Art for the Ages

By Adam Norris

Showcasing the lands & identity of First Nation peoples from Worimi, Biripi, Dunghutti & Gumbaynggirr nations, the 2021 Aboriginal Art Award & Contemporary Cultural Objects touring exhibition is one of the most striking and stylish events of the year.

Alison Williams is one of the most recognised and respected artists in the region, although this is not entirely down to her artwork alone. Alison is a champion of First Nation’s artistic opportunities and showcases, sitting on the Arts Board for Create NSW and lending her experience to various funding programs and cultural guidelines. She is also curating the Saltwater Freshwater Arts award and exhibition, so there was really no better time to talk about our region’s vibrant and vital First Nations arts scene.

“I think there was a lot more time to create in some ways,” Alison says, reflecting on the enduring impact of 2020, “but probably less engagement because everyone withdrew. A lot of galleries closed, events closed, so I guess the inspiration for creating also changed. There was a lot more disconnection, a lot less collaboration and engagement. So it definitely had a detrimental effect in the way things were cancelled, and that’s not just visual arts but performing arts as well. There was this amazing sudden surge to do everything online, although that was limiting as well. Art for a lot of First Nations people takes on all different sorts of agendas, and from what I can see, the continuance of cultural practice is a major inspiration for a lot of artists. Continuing that narrative, that truth-
telling and story telling, and whether that’s political agenda or personal stories or identity,  memories about connection to places, they all come into play in First Nation arts. So I don’t think Covid had a huge impact on how the stories were told,  but there was this pause in engagement with broader audiences.”

Visual storytelling is a fundamental part of First Nations history and culture, and Indigenous art today is a link to a vast and significant history. Oral storytelling and the passing of knowledge has been just as vital across the centuries, yet as Alison illustrates, this aspect of First Nations memory has faced great challenge.

“I think a lot of the oral translation has petered off, and that’s [had] huge impacts on that continuance of story-telling, but also ceremony and knowledge about places, and use of places. It all came to a grinding halt in this area in the mid-1800s, land was sectioned off and given to European settlers, fences were put up, and there were grave consequences to gathering sites, ceremony sites, people were getting killed. There was a lot of trauma, and a lot of oral history just ceased, with each generation adapting to a new way of life of what you can and can’t do. I think there’s been a grand effort through art to retain that connection, and retain that identity and acknowledge those memories. If you think prior to European settlement, and the state of being for First Nations people and their ceremonies and dance and gatherings at sacred sites, there was a spiritual well-being that was shared. That well-being came to a halt and was adopted then by a range of despairs with the new governance of the country. All of those inflictions were put on the people in this region, and so they sort of grappled to maintain as much as they could, and now we have generations now who may be aware of specific sites or places, but not really known what to do with them. They may not know how to honour them, how to activate their own connection with those spaces. They are more memories. We used to do this, but we don’t any more. There really needs to be new gatherings set with new intentions, that can recreate and share that connection with others.”

Though art isn’t the only way to reconcile scars of the past, it is one of the most motivating and inspiring forces that anyone can tap into. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that our region itself is such an inspiring, fortifying place.

“We have such pristine coastline and beautiful forests and waterways, when you’re looking into the hinterland at our beautiful rivers and waterholes. With First Nation art, I think it’s not just about the visuals. There’s a deeper sense of connection. Many artists will revisit places within their region that have a historic or heritage significance to them, and many artists will visit places that feel like medicine, you could say. There’s always that sense of your ancestors that have walked or lived in these same places for generations, there’s a sense of belonging, a sense of almost responsibility that this is now your place to care for and look over. And it will look after you.”

WHAT Saltwater Freshwater 2021 Aboriginal Art Award & Contemporary Cultural Objects Touring Exhibition
WHERE Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery
WHEN 12 June – 7 Aug