Back to top
111 header

Maamungun: Compatriots
Stephen Gilchrist

For Aboriginal people from Australia, the land is relationally as well as territorially defined. Parcels of land, known colloquially as ‘country’, are passed down through successive generations. The shape-shifting Ancestors who created and metamorphosed into the land are revered through ceremonial performances. Aboriginal people honor these Ancestors by following their teachings of how to live respectfully within this ecological and cultural inheritance. Distinguished by their divergent approaches, Aboriginal artists Nicole Foreshew, Jonathan Jones and Michael Riley, are united by their shared Wiradjuri (the largest Aboriginal group in the area now known as New South Wales) ancestry. And in different ways they are committed to documenting and responding to the localized and accelerated degradation of the central New South Wales environment, the lands that Wiradjuri people have always called home.

The cloth that appears in Nicole Foreshew’s belong to all but to none 3 2012 video has been stained and soaked with the extracted pigments of plant materials and ochres that were collected from places with which the artist has a deep affinity. This intuitive and organic process registers the palimpsest of the land, unlocks its latent Aboriginal associations and crucially reveals its colonial scars. Members of the artist’s immediate and extended family are swathed in these conceptualizations of the sacredness of the land and the cloth moves in elegiac cadence with the wearer to suggest that humankind is an integral constituent of nature and should not be viewed as somehow separate from it. With its austere solemnity that is akin to a ceremonial performance, the work alludes to the ritualized and intergenerational responsibilities of caring for the land. In addition, this participatory and sensorial experience of the land can awaken a deep spiritual consciousness to those who are receptive.

In 2009, Jonathan Jones travelled to India and retraced Gandhi’s historic Salt March journey from Ahmedabad to Dandi. Centered on challenging the British-imposed tax on salt, Gandhi’s political methodology of nonviolent protest would eventually inspire countless actions of civil disobedience around the world. Jones’s visit to the Little Rann of Kutch salt plains raised parallels with the political ecology of Australia’s Murray–Darling Basin which courses through the country belonging to the Wiradjuri. Regarded as the food bowl to the nation, the area has undergone intensive land clearing of native vegetation, a decade of drought, excessive irrigation, and unsustainable agricultural practices, contributing to the appreciable salinity of the Australian landscape. Rivers and aquifers are in rapid retreat and the land is in quiet revolt. Salt deposits that were previously stored underground are rising to the land’s surface and seeping into bodies of water, compromising their productive and sustentative value.

In revolution 2010/11 Jones manipulates fluorescent tube lighting into sculptural constructions to evoke both the cruelty and luminosity of salt-encrusted landscapes in Australia and India. The accompanying six graphite drawings offer prismatic abstractions of the compositional structure of salt, from Australian and Indian samples. An interest in the symbolism of salt opened up these difficult cross-cultural issues about the politics of protest, extractive industries, sustainable land management and the struggles for independence from Britain. Furthermore, although rubbing salt into a wound causes excruciating pain, it can also aid in the healing of deep cuts and the installation mediates on the associations of the wounds of colonial domination and how they are best repaired.

The series flyblown 1998 by the late Michael Riley is an allegorizing meditation on the social, environmental and cultural implications of colonialization. Riley photographed his customary lands to celebrate, remember and assert an unbroken connection to it. Bodies of polluted water, the unbounded sky, fields of endangered native grasses, and the over-farmed earth become symbolic of the effects wrought by colonizers, although these are implied rather than explicit statements in the work. Alongside these stark and unpeopled rural landscapes, three digitally colored mirrored crosses reflect the weightless clouds that interrupt the sky in an endless deferral of meaning, suggesting Australia’s inability to reconcile its past. The crosses also speak of the establishment of Christian missions, which was a secondary program of dispossession for Aboriginal people separated from their families and their land. A dead galah on the dusty scorched earth becomes a final disquieting representation of the Christianization of Aboriginal people. There is a reference to martyrdom, yet the fanned wings, outstretched as if in implausible flight, have an ironic angelic dimension, loading the image with spiritually regenerative symbology and offering the prospect of renewal for Aboriginal people.

Employing modalities of peaceful resistance, Nicole Foreshew, Jonathan Jones and Michael Riley use their art to offer alternatives to the economic assimilation of the land. Their earth-centered works reveal a profound pact with the land that is upheld and activated through environmental vigilance and culturally resonant coalitionary politics. 

Reprinted with permission from Maamungun: Compatriots 2012


Stephen Gilchrist

Member of the Yamatji people of Western australia and Curator of indigenous australian art at the Hood Museum of art,…

Member of the Yamatji people of Western australia and Curator of indigenous australian art at the Hood Museum of art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, United States of America