Installation view of “When Silence Falls” at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2016. Courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales. 

When Silence Falls

Art Gallery of New South Wales

“When Silence Falls” is the second of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ (AGNSW) Contemporary Collection Projects, a series aimed at highlighting the institution’s own holdings and revealing new connections—or, in their words, “sightlines”—between the artworks. The series launched in 2015 with the exhibition “See You at the Barricades,” which examined the politics of protest through an exploration of the “dissident aesthetic.” Continuing this thread, “When Silence Falls” also addresses conflict and injustice by taking a contemplative approach to the notion of trauma, which in turn allows for a broad consideration of the human condition.

Curated by Cara Pinchbeck, AGNSW curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, the exhibition addresses universal experiences of trauma, taking the work of contemporary Indigenous Australian artists as its central focus. Its discussion of events that have been historically overlooked—such as massacres and cultural displacement—allows for a deeper understanding of the largely dismissed traumas of Aboriginal Australia.

Most of the artworks are drawn from the Gallery’s own collection, supplemented by others loaned from prominent local private collections. Each exhibition in the Contemporary Collection Projects also includes the unveiling of a new commission. In the case of “When Silence Falls,” it is Judy Watson’s a picnic with the natives – the gulf (2015), the title of which recalls a disturbing, historically documented euphemism used by European colonialists to reference their massacring of Indigenous Australians. On Watson’s ethereally stained canvas is painted the map created by British cartographer Matthew Flinders as he navigated and named the region around northern Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria in the early 1800s. Target-like marks are scattered across the land, indicating the brutally random occurrences of violence against the native community that had taken place on this “new frontier.” This work is part of Watson’s larger ongoing series, “the names of places,” comprised of canvases mapping largely unrecorded massacres gathered from individual people’s memories and oral histories. At the exhibition, the names of these massacres scroll endlessly on a small screen in the corner of the gallery, its modest presentation belying the impact of the subject matter.

BEN QUILTYFairy Bower Rorschach, 2012, oil on linen, 240 × 550 cm. Courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. 

“When Silence Falls” incorporates painting, sculpture, video and installation works spread across four rooms that are respectively titled: “…country remains,” “…moments linger,” “…traces remind” and “…hearts ache.” These segments operate like micro-exhibitions, or chapters, which draw out connections between particular groups of works more explicitly than would a singular exhibition. The impact of trauma within Australia is reflected in the first room, while the subsequent sections explore the issue further, until in the final room we are confronted with ghosts of the past.

The opening room, “…country remains,” looks at how European colonialists silenced any dialogue concerning the massacres of Aboriginal people, setting the stage for the rest of the exhibition. Watson and fellow artist Daniel Boyd use their respective family histories as entry points into discussions on displacement, while Ben Quilty’s Fairy Bower Rorschach (2012) acknowledges a site whose dark past, allegedly as a site of Aboriginal massacres during the 19th century, has been largely ignored due to the lack of records and legitimacy afforded to oral histories. Connection with indigenous land and history is also vital to Hossein Valamanesh as an immigrant to Australia from Iran, and his work Longing Belonging (1997) reflects the transformative experience of his early years in his new country. It can be said that the section “…country remains” speaks to all Australians, whether they are Indigenous, non-Indigenous, Australian-born or an immigrant.

The following room, “…moments linger,” serves as a reminder that traumas, which are often pushed to the peripheries of their victim’s mind, often arise from (and are processed as a result of) inequality built into societal infrastructures. On view is a collaborative work by artists Richard Bell from Australia and Emory Douglas of the United States, which focuses on a specific moment in history that entailed wide-ranging repercussions—when Australian track athlete Peter Norman showed solidarity with the Black-Power salutes of American medallists Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the winner’s podium at the 1968 Olympic Games. African-American artist Kara Walker, South African artist William Kentridge, known for his hand-drawn animated films, and Mexican multidisciplinary artist Pedro Reyes each redress social policies and actions—sanctioned or otherwise—highlighting and attempting to dismantle structures of power.

In “…traces remind,” a tangible reminder of trauma speaks, paradoxically, of absence. Indigenous Australian aritst Paddy Bedford (1922–2007) lived with a constant reminder of trauma in his own first name, which he shares with Paddy Quilty, the owner of the cattle station that his family worked for. Quilty was involved in massacres of Indigenous people on his property. Bedford and his fellow East Kimberley artists Timmy Timms (1915–2000) and Rusty Peters have channeled oral histories into their paintings, where events and memories are retained on the flat surfaces of the works with non-linear temporality, just as they live on in Australia itself. Meanwhile, Colombian-born sculptor Doris Salcedo’s viscerally effective works encapsulate the power of objects that remain after a distressing event. In her installation work Atrabiliarios (1992–97), the memory of a lost human life is evoked through shoes imprisoned in a nook in a wall, behind a veil of translucent film, while a singular installation of second-hand furniture pieces fused together takes on a frustrated inertness in Untitled (2007).

RUSTY PETERSChinaman’s Garden Massacre, 2000, natural pigments on linen canvas,150 × 180.2 cm. Courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. 

DORIS SALCEDOAtrabiliarios (detail), 1992–97, timber, gyproc, cow bladder, shoes and surgical thread, dimensions variable. Courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. 

While official histories and historical distance can cushion us from the impact of traumatic events such as massacres, the works in the final gallery, “…hearts ache,” explore humanity’s vulnerability in the face of both good and evil, and ghosts of the past. Dismembered heads and limbs float in Fiona Hall’s installation Slash and Burn (1997), which are knitted from the tape of archival videos featuring footage that glorify war. These specters are echoed in the skull that appears in New Zealand artist Shane Cotton’s painting, also on view, while the menacing splatter of Vernon Ah Kee’s Brutalities 9 (2014) serves as a disturbing reminder of the malevolent intent that could exist within any person.

The massacres of Indigenous Australians and their subsequent historical erasure are—as AGNSW Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art program coordinator Amanda Peacock states in the exhibition catalogue—“in some sense our original sin, one that we must recognize before we can mature as a nation.” By literally elevating Aboriginal art from its designated home on the lowest level of AGNSW, and placing it into dialogue with non-Indigenous Australian and international artists, “When Silence Falls” allows viewers to better understand Australia’s own history and to see it within a broader context. A haunting piece of music rather than a battle cry, the exhibition is like the moment of contemplation that emerges after chaos has subsided, or after the 24-hour news channel has been switched off.

FIONA HALLSlash and Burn (detail), 1997, 36 video boxes, 36 video tape sculptures and wire suspension grid, dimensions variable. Courtesy Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. 

“When Silence Falls” is on view at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until May 1, 2016.