Senior Indigenous curator, Hetti Perkins has announced the theme and the artists for the National Gallery of Australia’s fourth National Indigenous Art Triennial. This follows from 2007’s ‘Culture Warriors‘, the 2012 ‘unDisclosed‘ and ‘Defying Empire‘ in 2017.

As the astute will have noticed, none were actually triennials – coming five years apart. And Perkins achieves a breakthrough by bringing on ‘Ceremony‘ after only four years. Where nitpickers will ask questions could be in the regrettable absence of any artists from the Torres Strait. Previous Triennials have always included one. Perhaps Perkins was limited in a decision to select 10 of the 18 artists or groups of artists from south of the Brisbane Line.

But the reintroduction of the idea of ceremony into First Nations art is a tremendous leap. For it was in the 1990s that bureaucrats at the Australia Council’s Aboriginal Art Board declared that ceremony was NOT art, and shouldn’t be funded by the Board. This was not well received in the North, causing the Aboriginal Cultural Foundation, whose job it was to support ceremony across all the major tribal groups, to fold.

Today, Hetti Perkins is quoted as asserting that “Ceremonies can be intimate rituals or mass protests; personal or collective acts of faith. They are public and private, secular and sacred, traditional and contemporary. Ceremonies can be enacted through visual art, film, music, theatre, spoken word, dance and poetry. Ceremony as at the nexus of Country, community and culture.”

As a result, there will be a fair amount of performative art in the Triennial, another breakthrough. One such project take involves the local local Ngambri-Ngunnawal elder, Matilda House and her son Paul to realise a permanent installation of traditional Aboriginal tree scarring – murruwaygu – in the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden. Coolamons harvested from the trees will then become part of the Gallery’s collection. “But also”, explained Perkins, “Paul has this vision for murruwaygu across the contested sites of the Parliamentary Triangle. My hope is if we do it at the Gallery, that might help realise that bigger vision”.

Perkins is also inviting artists from the Yarrenyty Arltere and Tangentyere Artists collectives in Mparntwe (Alice Springs), to create a soft sculpture in the form of a Blak Parliament House.

Then, from the South, dancer and choreographer Joel Bray is developing an endurance work that “explores his embodied relationship to Country as a queer Wiradjuri man”. And SJ Norman will present his Bone Library performance, where he inscribes cattle and sheep bones with Walgalu language to “interrogate the impacts of colonisation on culture and Country”.

Nicole Foreshew is creating an ephemeral work outside the Gallery about healing and in respect to the late Boorljoonngali (Phyllis Thomas) from Warrmun. It will be a “cross-culture, cross-generation, cross-Country’ artwork that is active at dawn and dusk, and is a ceremony in itself”, explains Perkins.

And one might well argue that just as ceremonial, though not a performance, will be the work of Mantua Nangala from the Western Desert, who is creating a major triptych depicting a significant ancestral women’s site near the salt lake Wilkinkarra (Lake Mackay) deep in Western Australia. Her selection is recognition that Papunya Tula artists will have been maintaining their ceremonial culture on board and canvas for 50 years in 2022.

Perkins hopes her Triennial will help encourage an everyday cognisance of ceremony.

The 35 artists selected are:
Robert Andrew (Yawuru)
Joel Bray (Wiradjuri)
Pepai Jangala Carroll (Luritja and Pintupi)
Penny Evans (Gamilaroi)
Robert Fielding (Western Arrernte, Yankunytjatjara)
Nicole Foreshew (Wiradjuri) and the late Boorljoonngali (Gija)
Margaret Rarru Garrawurra and Helen Ganalmirriwuy Garrawurrad (Liyagawumirr-Garrawurra)
Dr Matilda House and Paul House (Ngambri-Ngunnawal)
Hayley Millar Baker (Gunditjmara)
Mantua Nangala (Pintupi)
SJ Norman (Wiradjuri)
Dylan River (Kaytetye)
Darrell Sibosado (Bard)
Andrew Snelgar (Ngemba)
Joel Spring (Wiradjuri)
James Tylor (Kaurna)
Yarrenyty Arltere Artists: Marlene Rubuntja (Western Arrarnta), Trudy Inkamala (Western Arrarnta and Luritja), Dulcie Sharpe (Luritja and Arrernte), Rhonda Sharpe (Luritja), Roxanne Petrick (Alyawarre), Nanette Sharpe (Western Arrarnta), Sheree Inkamala (Luritja, Pitjantjara and Western Arrarnta), Rosabella Ryder (Arrernte), Louise Robertson (Warlpiri), Cornelius Ebatarinja (Western Arrarnta and Arrernte) and
Tangentyere Artists: Betty Conway (Pitjantjatjara), Nyinta Donald (Pitjantjatjara), Sally M. Mulda (Pitjantjatjara and Luritja), Majorie Williams (Western Arrarnta), Lizzie Jako (Pitjantjatjara), Grace Robinya (Western Arrarnta)
Gutingarra Yunupingu (Dhuwala/Yolngu)