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In Profile: André Lawrence, emerging curator

Chris Reid

"135th Meridian-East" installation view
photo courtesy Australian Experimental Art Foundation
The 135th meridian of longitude bisects the Australian continent and can be seen metaphorically as a connecting thread running through the Northern Territory and South Australia. In fact, from 1863 to 1911, the Northern Territory and South Australia formed a single colonial entity.

André Lawrence, the recipient of the 2014 Australian Experimental Art Foundation’s Emerging Curator Fellowship, has assembled a major exhibition of artwork by 14 NT and SA artists in which he addresses the art of Central Australia and the relationships between its many communities. He states in the exhibition catalogue, “135th Meridian—East is a proposition for an ongoing relatedness across Country that remains rich in zones of contact, exchange and history... As sites of discovery and experience, the conversations evoked in this project highlight these ecologies within a geographical area so rich in culture and history it defies delineation.”

At the exhibition opening, local Kaurna people welcomed all communities and particularly artists from the Indigenous communities of the north. The ceremony acknowledged the breadth and length of the region bordering the meridian, and the exhibition itself welcomed viewers to the unique cultures of the region. Before the large audience and including the playing of the Yidaki, this welcoming was a powerful performance promoting mutual recognition and respect the length of the country.

Born in the Territory, Lawrence lived in France from age eight to 20, and on his return to Australia studied art at Charles Darwin University and the University of SA. He lives in Adelaide but frequently visits NT and maintains close relationships with communities there. Influenced by his father’s political engagement and involvement with Indigenous communities, Lawrence sees himself primarily as an artist but came to curating through his concern for cross-cultural collaboration.

He has been a tour guide, taking tourists along the 2,800km Stuart Highway, connecting Adelaide and Darwin, that runs almost parallel with the meridian and which acts as a cultural spine. The exhibition itself unfolds as a journey and the first work viewers encounter is a ceiling-high drawing of an Adelaide CBD streetscape by Adelaide artist Thom Buchanan. The final work is a montage of videos of Indigenous ceremonies assembled by Wukun Wanambi, and viewers encounter a range of artworks along the way. 135th Meridian-East is thus a journey not just from south to north but from an emblematic site of modern western culture to traditional culture.

There is an extraordinary range of approaches to art in this survey exhibition. Ali Gumillya Baker’s video Ahoy! Nungas re-enacting white patriots re-enacting their murderous invasion of the Lucky Country (Part 1) addresses the issue of Indigenous sovereignty [see Bound and Unbound, for more on Baker’s work]. Dutch-born Maarten Daudeij’s work explores the Flinders Ranges and Northern SA, using rusty, barbed fencing wire to form lettering that spells out “Not my will but thy will.” Sue Kneebone’s compelling installation Hearing loss (Volume III) comprises a 19th century desk connected by a telegraph wire to an original pine telegraph pole; on the desk sits a candelabrum of kangaroo skulls, her work highlighting early colonisation through the establishment of the telegraph and the destruction of wildlife through farming. “Lots of works play on the gap between the colonial and the post-colonial,” says Lawrence. James Tylor’s Postcards from the Frontier (An Anthropological Study) comprises a series of photos recording aspects of the region to critique the anthropological viewpoint.

Naturally, many of the Indigenous artists’ works are about place and post-colonial ideas of place. Pungkai’s painting Longa Longa Time, I bin Mine My Business, Now Everyone Cummin Mine My Business depicts a desert landscape with tyre marks over it; attached to it are plastic toys representing road works, mining camps and other commercial interventions. Another James Tylor work, A Nautical Journey of Country, is a wall-mounted assemblage of sticks and shells forming a rough map showing the regions in which he has lived, from western Victoria through SA, NT and the Kimberley, with the Stuart Highway shown. Tylor is of Aboriginal, Maori and English origin and the form and materials of this work refer to Polynesian seafaring charts. Sera Water’s Fritz and the rose garden is like an aerial view of a garden—made from woven felt, calico, string and cotton; hung like a painting, it refers to the rose garden her immigrant German grandfather maintained in the arid area of SA where he settled. And the husband and wife team of Lena Yarinkura and Bob Burrumul show two Wyarra Spirits, traditional totemic figures representing bush spirits.

In explaining why the exhibition was set out as a journey, Lawrence states, “I wanted people to feel immersed in the landscape—they can see the horizon but must negotiate obstacles and landmarks to get there.” Importantly, the final work is Wukun Wanambi’s montage of videos, from the archives of the Mulka Project at Yirrkala. The Mulka Project is a media production house and library which collects material depicting Yolgnu culture with the intention of reinvigorating its traditions while acknowledging Yolngu law and governance, a project in which Yolgnu people are retaking ownership of their culture and its dissemination.

Lawrence says he is encouraged when people from diverse backgrounds come together and connect, and prior to mounting this exhibition he had been wanting to bring NT artists to Adelaide to recreate or reveal their cultural interconnections. In 2013, he curated an exhibition at Adelaide’s Nexus Multicultural Arts Centre in which he explored cultural hybridity. He has previously shown the work of NT artist Frank Gohier at the AEAF and has shown SA artists in a corresponding space at the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art (formerly 24 Hour Art) in Darwin. For example, James Dodd is based in SA but works extensively in the Territory and has developed a strong appreciation of it. Dodd contributed three paintings to 135th Meridian—East: two show abandoned cars in the desert, symbolising the country’s impenetrability to modern machinery. The third shows a police van in the desert, acknowledging the tension between law enforcement and the central Australian population—there is graffiti over the surface of this painting as if the painting, an emblem of western culture and authority, has itself been vandalised.

Lawrence is interested in how artists respond to locale and to circumstances, and worked with the selected artists, many of whom created new pieces for this exhibition. His detailed exhibition catalogue provides a sensitive, nuanced and critical view of the country and of the significance of the works. In it, he orders each work thematically under its own heading: Binary Landscapes (Buchanan), Sovereign Voice (Baker), Familial Histories (Waters), The Highway (Dodd), Pushing North (Kneebone), Spaces of Contention (Pungkai) and Culture Alive (the Mulka Project). Significantly, he does not privilege any particular culture or community over another, but honours the presence of all, providing a forum for dialogue between communities.

135th Meridian East, Australian Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide, 5 Sept-4 Oct, 2014

RealTime issue #123 Oct-Nov 2014 pg. online

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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