Rewind: Blakness: Blak City Culture!

Clinton Nain (Petersen), The Trap, 1994 (detail). Courtesy the artist and ACCA Archive

by Clare Williamson

A personal highlight of my time at ACCA was the experience of co-curating with Hetti Perkins the exhibition Blakness: Blak City Culture!

Twenty years ago, in 1994, contemporary Indigenous art was often understood by non-Indigenous audiences to equate to painting from the Central and Western Desert regions of Australia. Concurrent with this important work, however, urban-based Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists were (and still are) producing powerful work in a range of media and engaging with a diversity of issues and ideas. But because their work has differed in medium, subject matter and production from desert painting – and therefore from audiences’ expectations – these artists struggled for many years to have their work recognized as ‘authentic’.

In the early 1990s, I was becoming aware of this exciting new work in urban Australia, by artists such as Destiny Deacon, Brook Andrew, r e a and others. However I also felt that, should I curate a group exhibition of the work of such artists, I would be perpetuating one of the very scenarios that these artists actively strove against; that is, to have their work, their identities and their culture spoken for by non-Indigenous voices.

This led me to approach Indigenous curator and writer Hetti Perkins who was then, with artists Brenda L. Croft, Fiona Foley and others, one of the main driving forces behind Boomalli Aboriginal Artists’ Co-operative. Then based in Chippendale, near Redfern in inner Sydney, Boomalli for many years championed the work of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from a diversity of communities and working in a range of media. Following her time at Boomalli, Hetti went on to be Senior Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and, among many other projects, wrote and presented the three-part documentary series art + soul.

Hetti enthusiastically embraced the idea of collaborating on an exhibition of urban-based art at ACCA and generously worked on every aspect of the project. It was Hetti who suggested the title Blakness: Blak City Culture!, drawing on Destiny Deacon’s coining of the term ‘blak’ as part of her reclaiming of colonialist language. The exhibition received support from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board of the Australia Council and the newly established Visions of Australia program, which enabled Blakness to tour nationally for two years.

Destiny Deacon, Triplicats, 1993. Courtesy the artist and ACCA Archive

The artists represented in the exhibition were Destiny Deacon, Brook Andrew, r e a, Clinton Nain (Petersen), Joanne Currie and Peter Noble. Fundamental to Blakness was the exploration and redefining of multiple aspects of identity, not just in relation to ‘blakness’ but also in relation to gender and sexuality, thereby neatly cutting across any binary divisions predicated on race alone. The artists subverted any assumption that Aboriginal artists should deal always and only with their Aboriginality and that if they do not, their work is not ‘Aboriginal art’. As Bronwyn Bancroft (Boomalli founding member) has said, ‘For years we were punished for being black, now we’re punished for not being black enough’.

Photography, video and digital media were powerful tools in the hands of these artists, as was their use of ‘blak’ humour with which to represent self and other. The political power of much of the work rested in the fact that it communicated through means other than didacticism or antagonism. For example the initial lightness and humour of Destiny Deacon’s images invited her viewers to draw close – at which point Destiny hit them between the eyes with her more disturbing undertones of violence, sexual threat, isolation and injustice.

Blakness occurred at a time when, not only in Australia, but also in Europe and North America, a number of co-ordinates were shifting on the cultural map. Popular culture was gaining an ascendancy over high art, European models were being displaced and new ‘centres’ were emerging in old ‘margins’. Within these developments, Blak artists were finding new opportunities and new modes of expression, which were both universally current and local-specific. The artists in Blakness were wise to postmodernism’s fascination with ‘the other’, taking advantage of these new opportunities but refusing to speak only in their allotted place – in the ‘white spaces for black people’ as described by Hetti Perkins.

Blakness: Blak City Culture!
8 October – 6 November 1994          
Artists: Destiny Deacon, Brook Andrew, Joanne Currie, r e a, Peter Noble, Clinton Nain (Petersen)
Curated by Hetti Perkins and Clare Williamson

Clare Williamson was Curator at ACCA from 1993–1998. Since leaving ACCA she has been Exhibitions Curator at the State Library of Victoria.