BINDI Cole’s first response when she was invited to curate an exhibition for the Melbourne International Arts Festival was one of relative calm. The 35-year-old Melbourne-based artist, who last year was awarded the coveted $25,000 Deadly Art Award for her portraits of transgender Tiwi Islanders, figured it would be a bit of a walk in the park; she’s passionate about indigenous art, she knows a lot about it. How hard could it be to call a few mates ” a close coterie of local indigenous talent ” to ask if she could put their works in a show?

It soon dawned on the first-time curator, however, that the task promised to be trickier than she had imagined. A memorable exhibition is, after all, far more than a grab-bag of compelling works.

“I realised that in the same way I make art to have a voice, the show needed to have a voice too. I had to figure out what I wanted to say, and the most powerful way of saying it.”

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Gathering together a spill of her favourite art works, a connecting theme emerged: contemporary indigenous urban spirituality. “So I broke it down. I started looking at death, religion, the contemporary revival of traditional spiritual practices, Aboriginal meditations, and so on.” They are concepts that sit close to Cole’s heart. “I’d been going on a spiritual journey myself, thinking about what was important to me and trying to ground myself. I started thinking about how prior to colonisation every decision within a community was determined by spiritual law.” Reflecting on her own sense of morality, she realised “everything I do is determined by my faith, my values, my beliefs”. She arrived at a question: how do a group of people who once drew their sense of spirituality from their country survive today? How do today’s Aboriginals dream?

“There’s this enduring sense that we have to go out into the desert to dream, that it doesn’t happen in the city or the suburbs,” says Cole. “Or that traditional spiritual beliefs are backward and belong in the past. But to determine your entire way of life through your spiritual beliefs is very sophisticated. They determined who you married, how people interacted with each other, what you ate, where you hunted. They guided you, gave you a sense of belonging.” For Cole, “dreaming” is like drawing breath: “Your whole life is part of your dreaming. It’s not heaven or part of a story.”

Cole, who also edits the quarterly publication No Dots Down Here: the voice of Koorie artists, began asking friends, family and fellow artists about urban dreaming. She also asked her father. “He lives and works in community down Dandenong way, has done for about 20 years. He’s the head of senior elders for Wathaurung, so there are lots of conversations with community; they liked the idea. It got everyone thinking.”

One of the first artists she approached was Fraser Island-born Fiona Foley, whose No Shades of White exhibition, first shown at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney in 2005, depicts figures clad in costumes inspired by the Ku Klux Klan. Rather than white, they wear black hoods with gowns sewn from brightly coloured fabrics, acknowledging the history of prejudice, hatred and violence that underpin these costumes while delivering a “back at you” gesture. “It’s painful, difficult art, but it’s the kind of work I fall in love with,” says Cole, an accomplished creator of politically charged works herself. For the 2008 Next Wave Festival, Cole gathered her extended family, painted their faces with “Negro Brown” and “Minstrel Black” make-up, took a family portrait and titled the piece Not Really Aboriginal.

At the time, she explained: “There’s a stereotype of what an Aborigine should look and behave like. I’m meant to come from a remote community and have social issues. I don’t, so where do I fit?”