Dr Nikita Vanderbyl

Exhibition Review: Southern Western at Mildura Arts Centre

An outsider’s view of a place reveals things hidden from those who’ve been there a long time. It’s not always a pleasant process. In the exhibition Southern Western, two curators from outside Sunraysia present a selection of works unpacking multiple dimensions of Mildura on the Mallee.

Jane Polkinghorne and Gareth Hart arrived in Mildura in 2019. Making sense of the place, its history and most compellingly, its cultural tensions, led to this exhibition. Though delayed due to the pandemic, the exhibition brings together artists from the region, as well as artists from further afield whose work addresses themes of the south and the west, apparent in a focus on place and the connections formed between places.

Many artworks chosen for Southern Western tacitly explore contemporary Australia’s disavowal of our colonial history and it’s ongoing impacts. As new and temporary residents of the Sunraysia region Polkinghorne and Hart have imbued this show with questions only an outsider would ask.

Mark Shorter’s The Lonesome Receiver congers American Westerns through an alter ego of country music icon Kenny Rogers—called Renny Kogers—and meditates on the road trip as a -ahem- vehicle to ‘shift our thinking and challenge ingrained beliefs’ (from the catalogue). A fitting inclusion for a regional centre often arrived at by a the long long drive from Melbourne or Adelaide. The Western genre conjured here brings a strange contrast to the conversation about Mildura’s identity. A huge Italian population might warrant more Ennio Morricone than Kenny Rogers, but the sheer camp of Short’s character driving a truck through Monument Valley, Nevada, does bring to mind the many trucks streaming through Mildura.

From the Western to qualities of being south, whether it be a Global South, a Great Southern land, or Antipodean colonialism, Southern Western also features works focused on Maralinga, a region in Australia’s south, but west of Sunraysia. Yhonnie Scarce, Jessie Boylan, Yul Skarf, Tessa Rex and Linda Dement explore the impacts of nuclear testing on Aboriginal land in South Australia. Scarce is a descendant of the Kokatha and Nukunu people born in Woomera. Her work combines delicate and deceptive beauty to memorialise atrocities of the past.

Collaborative Durational Work (2015) is a blown glass vase with soil, air, water, ash and charcoal inside. The top has been melted and distorted as though touched by acid or radiation. Within the glass the soil and charcoal are layered, soil seeming to float in an unsettling manner in the clear section at the top. It feels unbalanced while also looking like something recognisable, like a vase. Nuclear bombs were dropped on Aboriginal lands transforming sand into glass globules, which I imagine inspired this vase-like sculpture. Scarce donated it to the Mildura Arts Centre in 2016 after participating in the Mildura Palimpsest Biennale.

Yhonnie Scarce, Kokatha/Nukunu Peoples, Collaborative Durational Work 2015, Blown glass, soil, air, water, ash, charcoal. Photo NV.

In their single channel video Jessie Boylan and Tessa Rex attempt to make visible the invisible radiation damage blown onto communities downwind of nuclear test sites. Downwind communities experienced the strongest radiation. Dispersal has multiple meanings here, conjuring frontier violence as well as wind movement and the term is deliberately used to denote effect and affective nature of wind. Using the Bureau of Meteorology’s wind (speed and direction) data from 1955-67 to give shape to the spread of radiation and trace layers of connection between those impacted by nuclear testing.

Jessie Boylan and Tessa Rex, Dispersal 2019, single channel video 7:00 mins. Yul Scarf, Maralinga 2020 7 slip cast ceramic balloons. Image: NV.

Yul Scarf’s ceramic balloons representing each of the 7 nuclear tests, rest in front of this video. Using clay, itself unceded Aboriginal land—the catalogue reminds—seems fitting and poetic. The huge and destructive power of the bombs has been rendered small and intimate at my feet, domesticated by a party decoration, weighed down, contemplatable but still redolent of horror.

Nearby on the wall are type-written letters initiated by Dr Ponk on a visit to Maralinga. These are moving accounts by nuclear veteran Avon Hudson, Kokotha Elder Aunty Sue Haseldine, Yalata community member Russle Bryant and Maralinga-Tjaratja tour guide Robin Grant Matthews. Dear Maralinga (2019) reveals overlooked perspective of the land itself.

Maralinga, your were beautiful. And you still are.

In a compelling conceptual resonance Yvonne Koolmatrie’s Hot Air Balloon (2004) continues the theme of air, wind and invisible connections across vast distances. Woven using Ngarrindjeri weaving techniques, coiled bundle weaving from South Australia, Koolmatrie’s work keeps alive traditions that were mistakenly thought lost.

Sianlee Harris’s paintings, with titles Lament of the colonised, Another day in the colony and Self-castigation highlight the objectification and exoticisation of the Indigenous body, while redirection the gaze and eliciting discomfort in the viewer. Not afraid to be loud and vociferous when the moment calls for it, Harris’s works diverge from the expectations often placed on Aboriginal people to acquiesce to small reparations. Artists like Harris keep the big picture in mind.

Similarly, Soda Jerk, Tracey Moffatt and Tony Albert repurpose past representations and histories into new visions of what our country really is like, and what it really has done to the First Peoples.

Arthur Kirby and Angelica Kirby’s Birds (2019-22) are beautiful and colourful carvings made by a father and daughter (Barkindji and Latji Latji) using local Mallee, Box and Wattle trees. Described as artefacts, the birds bring to mind tourist souvenirs and this is perhaps how the artworks started around 50 years ago when Arthur Kirby was taught by his family Elders. As a reprieve from the stronger themes of the exhibition, Birds provided a lightness that I wanted to spend more time with, while also fitting seamlessly into the connective theme of air, flight, and wind.

Arthur Kirby and Angelica Kirby, Birds 2019-22 Acrylic on carved wood. On rear wall: Nici Cumpston Ringbarked II Nookamka Lake 2008, Inkjet archival print on canvas, hand coloured with watercolours and pencils. Image: NV.

By drawing attention to the many Aboriginal artists working and/or born in the region, the exhibition strays from what might be the usual narrative of First Nations’ representation at the Mildura Arts Centre. The tone is not celebratory. An undercurrent of condemning past wrongs and listening to Indigenous voices runs through the works. A conceptual framing as expansive as that employed in Southern Western could easily lead to a large exhibition, but here potent works have been curated in a sensitive and intimate manner to draw out connecting themes speaking to place and its legacies of colonisation.

Southern Western is on at the Mildura Arts Centre from 19 Feb to 1 May 2022.

[Disclosure: Jane Polkinghorne was my excellent colleague at La Trobe University, Mildura, in 2020.]