Indigenous identity

Exhibition explores and recalls the pain and inequality experienced by Australia's aboriginal community

History is laden with stories of loss and agony. In particular, "the losing side" often carries a memory that does not easily fade despite the passage of time.

Message Stick series

"Message Stick: Indigenous Identity In Urban Australia", supported by the Australian government and ArtBank, should serve as a lesson to all mankind regardless of our version of history. This roadshow exhibition weaves social, historical and political remembrances of native life converted into contemporary artistic messages. Thailand is the fourth venue in the itinerary, before the show goes on to Brunei and Indonesia.

The "message stick" of indigenous Australians is a piece of wood or carved stone decorated with tribal symbols and ornamental patterns, used as an instrument of communication among their communities and also used in ceremonies, as well as for protection and a sort of "passport". There are over 250 aboriginal groups across Australia, and the message sticks of each group are unique in design and form. Twenty-one creations by 11 indigenous artists, who now live in the urban Australia, explore and recall the pain and inequality their ancestors encountered since the first ships of the colonisers arrived in terra Australis in 1788. Thailand may never experience first-hand the grief and pain of colonisation, but the historical narrative of early Australia is something that resonates across the globe and the centuries.

The Ungrateful

Curator Carrie Kibbler writes in her programme notes: "Many artists were self-taught, or trained with their fathers and relatives, and began their arts practice in the tourist souvenir industry _ one of few ways for Aboriginal artists to gain some economic independence from their practice."

In many countries, native art is a familiar way that cultural heritage serves tourists' desires. That is only the way to survive. From the 1970s on, indigenous artists were able to increasingly access art education as well as financial support provided by the government, which slowly promoted their creativity and prominence. Going through the experience of assimilation since the 1930s, Robert Campbell Jr and Julie Dowing created works that are strong in both message and aesthetics. Campbell Jr's Please Welfare, Don't Take My Kids, from 1987, unflinchingly offers a depressing tale of the plight of indigenous children. It was not only the aboriginal community which suffered, but all migrants.

"I am painting to show people what truths took place in my lifetime," said Campbell Jr. "When we were on the mission the old people were not allowed to talk the lingo _ not allowed to teach us our language. I am still searching for that Aboriginal identity that I have lost."

Julie Dowing's The Ungrateful (1999) subtly reflects the Stolen Generation's bitterness. In her painting, Dowing shows an elegant white woman surrounded by aboriginal children dressed in modern clothes, wearing expressions of despair and surrender. Without shouting its message too loudly, the painting stimulates viewers to interpret the idea of a "family photo" _ how sweet a family should be in the ideal world. Dowing was inspired by the true story of a close family friend, called Auntie, who was taken in by a white-run orphanage when she was just two.

Reviving Kamilaroi traditional ornaments, Reko Rennie is one of the pioneers of indigenous graffiti art. His outstanding "Message Stick" series, made in 1999, combined modern media such as acrylics and techniques like spraying with Aboriginal art. Rennie deftly merged two different symbols of different times: the message stick figure and the paint canister of graffiti artists.

Hunting Ground

Heavily influenced by street art, the geometric pattern of Kamilaroi art represents indigenous identity and wisdom that the artist interprets as contemporary indigenous art.

"The diamond pattern can be likened to a coat of arms. There are four male and four female symbols that designate four different language groups within the Kamilaroi people," said Rennie, explaining the form he chose.

Christian Thompson is the youngest artist in this show but he has had numerous solo and group exhibitions domestically and internationally. Pursuing an inter-disciplinary and conceptual practice, Thompson presents his photograph works Hunting Ground, made in 2007. The works feature the artist with an eye covered by a patch made of decorative plates in a series of passive, serious and ironic postures that tell the story of his search for an Australian identity.

Another photograph-based work, Darren Siwes's Gold, Sliver, Bronze Puella touches on issues of class, identity and politics among Australians. Siwes appropriates an image of Queen Elizabeth II and adorns coins to interlink the definition of the hierarchy system that divides people into classes.

"I aim to elicit imagination and dialogue [whether fictitious or not] regarding justice and injustice particularly in relation to social classes," he said.

Besides those highlights, well known indigenous artists like Adam Hill, Brook Andrew, Danie Mellor, H.J. Wedge, Ian W. Abulla and Richard Bell contribute works that also reveal Aboriginal history through their visual art _ a modern "message stick" whose power of communication remains strong after all these years.

"Message Stick: Indigenous Identity In Urban Australia" is on show until Nov 27 at the Art Centre, Office of Academic Resources, Chulalongkorn University. Visit for more.

Please Welfare, Don’t Take My Kids

About the author

Writer: Suebsang Sangwachirapiban
Position: Life Reporter