Linear explores over 60,000 years of creative, scientific and technological development and ingenuity through the stories, content and work from leading Indigenous cultural practitioners from across Australia.
Well, I guess Sydney’s Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences “ better known as the Powerhouse Museum after its current, soon to be deserted building in Pyrmont “ would have to sum up this show in that way. Actually, it doesn’t feel very scientific or technological in its dim-lit basement. Though its opening section arouses suitable expectations in those areas. For both the Unggurr-flowing David Mowaljarlai and the urbane, Fifty Dollar note-gracing David Unaipon offer significant reflections upon our country and how they see it. But after that excitement, we settle back into some art from the archives and some fine contemporary craft.
Mowaljarlai gets the first strike. And it’s claimed to be at the core of the exhibition. Not sure how it links to a suite of table and chairs or a set of ceramic echidna quills. But his gridded map of Australia surprises in many ways. Why would a Ngarinyin Elder from the remote Kimberley even feel the need to draw a map of the whole continent “ given the name Bandaya (where did that come from?) – when everything that mattered to him was all around in his north west fastness? mind you,his own location surely comes into his decision to designate all of the country north of a line between Port Headland and Townsville as the country’s heart “ with the Gulf as its lungs.
Naturally, Uluru is the naval of a land that’s clearly a living creature for Mowaljarlai, his lines linking us all together, culturally, spiritually and physically. Oh, and Tassie is/are the feet! I’d love to read more speculation as to his philosophy and his motives from the Berndt Museum in Perth, where the original map resides. All we get at the Powerhouse is a single quote from Mowaljarlai (while living artists get a biography) “ but it’s worth its weight in ochre: When I’m on a high mountain looking out over Country, my Unggurr (life force) flows out from inside my body and I fall open with happiness!
I’m sure David Unaipon would concur, though this prolific writer, indeed Australia’s first published Aboriginal author, was more the urban intellectual who also lodged 19 patents for inventions during his life, revolutionised sheep shearing, devoted much of his time to attempting to achieve perpetual motion and conceptualised the helicopter two decades before it became a reality. ‘Linear‘ actually shows us the links Unaipon made between the boomerang and the helicopter. But his technological bent was balanced, we learn by telling ‘Legendary Tales‘ for publication and singing timeless Ngarrindgeri songs for a rude anthropologist who insists he do it again without a break.
In the main part of the show, though, we learn from Victorian Bill Onus, father of artist Lin, talking on film about the beginnings of the case for protecting Indigenous copyright “ in his case he was bitter about the international trade in boomerangs (which still goes on!). Bitterness and film are, I assume, also linked together in the Emmy Award-winning virtual reality experience, ‘Collisions‘ by the innovative filmmaker Lynette Wallworth. Sadly, you have to be in a group to justify the Museum turning it on. But it claims to invite audiences into the world of Indigenous elder, Nyarri Nyarri Morgan and the Martu people of the remote Western Australian deserts. For Morgan shares his story of the devastating collision between his traditional world and his experience of the British nuclear testing at Maralinga.
Emphasised in this and throughout the show is the combination of adaptability by Aboriginal people and their determination to pass on to the next generation stories, skills and experiences “ good and bad. Traditional skin cloaks become made from jute; echidna quill jewellery gets made in ceramic; desert spears “ kulata for the Anangu, made from the appropriately named spearbush – are constructed from bamboo in the wet tropic rainforests of Cape York. Mr Ngallametta Snr makes Thap Yongk “ those mysterious, chunky painted sculptures representing upside down trees for the Kugu Uwanh people of western Cape York, drawing the spirit back to the ground, the ˜hidden’ branches symbolising the extensive network of stories and laws connecting people to the land and to each other. When passed on to Mr Ngallametta Jnr, they become similarly striped canvases. Meanwhile, Tasmanian bull-kelp that brilliantly served her ancestors as water containers now becomes sculptural torsos in the hands of Vicky West.
The Powerhouse contributes old barks from its collection and historic Charles Kerry photos from 1898 to match Wayne Quilliam’s contemporary images of ceremony “ the essential root of so much story-telling and art today. I might argue, though, that the great stage designer, Jacob Nash of Bangarra may have designed this exhibition dramatically, but more verbal story-telling might have given more meaning to the intent behind his project: The idea that a line can hold such significance was the starting point for the design of Linear and it has driven the visual language of the exhibition. These lines hold Linear together, they guide us, teach us and let the objects tell our stories.
Maybe, but the magnificent story potential behind two early 20th Century grinding stones, told using the classic APY Lands’ Ngintaka Songline would have added immeasurably to the bare presence of the objects.
Coincidentally, an exhibition which I suspect has a similar philosophical motivation is about to open at the National Museum in Canberra. Ngulla Wellamunagaa: Trees that Have Survived and Revived presents stories that affirm ongoing connections to Country and celebrates the survival, continuity and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. It runs from 5 December 2019 to 29 March 2020.
Artist: David Mowaljarlai, David Unaipon, Lin Onus, Mr Ngallametta Snr, Mr Ngallametta Jnr, Vicky West, Wayne Quilliam, Ada Bird Petyarre, Nicole Monks,
Gallery: Powerhouse Museum ,