of the artists in the show, Gunybi Ganambarr, is from the small community of Yakala. He and others go into the bush and, instead of bringing home bark from a tree that they’ve stripped, they bring home metals that have been left by industrial companies, and they carve patterns into the metal instead.

And then there’s the iconic Aboriginal art style that people from outside of Australia would think Aboriginal art is — the dot painting. That belongs to the western, southern, and central desert areas of Australia. That came out in the ‘70s and has been going hot ever since. And then there are our urban artists. Urban is a weird word. But Aboriginal artists were removed from their traditional lands, and now second and third generations reside in cities like Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. They draw on ancestral elements from the regions where their people are from, but they position it in a contemporary way that satisfies our “contemporary art market.”

'Everything an Aboriginal artist makes is political': Q&A with the Australian co-curator of 'Exposure'

APY Art Collective (Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara/Luritja) artists, Kulata Tjuta (many spears) (2017), 550 suspended kulata (spears), 27 coolamons (bowls), Art Gallery of South Australia

Pasa: Why do you flinch when you refer to the “contemporary art market”?

E.V.: Everything an Aboriginal artist makes is political. Everything is informed by our ancestral stories. More often than not, they’re drawing from family histories, inherited clan stories. So, to say that their art is only contemporary and not traditional severs those ties back to community and place. Aboriginal people have occupied Australia for 65,000 years. We consider the land sentient. Our ancestral spirits reside in the land. Everything that we’re painting is just as current as it was before we had access to acrylic paint and canvas. We have rock paintings in Australia that date back 40,000 years. So, to say “that’s traditional” and “that’s contemporary” isn’t super appropriate.

Pasa: From a distance, it seems like there might be more respect in Australia than in the United States for Indigenous art and culture.

E.V.: It looks like Australia really values its aboriginal culture and art — certainly it does — but it’s not always true when you’re looking at the rest of Australian society and how they respect or treat aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I feel completely comfortable in saying that Australia is a very racist country. There’s a very big group of uneducated people, and I say that because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and experience isn’t really taught in our schools. You’re taught that Captain [James] Cook discovered Australia [in 1770], and there was peaceful settlement. You don’t hear about the frontier wars. There is a movement now to talk about the violence and dispossession that was going on until the 1950s, but it’s not mandated in the curriculum.

Pasa: What are the main issues in Australia when it comes to anti-Aboriginal racism?

E.V.: There is a sense of invisibility. I’m white-presenting, but I’m Aboriginal. We come in all shades these days, because of colonization and assimilation. Our major issue here is Indigenous death in custody. This year, in March, five aboriginal people died in prison. That’s what we’re dealing with — police brutality and correctional system brutality are killing our people. 

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