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Defying Empire: a powerful exhibit about Australia’s Indigenous people

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With 30 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, the Defying Empire exhibition will be the biggest survey show of Indigenous art ever at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA).

Part of the 3rd National Indigenous Art Triennial, the historical and groundbreaking exhibition will be centred around Indigenous identity. The goal being to start a national conversation of Indigenous issues through art.

“The exhibition looks at the ongoing resilience of Australia’s Indigenous people since first contact with the British Empire, through to the fight for recognition in the 1967 Referendum and ongoing activism to the present day,” a National Gallery spokesperson said.

“Focusing on issues relating to identity, history, politics, connections to Country and community, the exhibition includes works with a wide range of mediums, including painting on canvas and bark, sculpture, weaving, film and video, works on paper including prints and photography, metalwork, glass and installations.”

Here’s a sneak peek at three participating artists whose works will make you see Indigenous culture and history in a different light.

Jason Wing

His sculpture, titled Captain James Crook, 2013, depicts the British navigator wearing a balaclava, looking more like a thief than a well-renowned explorer.

According to Wing, just like many others, he was taught that Cook discovered Australia. But he wants to change that belief by creating works that reveal alternative stories behind these history lessons.

What is currently being considered as colonisation, or peaceful settlement, or even discovery, is what he refers to as armed robbery.

“The common thread throughout my works is the everyday battle that Aboriginal people fight living in this colonial institutional framework,” he said.

“We fight for re-writing Aboriginal history that has been erased, destroyed, hidden and lost. We fight for equal human rights. We fight for our culture to be respected, valued and celebrated in a genuine way. We fight for equal rights socially, culturally, politically and economically.

“We have serpent blood in our veins and we will never stop fighting for our culture.”

Raymond Zada

In racebook, 2012, artist Raymond Zada shows that racism and hate are alive and well – not just in the US, but also in Australia.

Inspired by Facebook’s logo, Zada’s print spells out the series title, followed by the ‘like icon’ turned downwards, and the caption: “Too many people like this.”

“Racism and homophobia are entrenched in Australian culture,” he said. “Even today, the Recognise campaign and the marriage equality plebiscite will see members of the dominant cultures debating and deciding what they think is right and acceptable for me and my peers.”

He continued: “Many of my works address negative issues but I’m not an ‘angry black’ or ‘bitter queen’. My creations are imbued with spirit, hope, and power. Just as trauma can carry across generations, so too can strength and resilience.”

Tony Albert

Outraged by the unfair treatment of Indigenous soldiers upon their return from Australia’s wars, artist Tony Albert decided to create Thou didst let fall, 2014.

Using different found materials like wood, plastic, metal, fabric, paper, and twine, he was able to create a giant rifle that’s seemingly dripping with blood.

“An important part of our history, which for so long has been ignored, is the significant contribution made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service men and women during war times,” he said.

“While enlisted these soldiers were treated as equals, united by bravery to protect their country. Like other Australian soldiers, they were tortured, they took bullets and shrapnel, some lost limbs and others lost lives.

“However, on return to Australia they were greeted by the same racism they faced before leaving for war. The equality shared in the trenches was all but lost — Aboriginal diggers were refused entry into veteran hotels, denied the land grants that were given to white soldiers and, up until 1967, were not even considered citizens of Australia.”

Albert hopes that visitors to the exhibition will see his work not as something that glorifies war, but rather, honours the servicemen and women afflicted by racial discrimination.

“Today, I stand here honoured to play a role in overturning this,” he added.

Aside from artworks, Defying Empire will also feature lectures and workshops. Best of all, the entire exhibit will be free, with guided tours from 11am each day. It will run from May 26 until September 10, 2017. Head on over here for more details.

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