REMEMBERING: SHARKS & SHAMANS - January 27, 2017

Image: Glenn Iseger-Pilkington, courtesy Mangkaja Arts & Emilia Galatis. Copyright John Prince Siddon, 2019.

Image: Glenn Iseger-Pilkington, courtesy Mangkaja Arts & Emilia Galatis. Copyright John Prince Siddon, 2019.

video filmed by Wes Maselli available here

transcript of speech by Glenn Iseger Pilkington, 27 January 2017

Aboriginal Australia; Aboriginal Australian

Australia; Australian

Migrant; Immigrant; emigrant

Refugee; Asylum seeker

Nation; State; Self;

History; reality

Fiction; truth

Acceptance; contestation

Right; wrong

Reality; Dreams; Dreaming; Dreamtime

Imagining; Re-imagining

Taking; Restoring; Creating; Recreating

Then; Now; When; Everywhen; 

So, here we find ourselves in a Survival day/Celebration day sandwich, the day between Survival day or as some of you know it, Australia day, or quite simply in the Gregorian calendar as January 26th, yesterday and tomorrow, the somewhat contentious ‘One day in Freo’ celebrations. What yesterday’s date means to each of us is personal, and informed through our ancestral legacies, our lived experiences, the communities we belong to and the people we surround ourselves with. For some, particularly Indigenous peoples, this is a day of grief and sadness, for others a day of patriotism, nationalism and even hyper-nationalism.

 For many this is simply a day to be with friends and listen to the Hottest 100 while sinking back a few tinnies, while for some this is a day of transformation, of taking a pledge of allegiance to Australian values and ways of life, in citizenship ceremonies happening around the country. January 26th is many things for many people.

 What can’t be denied any longer is that the celebration of Australia Day on January 26th, marking the anniversary of the arrival of the first fleet in what is now call Port Jackson in New South Wales, the discovery and taking possession of the great southern land, has perhaps become more than a day of a binary oppositions, more than a day of Aboriginal resistance to White Australian histories, values and impositions. It has become a day that is accepted or contested not just through a lens of binary discourses, of Indigenous and non- Indigenous but through a multiplicity of values and opinions which reflect the ever-shifting cultural nuance and diversity of contemporary Australia. This is not a simple affair, this is a dialogue that is interrogated on this continent in over 200 spoken languages, including approximately 50 Indigenous languages and dialects, oh and of course in English.

 At this time, between these two significant days, what is most interesting are the questions that emerge about who we are as Australians, whether you are Aboriginal Australian, Torres Strait Islander, Anglo-Celtic Australian, whether you family arrived through a historic diaspora, sought asylum during war time, maybe your family relocated to Australia recently to begin a new life, or perhaps you came here on a 457 visa. How ever you got here, you are here now, you are a part of the Australian story.

 The questions I think we need to think about is this, what does it mean to be an Australian? Can we even all exist under this notion of ‘the Australian’, a term that for all official reasons is meant to unify us, to act as a kind of fascia that wraps up this cultural cacophony into one tight and pleasant little package.

 Equally, what does it mean to be a first Australian? An Aboriginal Australian, a Torres Strait Islander, or an Indigenous Australian, depending what flavour of self-identification words you like best. Again, this is complex, it’s not one thing, not one people, but a way of clustering similar values, histories, cultures and way of living, and which speaks to a deep an ancient connectivity of peoples over land. For many of us as Aboriginal Australians, we have multiple belongings, although we are inherently connected to the Australian narrative of the last 230 years, some of us are closely connected to narratives of far corners of the planet, with my maternal grandparents arriving on a ship from Amsterdam only 64 years ago. Each of us, as people living on this continent and the Islands within its national territories, have a story, a relationship to this place, and the right to think and feel about the way we celebrate or memorialise and grieve for our histories, ancestors and lands.

As Australians, who are our idols? What are our values? Who do we include, and who do we exclude for our Australian story – who lives in a state of exile in this great southern land? What are our truths and realities, and what are our illusions and delusions? It is not my place to make any judgement on this, but to simply, on this evening, here in this space, paint a picture, perhaps just a miniature, of the complexities of the Australian dichotomy, the realities in which we all exist within. How do we as Australians see the world around us, and what happens when the world comes to join us? These are big questions with no immediate answers. Perhaps we each can answers these for ourselves, but as a nation, we seem to struggle to be able to find a collective language by which to talk about these difficult and perplexing topics.

I do however think that the celebrations happening tomorrow at ‘One Day in Freo’, signal the beginnings of invigorated and important dialogues, which will inevitably be lively, challenging and at times evocative and emotional. It is a day, that I hope we look back on, as a watershed moment that initiated real change in the collective Australian psyche and a shift in our consciousness. I will be proud to bear witness to these events, happening in our back yard, here in Western Australia, near the mouth of the Derbyl Yerrigan, sacred and revered by local Nyoongar Peoples, and also integral to the establishment of the Swan River Settlement over Boorloo, the area now known commonly as Perth. The history of this place is not without bloodshed, atrocity and great cultural violence, however courageous steps such as those taken by the city of Fremantle, are crucial to finding new ways to walk and live together.

In painting this picture my only hope is to give some context to the place in time we all occupy together, and to offer some thoughts on the works of the two artists in this show, John Prince Siddon and Wes Maselli, and on the curatorial vision of my dear friend and colleague Emilia Galatis.

With this contextual grounding we can begin to contemplate and reflect upon the expanded spaces that these works emerge from, the multiples of belonging, existing, imagining and navigating that are expressed by these two artists. These two men, who both live and work in Fitzroy Crossing, come from radically different worlds, yet through their friendship, camaraderie, creative dialogue and trust in each other, are able to find new ways to challenge and inspire each other, a lesson we as Australians can all take guidance from.

Their works both emerge from unique Australian vantage points; from Australian landscapes which draw on ancient Dreamings, intersect with physical realities and blend with the hilarity, irony, energy and ridiculousness of pop culture and epic mythical story worlds. Each of these works reflect and mirror the realities of Australian life and culture, both ancient and recent; they interrogate our politics, our fanaticism, our hypocrisy, our nationhood, our sense of place, our beginnings, and in some of Prince’s works like Freo Sea Eagle, perhaps allude to our symbolic ends; our second chance at new beginnings. 

Siddon takes us into a world where anything is possible, where everyone is either predator or prey, or perhaps both. Drawing from and riffing off narratives from the Narrangkarni, the dreaming, these works speak to life and death and the spaces in-between. They draw on Siddon’s unique Walmajarri heritage but speak equally to his life in a global world. They are full to the brim in danger, and evoke a fear of death; they put forward the only truth in our lives, that we are born and that we will die, yet the vibrancy of colour and pattern speak to the excitement, passion and vigour of the experiences we can have in this world.

Maselli on the other hand takes us on a journey which places a mirror right up in your grill, reflecting unto us a vivid, satirical and poignant reflection of ourselves as individuals and as a nation. His work seeks to unpack the Australian psyche and identity in new ways, ways which critique the languages we operate within, literal and visual, social and political. These are the languages in which we forge our sense of self, and our collective Australian selves? Whether we sit to the left or the right, this is the binary code in which we all operate, one zero, one zero.

His works place the contested or accepted Australian icon or hero, depending on your politics, within the frame; from our Prime Minster, Malcolm Turnbull and Eddie McGuire, to Shane Warne and Steve Irwin. These so-called heroes and icons, serve a national agenda, to validate the values and behaviours of their followers, who ferociously stand behind the words and actions of their false heroes, even if such behaviours are divisive, racist, sexist or homophobic; and function to exclude sectors of our community. These are the actors within the epic and enduring Australian narrative, the idols of a certain iteration of a certain version of Popular-Australia. These roles were filled by others a generation ago, and will be filled both others in the next generation, but integral to the narrative are these archetypes of dinky di, true blue, no worries Australia – if only things were that simple.

Interestingly, Maselli doesn’t depict the contested/accepted black subject, instead they are embedded within the narrative through their omission, perhaps a reference to the invisibility of Indigenous Australia historically? It’s hard however, not to think about Adam Goodes when presented with an image of Eddie the ape, which directly references McGuire’s racist remarks towards Goodes. So, in the abyss of absence, of omission, portraits are painted of others who also feature in this narrative of Australia.

Maselli has however rendered works which acknowledge his life in an Indigenous context. Bush medicine 1 looks at Aboriginal ecological knowledge, while FASD Roo looks at the challenging realities of Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, which continue to be prevalent in the communities Maselli lives and works in. Maselli’s work, and his critique seems to simultaneously peer onto the world from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian vantage points and I think this is how his work is able to encourage both curiosity and concern.

The works of these two artists offer us different ways of understanding Australian history, experience and reality, they ask us questions who we are and what we stand for while inviting us into political, cultural and social worlds of creativity, energy and imagination I guess what I’d hoped to explore here tonight are our choices, our positions and our politics. So, I ask each of you, where do you sit in all of this? What do you stand for as an Australian in 2017? What will you challenge, what will you object to, and what will you stand by?

Yesterday and tomorrow are both significant days, and perhaps some of us will have participated in both in some way, and I think that’s ok, as long as we stop working in a binary of right and wrong. What’s right for you, might not be right for me, while some of you might consider tomorrow’s celebrations divisive, I see them opening up a space for me and my Indigenous colleagues, friends and family and making room for the legacies of my ancestors, which aren’t memorialised on January 26th, and whose pains are not acknowledged.

So, I guess it’s about context and perspective, but I’d encourage all of you to ponder on some of this, and maybe I’ll see you tomorrow, maybe I won’t, but I hope I do see you One Day, in Freo.