Ghost Citizens: Witnessing the Intervention, Counihan Gallery, Melbourne — 17 May to 16 June 2013
Artists: Vernon Ah Kee, Alison Alder, Bindi Cole, Fiona Foley, Dan Jones, Kylie Kemarre, Fiona MacDonald, Chips Mackinolty, Sally M Mulda, Amy Napurulla, Brendan Penzer, Therese Ritchie, Deborah Vaughan, Jason Wing. Curators: Djon Mundine OAM and Jo Holder
Counihan Gallery installation view, 2013 showing works by Brendan Penzer (shopping items purchsed with Basics Card) and Kylie Kemarre, The Intervention at Arlparra Store, via Sandover Highway, Utopia Community, NT, 2010.
Ghost Citizens follow us and infiltrate our daily lives. In a continent full of the ghosts and shadows of colonialism, the historical, social, and physical landscape is pitted. Each story is a ghost story loaded with shadows – a kind of ‘scar’ story. Djon Mundine OA
The term ‘intervention’ is liberally applied in the art and architecture worlds to describe projects that interplay with art, architecture, performance, installation, activism and urbanism. These usually temporal projects celebrate cultural equality, critical freedom and universalism. The exhibition Ghost Citizens evokes the opposite meaning without irony: the most recent ‘intervention’ into Aboriginal communities begun in 2007, correctly named the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), is a legislative stripping away of the rights of a minority and is at odds with international human rights conventions and Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act.
Like Noel Counihan whose art and activism is honoured by this gallery in Brunswick Town Hall, the witnessing eyes of these 8 Aboriginal and 5 non-Indigenous artists see this Act as morally wrong or even catastrophic. Their artworks are documents that by contributing personal interpretations to an official narrative, re-draw history to challenge ideology and recall of events. Following in the footsteps of artists and writers who have decisively influenced the process of receiving civil and land rights, they too witness, rewrite and assert the Aboriginal sovereignty proclaimed since the first intervention in 1788. Herein is remembered Noel Counihan’s famous ‘Free Speech’ address from a cage outside the town hall in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression as well as the still fresh words witten by William Ferguson and John Patten in their pamphlet Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights! (Aborigines Progressive Association, Sydney, 1938).
In Ghost Citizens descriptions of amnesia and remembering, documentary forms and art interventions circle each other. Djon Mundine’s powerful writings on Australian art history assert memory as a core concept.(1) Themes of ghosts, spirits and the struggle against forgetting are central to Fiona Foley’s poetic video ‘Bliss’ (2006) on the nineteenth century Imperial drug trade, Fiona MacDonald’s counter-pointed voices at Botany Bay in Drawing the Line (2010) and Bindi Cole’s conciliation drama Warre Beal Yallock (2010) and her emotionally charged family tableaux exploring the meeting of the personal and societal. The bedrock of refusal to forget, however, is the quiet assertion of cultural strength by artists Dan Jones, Sally M. Mulda and Amy Napurulla who work with Tantengere Artists in Alice Springs. The paintings are eye-witness accounts of semi-trailers bringing kit houses for white managers and police in their new navy blue uniforms entering the greatly expanded town camps as government mobs come and go and conditions worsen. In the context of the Intervention, Fiona Foley’s hypnotic fields of swaying poppies pose the question of a wider ‘narcotic-like’ oblivion to what is happening to others around us, so much so that the Government can confidently extend a coercive policy for which there is little evidence.
The Intervention troops arrived in remote communities with a blaze of media coverage to rescue little children. But what of the point of view of those at ground level? Kylie Kemarre’s painting documents troops herding people at Ahalpere Store, an Aboriginal freehold property and the main hub of administration on Utopia.
In one of the two ‘speakers’ videos accompanying the exhibition, Rosalie Kunoth Monks OAM exposes the cruelty of a tanks-and-all approach to addressing Aboriginal disadvantage when she describes the fear that troops have come again to steal children. In so much of Australia, the ‘Stolen Children’ policy was only yesterday and in fact is seriously being reconsidered by the N.T. Government. The banal mechanics of coming to terms with the Intervention is uniquely captured by the grind of supermarket receipts and prices in Alison Alder’s genesis account of the Biblical first days of a new world order in one of the larger towns — Tennant Creek. The work shows how the local newspaper chose not to actively report on one of the most radical pieces of legislation to rebound on lives of over 50% of the Tennant Creek community where some areas are ‘proscribed’ by the Intervention but not others. Long after the commanders and captains have disappeared, Kemarre and Alder’s powerful records command our attention. Many remote art centres, the main economic and cultural drivers in many communities, were left without skilled staff, many important artists when the subsidised employment projects (known as CDEP) were cancelled.
Laughter often follows shock, and Chips Mackinolty’s preposterous road sign proclaims a ‘National Emergency Next 1,347,525km’, over the vast area of the Northern Territory. Six years on, and the huge ‘Proscribed Area’ signs he mocks remain in place. In October 2007, a banner-scaled ‘National Emergency’ sign was hung outside The Cross Art Projects for Mulkun Wirrpanda’s exhibition One Lore, Two Law, Outlaw: Dhakiyarr v the King, a celebration of sea-rights at Blue Mud Bay in Arnhem Land. The night after Marion Scrymgour, whose opening words celebrated the legacy of Yolgnu leader Dhakiyarr (Mulkun’s father), gave a powerful Dr Charles Perkins Oration titled ‘Whose national emergency? Caboolture and Kirribili? or Milikapiti and Mutitjulu?’ (at the Great Hall, Sydney University, 23 October 2007.) Mackinolty’s other wicked faux road sign ‘and there’ll be NO dancing’, debunks the absurdity of centralised diktats commanding local voices.
In Deborah Vaughan’s hand-held video ‘Sorry’ (2008), hopes for reconciliation show in the intense and weeping faces as Prime Minister Rudd reads the National Apology — only to see hopes trampled underfoot. In Melbourne, Sydney or even Darwin we don’t have a clue about the management mechanism but Brendan Penzer’s free ‘Basics Card’ sets us straight, with its verso reading: ‘This card is designed to shame, stigmatise and marginalise the person who holds it’. Works by Vernon Ah Kee, Jason Wing and Therese Ritchie openly return us to heroic resistance and the long campaign for citizen rights from 1938 until the 1967 Referendum affirmed full citizenship for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Their stripped and defiant style and the urgency of the text, especially the honed words of Rachel McDinny from remote Borroloola on the Gulf of Carpentaria, recall the stark and urgent pamphlet style of 1930s and the first Day of Mourning. ‘Income Management’ is a policy of withholding 50% of a person’s welfare payment, which can be ‘spent’ at a registered outlet on certain items but not others. Like Rachel McDinny’s performance in the mock glamour of her new Basics gown, the works in Ghost Citizens are not dressed for gala openings but to make us, as McDinny writes in her accompanying statement, ‘come to understand something, maybe?’.
Counihan Gallery installation view, 2013: Vernon Ah Kee Intervention Invention, 2012 and Unwritten (unbecoming), 2011; Brendan Penzer (Basics Card); Therese Ritchie, All dressed up and nowhere to go, 2012 with accompanying statement by Rachel McDinny, Yanyuwa woman, Borroloola.
Kylie Kemarre, The Intervention at Arlparra Store, via Sandover Highway, Utopia Community, NT, 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 120 x 90 cm. Private Collection
Fiona MacDonald, Log Cabin – JCI (James Cook Island, Sutherland Shire, Sydney) 2005, woven archival print (pioneer weave). Source image: Richard Woldendorp, ‘Housing Development on the Artificial James Cook Island, Sylvania Waters, New South Wales’, 1996. Collection National Library of Australia.
Fiona MacDonald, From Drawing the Line, 2010, (8 of 14 works). Digital prints; Alison Alder, From Intervention 2008 (4 of 8 works): Intervention I (Powercard), II (Day 2), VII (Day 7), VIII (Day 8). Dimensions variable
Bindi Cole, Warre Beal Yallock, 2008 and Wathaurung Mob, 2008, 94 x 103 cm; (centre) Jason Wing, Intervention: Criminal, 2012, photocopy paste up.
Fiona Foley, Bliss, 2006. Digital video with sound, 11 minutes.
Fiona Foley, Bliss, 2006. Digital video with sound, 11 minutes.
Sally M. Mulda, Pliceman, 2012 and Husband and Wife Drunk, 2012; Amy Naparulla Lhite – My Father’s Country, 2010 (centre); Dan Jones, Loading Truck, Utopia, 2009.
Bindi Cole, Wathaurung Mob, 2008; Chips Mackinolty, National Emergency Next 1,347,525km, 2007 and … and there’ll be NO dancing, 2007, digital prints; Intervention talks documentary video
Counihan Gallery installation view, 2013 showing Deborah Vaughan, Sorry Day, 2008, video projection.
Intervention Talks 2: Launch of Arena Magazine issue 118, ‘Intervention’, Melbourne, June 2012. Digital video with sound, speaker Rosalie Kunoth Monks OAM.
Ghost Citizens began as an art intervention shadowing the 2012 Sydney Biennale. By supernatural decree, the opening night party coincided with the passing of legislation to extend the N.T. Intervention—shockingly for the next decade, a young lifetime. The contrast between an empty Senate chamber at night and the Cockatoo Island party was stark. Ghost Citizens offered remote artists peer support and aimed to alert international artists to the fact that not all Australian artists had equal rights. It was uplifting to have the Biennale curators and many artists attend the talks by eminent persons Eva Cox and Craig Longman from Jumbunna Centre and for Hetti Perkins’s launch of Artlink magazine’s ‘Indigenous Indignation’ at The Cross Art Projects. That night they renamed the Intervention with the Orwellian title ‘Stronger Futures’, a clear indication that, despite the change in name to something sounding less judgemental, it’s still political propaganda. Income management and other controversial elements can now apply to any part of the country — at Bankstown, Fairfield and Lakemba in Sydney or Shepparton or Rockhampton, at the discretion of community services or housing workers. In all ‘trial sites’ new categories of young people will be forced onto income management.
Six years on, the Intervention is very unpopular with few positive results so far.2 More than 13,300 people in the Northern Territory currently have their income managed and live in Proscribed Communities with no local governance. Ghost Citizens challenges the powers that be to create an economic basis for remote communities, to strengthen what works like the art centres and homelands and not relocate people off their traditional lands into designated ‘growth centres’. The exhibition gathers quiet voices so we can hear the priorities, ideas and solutions proposed by Aboriginal community leaders and artists as a kind of grassroots counter-Intervention seeking a real partnership.
‘In the 2001 anime film Spirited Away, a child witnesses her parents self-transforming in “pigging out” and falls into a land of ghosts that she can only escape and save her parents by responsibly moving to adulthood. In dealing with Australia’s national colonial past, non-Aboriginal Australians periodically approach a level of awareness that they are not living in Europe any more, that they are not living in a colony of Europe any more. We cannot blame the British any more. As each generation comes close to this point of responsibly dealing as adults with their history, they inexplicably fall back, recoiling almost in terror that they could be so independently human.’ Djon Mundine OAM
Jo Holder and Djon Mundine OAM
1. Djon Mundine’s quotes are from Shadowlife, exhibition catalogue, Asialink, 2012 and ‘A personal history of Aboriginal Art’ in Remembering Forward: Australian Aboriginal Painting since 1960, exhibition catalogue, Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany, 2010.
2. The action was billed as a response to ‘Little Children are Sacred’, the report of a Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse commissioned by the Northern Territory government, 15 June 2007. The Clare Martin N.T. government’s response ‘Closing the Gap of Indigenous Disadvantage: Generational Plan of Action’, August 2007, was ignored and the army was despatched in October 2007. Amnesty International says the policies were aimed at driving Aborigines off their homelands and herding them into 21 ‘hub towns’, October 2011. In late 2012, the NT Government abolished the office of the Independent Monitor, Olga Havnen, who delivered a report criticising the lack of data, monitoring, accountability and outcomes. All reports say that living conditions, child removal rates, incarceration rates and suicide rates continue to worsen.
More Information: Arena Magazine issue 118, ‘Intervention’, June 2012; A Decision to Discriminate: Aboriginal Disempowerment in the Northern Territory, Concerned Australians, 2012; and sites: www.respectandlisten.org and Health Habitat who monitor Indigenous housing costs and count functioning showers (only 35% work) at http://www.healthabitat.com/
Links and reviews
Review by Vincent Leveridge, ‘Resisting Erasure’ in RealTime Arts, No 116 see http://www.realtimearts.net/article/116/11279
‘Witness, testify, resist’ by Jane Llewellyn > Download as pdf
List of Works
Vernon Ah Kee, Intervention Invention, 2012, 24.5 x 32 cm and Unwritten (unbecoming), 2011, 57 x 38 cm. Both etching and acquatint printed on Velin Arches 300 gsm by Cicada Press, CoFA UNSW.
Alison Alder, From Intervention 2008 (4 of 8 works): Intervention I (Powercard), II (Day 2), VII (Day 7), VIII (Day 8). All printed on Stonehenge paper, each 112 x 78 cm. Shopping Day, 2007, each panel 56 x 38 cm, printed on board.
Bindi Cole, Warre Beal Yallock, 2008, 103 x 94 cm and Wathaurung Mob, 2008, 94 x 103 cm. Both pigment on rag paper.
Fiona Foley, Bliss, 2006. Digital video with sound, 11 minutes.
Dan Jones, Loading Truck, Utopia, 2009. Acrylic on canvas, 120 x 90 cm
Kylie Kemarre, The Intervention at Arlparra Store, via Sandover Highway, Utopia Community, NT, 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 120 x 90 cm. Private Collection Alice Springs.
Sally M. Mulda, Pliceman, 2012 and Husband and Wife Drunk, 2012. Both acrylic on canvas, 90 x 60 cm
Fiona MacDonald, From Drawing the Line, 2010, (8 of 14 works). Digital prints on watercolour paper, each 42 x 58 cm. Edition of 3 and Log Cabin – JCI (James Cook Island, Sutherland Shire, Sydney) 2005, woven archival print, 80 x 63 cm. Source image: Richard Woldendorp, ‘Housing Development on the Artificial James Cook Island, Sylvania Waters, New South Wales’, 1996. Collection National Library of Australia.
Chips Mackinolty, National Emergency Next 1,347,525km, 2007, digital print, A3 size and … and there’ll be NO dancing, 2007, digital print, no. 7/30 edition 49.5 cm x 49.5 cm
Amy Napurulla, Lhite – My Father’s Country, 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 120 x 75 cm
Brendan Penzer, Basics card, 2011 and Basics banner, 2012. Free card. (Made for the exhibition iNTervention Intervention, curators Teena McCarthy and Penzer, At The Vanishing Point, Sydney, 2011.)
Therese Ritchie, All dressed up and nowhere to go, 2012. Colour print, 120 x 80 cm, framed with accompanying statement by Rachel McDinny, Yanyuwa woman, Borroloola.
Deborah Vaughan, Sorry Day, 2008. Video projection.
Jason Wing, Intervention: Criminal, 2012, photocopy paste up, dimensions variable, and End Restrictions, 2012. Digital print, A3 size.
Intervention Talks 1: From opening talks for Ghost Citizens: Witnessing the Intervention at The Cross Art Projects, Sydney, 23 June 2012. Digital video with sound, 11 minutes. Camera and editors: Sabina Kacha and Hans Mauve. Speakers: Jo Holder and Djon Mundine OAM, and Eva Cox and Craig Longman of Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at University of Technology, Sydney.
Intervention Talks 2: Launch of Arena Magazine issue 118, ‘Intervention’, at Arena Gallery Melbourne, June 2012. Digital video with sound, 1 hour 20 minutes. Camera: Dan Tout; editor: Kim Scott. Speakers: Gary Foley, Rosalie Kunoth Monks OAM, Barbara Shaw, Les Malzer and John Altman.
Lenders: Tantengere Artists, Alice Springs; James Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane; Art Atrium, Sydney; Nellie Castan Gallery, Melbourne; Milani Gallery, Brisbane; Michael Kempson and Cicada Press Sydney; Marc Gooch and Janet Pierce. For reproduction permission: ‘Indigenous Indignation’, Artlink Magazine and Hetti Perkins; Arena Magazine and Alison Caddick; STICS anti-Intervention campaigners. To galleries: Counihan Gallery and Moreland Council and Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, Darwin and chair Clare Martin. We acknowledge the Wurundjeri people as the traditional custodians of the land and thank each of the artists for their contribution and involvement.