Family history and cultural appropriation treated in intriguing ways
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Family history and cultural appropriation treated in intriguing ways

Brenda Croft: heart-in-hand. Amala Groom: Does she know the Revolution is coming?
Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Gorman Arts Centre, 55 Ainslie Avenue, Braddon.
Until September 8.

Brenda L Croft, Made in Australia I, 2018, in heart-in-hand at Canberra Contemporary Art Space Gorman Arts Centre.

Brenda L Croft, Made in Australia I, 2018, in heart-in-hand at Canberra Contemporary Art Space Gorman Arts Centre.

Photo: Brenton McGeachie

Brenda Croft’s heart-in-hand is, as she states in her emotionally eloquent catalogue essay, “a tribute to her mother” in the 80th anniversary year of her birth. It also continues her broader investigative paean to her family and its mixed heritage – Gurindji/Malngin/Mudburra peoples of the Northern Territory as well as Anglo-Australian/German-Irish/Chinese ancestry. Her essay, which is an integral element of the exhibition, elucidates a family history and speaks of the special love that existed and continues to exist between mother and daughter.

Croft uses words and objects in ways that express her particular emotional investment in her subject-matter but also in ways that draw the most powerful expressive charge out of the most seemingly ordinary object.

In the Cube Space she re-creates a family living room ("lounge room" is probably more temporally appropriate) filled with objects, sounds and images mainly from the from the 1950s to the 1970s. The catalogue for this aspect of the work - Made in Australia I - lists in detail the room’s contents. These include: Parker lounge chairs; a mid-20th-century sideboard; rugs crocheted and knitted by her mother; ceramic birds and ducks wall ornaments; and a mid-1960s glass cup with crocheted dust cover.

The room is activated by a “slide night” projection of 80 slides from 1959 to 1962; and a 60-minute audio work (Heartsongs) - which includes a selection of 45s and 78s with such luminaries as Jimmy Little, Judy Garland, Paul Robeson, Mario Lanza and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy singing or playing favourites such as Santa Never Made it to Darwin, Danny Boy, I’ll Walk with God, and a waltz from Swan Lake. When I was there, Julie Andrews was wishing she could have danced all night.

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The bookcase contained a copy of The Book of Common Prayer and Webster’s dictionary, both exemplary of a mid-20th-century world view held by most Australians – America and God had all the answers. The other audio work, Today I walked for my mother (& others), has the artist delivering her poem, an emotional outpouring whose significance moves beyond Croft’s individual story to touch each of us.

Brenda L Croft,  <i>Lost and Found</i>, 2018, in  <i>heart-in-hand</i> at Canberra Contemporary Art Space Gorman Arts Centre.

Brenda L Croft,  Lost and Found, 2018, in  heart-in-hand at Canberra Contemporary Art Space Gorman Arts Centre.

Photo: Supplied

In the main space the gallery is seething with objects and images, “catalogued” into the different aspects of the exhibition that make up the whole. In Lost and Found the objects include shoes, hats, handbags, teddy bears, jewellery, hair rollers, hair pins, make-up kits, sequins, cake decorations, shells and a hand-made picnic basket.

Many of these, and other objects, are displayed in the glass jars in which they would have been stored. These in turn are displayed on shelves on the gallery wall and constitute a totality of a lifetime; an idiosyncratic family portrait created a la Arcimboldo from the quotidian articles that are used and (normally) forgotten but in this case become the elements that give meaning to the whole.

The ordinariness of the parts is subsumed by their sheer volume and by the reverberations that come from that volume and the manner in which it is displayed. The back wall holds Made in Australia II (detail), a set of 31 images of events in the life of Croft’s mother. Again, it is the ostensible ordinariness of these that gives them a special significance that when allied to the accumulations of objects dispersed through the gallery raises that significance to a universal level.

The intimacy and personal detail on view throughout the exhibition insists on close observation and investigation. We read the cards and telegrams, letters and payslips, school reports and recipe cards. We are reminded of the moments that imbue ongoing memory but also that that phenomenon comes later and gradually. When the events and objects that accompany them are first confronted, their ultimate significance is never considered. They are part of what we all do and need to be reminded of. Croft’s heart-in-hand is a moving evocation of the importance of each individual.

Brenda L Croft, <i>Made in Australia II</i>, 2018 (detail) in <i>heart-in-hand.</i> image credit Brenton McGeachie.

Brenda L Croft, Made in Australia II, 2018 (detail) in heart-in-hand. image credit Brenton McGeachie.

Photo: Brenton McGeachie.

Amala Groom’s Does she know the Revolution is coming? is a multi-channel video work that explores notions of cultural appropriation and semantics in an incisive and cutting way.

According to the exhibition blurb the “extended conversation between (the artist) and the wife of a former mrime minister in a stately Manhattan home” is based on an actual conversation.

The conversations proceed laterally across the screens. Expressions such as “status symbol”, “Aboriginal art as cultural legitimacy”, “My own culture owns me” and “my Emily” are peppered throughout the dialogue. The idea that owning a work by an Aboriginal artist (here “my Emily” is a work by Emily Kame Kngwarreye) gives the owner a form of authority over a culture outside her own is posited here.

Amala Groom, <i>Does she Know the Revolution is coming</i>, 2017, (Production still, detail) image credit Hamish Ta Mé.

Amala Groom, Does she Know the Revolution is coming, 2017, (Production still, detail) image credit Hamish Ta Mé.

Photo: Hamish Ta Mé.

The whole piece is in a sense an interrogation of the repercussions of ownership of a single object. What does it mean to the owner, the maker of the object, the seller of the object and to the culture that was the original source of the object?

Groom does not supply answers. She prefers to maintain an interrogative openness that discloses the vagaries of language and the power of its imprecision to obfuscate the truth. The interspersion of (often) contradictory statements issuing from the protagonists gives this work a humorous edge that does not, however, deny its important message.