Visions of war and conflict may be all too commonplace in the news media, but it is not often that we are given the space to really contemplate what the long-term legacy of violence is for our society.
Cara Pinchbeck, curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW), made it her mission to carve out just such a space with the exhibition, When silence falls.
“There’s so much conflict in the world and so much concern about what’s going on in the world, I thought it was a good point in time to look at histories of conflict and violence that aren’t widely acknowledged, and consider how artists from across the world respond to those histories,” Ms Pinchbeck said.
When silence falls is the second exhibition in the AGNSW’s Contemporary Collection Project, an initiative started by the gallery in 2015.
It gives a curator free rein to choose an exhibition theme, commission new work, and access the contemporary art collection tucked away in the AGNSW vaults.
Unafraid to tackle the political or the taboo, Ms Pinchbeck has used the opportunity to connect works by local and international artists that ask us to reflect on dark chapters in history.
Fiona Hall’s sculptural work Slash and burn, created in 1997, is a response to the ethnic cleansing that occurred during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.
Knitted out of VHS tape, the suspended heads and body parts are a haunting expression of the physical and emotional disembodiment caused by such violence.
Vernon Ah Kee’s menacing painting Brutalities 9, painted in 2014, layers splatters of red, white and black paint to create a mask-like apparition that personifies cruelty.
Ah Kee was driven to create the work after a trip to Turkey in 2014, where he learned about the Armenian genocide that The Ottoman Empire executed in 1915.
In Atrabiliarios, created in 1992-97, Colombian artist Dorothy Salcedo addresses the unofficial disappearances and kidnappings that occurred as part of political unrest in her homeland.
A long broken line of rectangular niches in the gallery wall, Atrabiliarios beckons the viewer to come closer with each of the objects held within obscured by an almost opaque covering made of cow bladders.
Revealed through the cloudy screens like a half-forgotten, perhaps only ever imagined memory, are the shoes of people who have gone missing.
These innately personal, everyday relics speak to the loss and longing felt by those left in the wake of violence.
Exhibition focuses on Australian violence during colonisation
The focus of the exhibition though is on Australia, specifically the frontier violence and massacres that took place here as a result of colonisation.
One of those massacres, remembered through oral history, is the subject matter of Ben Quilty’s painting, Fairy Bower Rorschach, created in 2012.
Fairy Bower Rorschach is a multi-panelled abstract depiction of a waterfall near the artist’s home in the Southern Highlands of NSW.
Ms Pinchbeck said she chose the title for the exhibition after reading about Quilty’s work.
“How that place, Fairy Bower Falls, was filled with the sounds of [Aboriginal] families and children and activity for generations and generations and then following a massacre there in 1834 the place fell silent,” she said.
“So I thought When silence falls is really about what happens after those events take place.”
Quilty’s painting is beautiful and inviting, so thickly textured that you want to reach out and touch it.
But like the Rorschach inkblot tests used as a psychological tool for tapping in to the subconscious, hidden images emerge and layers of meaning are revealed.
Underlying it all is a pervasive sense of loss, sadness and horror.
As Quilty explains, often contemporary art has an “essence of beauty, which draws you in, draws the audience in, and then you can hit them between the eyes and tell them the real story”.
“There’s also absolutely zero recording of that history there [at Fairy Bower Falls] … zero recording of what really the most profound history of that place is, about the death of a lot of people,” he said.
“And if they were white people there’d be signs everywhere. That hit me very hard.”
Art alludes to what lies beneath history
Commemorating another instance of colonial violence, this time in the Wik region of North Queensland, is Frontier Wars (Flying Fox Story Place), created in 2014.
A collaboration between artists Tony Albert and Alair Pambegan, Frontier Wars (Flying Fox Story Place) is a striking installation of 10 vertically-suspended long, double-ended bullets.
The bullets are striped, almost camouflaged, with natural ochre paint and adorned in raffia.
The combination of a modern instrument of warfare with the traditional clan designs of the Pambegan family is a deliberately incongruous one.
As Albert said, the ammunition “alludes to what is sinister, what lies beneath history”.
The bullet motif is one that Albert has used recently, in his work YININMADYEMI Thou didst let fall, created in 2014.
The large-scale public work in Sydney’s Hyde Park commemorates Aboriginal and Torres Strait soldiers that fought in World War II.
“I was doing a lot of work based on soldiers within the armed forces and the infantry, but what seemed to be missing from that was wars that were fought on this land; in Australia during colonisation,” he said.
“And it’s this hidden part of history that is not yet acknowledged or spoken about or taught within schools.
“One great thing for me about art is that it does give me the option to address these issues in a way that I guess is subtle or gives the viewer the chance to be empowered about their thoughts and opinions about the work.
“The work doesn’t scream or yell or point the finger at anyone, it just opens up the opportunity to start thinking about issues.”
When silence falls is a free exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney until May 9, 2016.