Sydney

Karla Dickens, Never Forget (detail), 2019, mixed media (panels, clockwise, from top left: Bottom Feeders III, II, IV, and I, all 2018, acrylic and collage on board, each 23 5⁄8 × 18 7⁄8"). From “Just Not Australian.”

Karla Dickens, Never Forget (detail), 2019, mixed media (panels, clockwise, from top left: Bottom Feeders III, II, IV, and I, all 2018, acrylic and collage on board, each 23 5⁄8 × 18 7⁄8"). From “Just Not Australian.”

“Just Not Australian”

Artspace, Sydney

Co-organized by Artspace and Sydney Festival, “Just Not Australian” featured works by nineteen Australian artists and collectives of varied heritages. All were concerned with what it means to be cast as “un-Australian,” a politicized slander applied to any group, person, or act said to deviate from supposed norms of national identity. Over the years, opportunistic politicians and media commentators have mobilized the phrase to demonize targets varying from asylum seekers and striking workers to cricket cheats and the veils worn by Muslim women. For many of the artists in the show, contemporary Australian identity contains large doses of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny. FUCK OFF WE’RE FULL, 2011/2019, by seventh-generation Australian Muslim Abdul Abdullah, was a black-and-white light-box projection of the Australian map inscribed with the words of the title. Expletives were also present in Tony Schwensen’s contribution, another comment on Australia’s notoriously harsh refugee policies. In the installation Border Protection Assistance Proposed Monument for the Torres Strait (Am I ever going to see your face again?), three road barriers, respectively emblazoned with the phrases NO WAY, GET FUCKED, and FUCK OFF, sit in a triangular arrangement. Not only do the words speak of xenophobia (Schwensen produced the work in 2002, when the conservative government at the time was whipping up hysteria over refugees), they also refer to live performances of the song “Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again” by the Australian rock band the Angels. At concerts, after the band sang the titular lament, audiences would chant back the words of rejection Schwensen appends to symbols of border policing. Laconic profanity also featured in a cluster of paintings by the Northern Irish–born Australian artist Jon Campbell. Campbell induced a double take, picking out Aussie catchphrases such as FUCK YEAH, PURE BEWDY, and the familiar bigot’s disavowal I’M NOT A RACIST, BUT . . . , in delicate pastel shades and decorative patterns.

The exhibition included works by seven artists of indigenous Australian heritage. A number of the works vigorously interrogated a male, Anglo vision of Australian identity—what one critic, writing about the savage unpicking of myths of nationality in the Sydney art collective Soda_Jerk’s compilation film TERROR NULLIUS, 2018, called a “toxic colonial boys club mentality.” The indigenous artist Fiona Foley addressed colonial race relations in Hunted, 2019, a work based on two black tic-tac-toe grids painted on the gallery’s white wall. Appended to roughly half the grids’ spaces were black calico hoods with pearl shell buttons embroidered onto the fabric to form facial features. As Foley explains, the piece invokes a little-told history of abduction from the late nineteenth century, when pearl shell fishing along the Queensland coast was at its height. White fishermen would kidnap Aboriginal men, women, and children, forcing the men to labor on the boats and pressing the women into sexual servitude. In Never Forget, 2019, another indigenous artist, Karla Dickens, took satirical aim at the symbolic role of British royalty in monarchist visions of Australian national identity. The installation featured three Christian crosses painted on the wall in funeral black; abutting one of the crosses were four panels—respectively titled Bottom Feeders I, II, III, and IV, 2018—displaying collaged head shots of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Phillip, the queen mother, and paraphernalia commemorating past royal visits. Dickens reworked this material by painting the royals cartoon style as octopuses with long tentacles encircling symbols of indigenous culture. The artist explains that she sees the British royal family as “blue-ribbon opportunists who have thrived from the stolen lands and lives of first Australians.”

While many of the works in the show adopted a muscular rhetoric of moral outrage, attesting to ongoing, rancorous debates about Australian identity, some made their point in more subtle and even conciliatory ways. Currently, the government is gearing up for festivities next year to mark the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s first voyage to Australia in 1770, when he claimed the country for the British crown. “Just Not Australian” suggested that not all Australians will be celebrating.