‘The Empire Strikes Back’: Acclaimed Australian Show Begins European Tour | Indigenous art
On one level it is a feast for the eyes: amazing bursts of reds, oranges, yellows that are sure to warm visitors up during the gloomy British winter months. But dig into older, deeper stories about sustainability, community, and acceptance that could hardly be better timed.
After being seen by over 400,000 people in Australia, winning awards and garnering rave reviews, the Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibit opens this week at The Box in Plymouth on the first leg of a European tour. which will take place in Paris and Berlin.
The exhibition features more than 300 paintings, photographs, objects – as well as elements of song and dance – by more than 100 Indigenous Australians, mostly women. A “DomeLab” – an immersive video projection gadget – will transport viewers from the South West of England to the deserts and caves of Australia and to the solar system.
Margo Neale, senior Indigenous curator at the National Museum of Australia and lead curator of the exhibit, said she was motivated by a desire to preserve the songs, which are difficult to sum up in English but could be described as centuries-old paths of Indigenous Knowledge and Creation History, for future generations and to share with the rest of the world.
“This is not an art exhibit, a history exhibit, or a science exhibit,” Neale said. “That’s all that. It is both an Australian Aboriginal exhibit and a universal history of mankind. It offers us connectivity to each other and to our planet in a world that is fragmenting. “
Neale oversaw the set-up of the exhibit via Zoom and Microsoft Teams from Canberra as she was unable to travel to Devon due to Covid restrictions, but she is delighted that the UK is the primary port stopover outside Australia for the show. “It’s the empire fighting back.”
She said Plymouth in particular was a suitable berth as it was the port from which James Cook sailed in 1768 to “settle or invade Australia, whichever side of the fence you sit on.”
When it was shown in Australia, visitors came time and time again and sat drinking in the exhibit for hours. “It’s really touched, it’s so good right now,” said Neale. “You learn lessons about survival, kinship, the rules of marriage, what you should and shouldn’t do, what is appropriate and what is not, simple truths about living in harmony, lightness, that the country is a member of your family, something you cry, sing. The land does not belong to us. It’s a story for the whole world.
The Box only opened a year ago, but it has already attempted to explain how the indigenous peoples of what is now the United States suffered when another ship that sailed from Plymouth, the Mayflower, got there.
Victoria Pomery, who became Managing Director of The Box after a 19-year stint as founding director of Turner Contemporary at Margate, said the gallery and museum were determined to tackle difficult topics and that she believed the vibrancy and color of the exhibition would be a huge draw. “I think we all need it this fall and winter. It’s a real blow for Plymouth.
The exhibition runs from October 21 to February 27, 2022. It is part of the UK / Australia 2021-22 season, a major cultural exchange program organized by the British Council and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australian government.