Review: Saltwater Country

The term ‘country’ in Australia is used to describe the intrinsic nature of Aboriginal culture and creative expression in its connectedness to land and place of birth. What is less understood is the equally strong cultural connectedness to the sea and water’s edge. Saltwater Country is a major exhibition on show in Gallery 1 at The Gold Coast Arts Centre from July 19th to August 31st. It presents new work by sixteen contemporary Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, and is touring Australia wide and internationally.

This exhibition includes work from a number of artists including Vernon Ah Kee, Daniel Boyd, Michael Cook, Megan Cope, Erub Erwer Meta, Fiona Foley, Rosella Namok, Mavis Ngallametta, Laurie Nilsen, Napolean Oui, Ryan Presley, Brian Robinson, Ken Thaiday, Alick Tipoti, Ian Waldron and Judy Watson. The direct and combatant neo-conceptual works that these artists produce promote different views through the use of a variety of mediums, including elegantly detailed large-scale portraits, hanging installations, large scale paintings and multimedia, and projections and audio pieces.

Gallery 1 hosts a large open space where viewers can interact with the body of work as a whole. The artworks are displayed along each wall and when walking through the exhibition, audiences are guided effortlessly through the expression of Indigenous views presented in each unique artwork. This creates a strong Gallery setup.

Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art practice is notably different from the contemporary painting movement that has emerged from the Western Desert. Saltwater Country seeks to capture this distinctive cultural and creative experience; as artists reclaim histories, investigate their pasts and establish new ways of caring for country and community through their artistic practice.

Aspects of each artist’s work interact with one another on a strong level, responding to different views of people, land and culture. This provides the audience with a unique and critical interpretation of this beautiful world we need to embrace. There is a sense of relation in the work, offering a spiritual connection to viewers through sharing each artist’s story, identity and beliefs. This enhances the viewers experience by connecting and allowing them to become a part of the scene and experience. What comes through so strongly with these artists is the celebratory aspect of their work. They seem completely grounded in their own culture, yet able to modernize despite originating within a set of invisible boundaries. Artists such as Daniel Boyd, Michael Cook or Fiona Foley take a more cerebral approach. More political in nature, Fiona Foley’s photo sequence The Oyster Fisherman (2011) references the exploitation of Indigenous people in Queensland’s fishing industry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Foley shares her dark tale through the use of colour and landscape, referencing the brutality of this historical story.

Each artwork is lit up, with the large-scale installations hung in the corners of the gallery, complimented by added projection. The walls in Gallery 1 make the exhibition, and are positioned to show all of the pieces together as one. There is also audio elements of the exhibition including sounds of whispering waves crashing against the shore, creating a sense of calmness. The waves comment on the connection to sea and the water’s edge.

The exhibition was well worth seeing, sharing art pieces that are so different in construction but so similar in meaning and scope. The gallery showed the work magnificently, sharing great stories from each artist and their individual cultural backgrounds. These artists have grown up holding a deep connection to their coastal country and this exhibition really brings forth their stories. Despite the artists belonging to a diverse set of locations each artist wherever they inhabit uses water to connect to the land and express their beliefs. Brisbane based artist Ryan Presley shares his work featuring sharks, and talks about Queensland’s political history. An equally shared connectedness to the sea and water’s edge was made evident, employing a sense of unity, cultural strength and creativity. Saltwater Country returns to Australia to show at Manly Art Gallery and Museum, Sydney in May 2015 to June 2015.

By Jessica Longworth

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