Text by Ella Mudie
This is not the sort of behaviour typically encountered in an art installation. In the foyer of Sydney’s inter-disciplinary performance venue Carriageworks, seven hand-painted caravans are being poked and prodded by curious audiences. Visitors duck their heads as they step into each van, look around inside to check out the tatty, retro 1970s décor then sit back on the vinyl lounges. Hyperactive children are climbing the furniture, inspecting the cupboards and testing the taps. From the outside, the boldly decorated exteriors of the vans recall the precise, geometric lines of Op Art but in fact Travelling Colony, a major new installation by renowned Australian indigenous artist Brook Andrew, is emblazoned with the striking black, white and primary coloured jagged stripes of Andrew’s ancestral Wiradjuri patterns.
There’s a certain novelty in turning caravans into artworks. But for Andrew, both play and physical engagement form signature components of his often large-scale installations where entertainment acts as a starting point for a deeper engagement with more complex concerns frequently centred around issues of “race, consumerism, and history.” Here, the peripatetic makeshift home of each caravan is transformed into a site for a mini multi-media oral history project with televisions inside screening interviews with a cross-section of locals, or people with connections to, the surrounding suburb of Redfern, which since the 1970s has figured as a key urban hub of Australian indigenous culture and activism.
Redfern, says one interviewee – Lily Shearer, is where Aboriginal people “became citizens in our own country,” citing the community-based instigation of indigenous health, legal and housing services as among its greatest achievements. The films presented here record residents’ personal reflections upon the suburb’s tumultuous history, its highest and lowest points, its significance to contemporary indigenous culture and reactions to its current contested evolution into a more gentrified inner-city suburb. What emerges as a common thread in the responses is an appreciation of the powerful role that theatre, performance and art has played in Aboriginal empowerment and self-determination. It’s fitting, then, that Travelling Colony also forms the centrepiece of Black Capital, the Sydney Festival‘s three-week celebration of indigenous theatre and culture.
Visitors will find Andrew’s caravans moored in the Carriageworks foyer until early March but as part of the Sydney Festival First Night launch party last weekend, Travelling Colony took to the streets for a more nomadic manifestation. As festival goers wandered Macquarie Street, passersby stopped outside the caravans to form an impromptu audience for a motley crew of gypsy circus performers who emerged from within the caravans to erupt into an enthralling routine of acrobatic stunts and festive dancing. There was exuberance and joy in their energetic melding together of various cultural styles, from Flamenco and Irish jigs to traditional Indonesian dance and modern Krumping, yet also a vague sense of unease simmering beneath the spectacle. Where had this unlikely mix of entertainers been plucked from, what circumstances might have brought them together?
A probing and critical enquiry into history typically belies the dazzling surfaces of Andrew’s work and here a darker story of exploitation is referenced although not overtly stated. When the circus was transplanted from England to the Australian colonies in the nineteenth century, a shortage of available performers led circus proprietors to ‘adopt’ juvenile Aborigines into their troupes. Beneath the spectacle of Andrew’s hybridized modern incarnation of the travelling circus is a nod to the little acknowledged fact that, as academic Mark Valentine St Leon writes in his essay, The Erosion of Aboriginal Identity in Circus, the “induction (or adoption) of children into ‘apprenticeships’ (however spurious) remained an established practice in Australian circus as late as the 1920s.”
By retrieving a buried chapter of the story of colonisation in Australia, Andrew reanimates and brings it into the present for contemporary debate. Yet his approach is far from didactic and at Festival First Night, the circus performances were lively, generous and fun. Ultimately, the extent to which audiences engage with the historical undercurrents of Travelling Colony will vary greatly. Some visitors to Carriageworks will stick their heads into the caravans for a quick peek out of curiosity and move on. Others will sit, listen, and absorb the thought provoking stories and messages contained in the films inside. Either way, all will experience in this vibrant, multi-faceted and compassionate installation an encounter with history not as something remote and finite but as protean and actively informing the continuous present.
Brook Andrew: Travelling Colony, 08/01/2012 – 04/03/2012, Carriageworks, Redfern, NSW, Australia. www.carriageworks.com.au
Aesthetica in Print
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Brook Andrew Travelling Colony
Installation view courtesy of Susannah Wimberley