In the heart of Naarm/Melbourne, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) Australia’s Ian Potter Centre is now home to Wurrdha Marra, which translates to ‘Many Mobs’ in the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung language. This new permanent First Peoples’ gallery space is a testament to the enduring and vibrant Indigenous culture and art in Australia.
Wurrdha Marra was graciously bestowed upon NGV by Wurundjeri Elder, Aunty Gail Smith, of the Wurundjeri Council. It’s a space that not only showcases familiar masterpieces from NGV’s collection of First Nations Australian art and design but also integrates newer acquisitions. This ever-changing exhibition space is dedicated to permanence, ensuring that First Nations art remains on display even during de-installation and re-installation.
Myles Russell-Cook, the NGV’s Senior Curator of Australian and First Nations Art, emphasizes the significance of Wurrdha Marra. He hopes that this space will serve as a platform for anyone seeking to engage with First Peoples’ art from Australia. The gallery brings together dialogues across place, generations, and media, fostering a deeper understanding of Indigenous culture.
Educating and Celebrating Indigenous Art
To guide visitors of all backgrounds, each artwork on display is accompanied by an extended label designed to educate viewers about the complex cultural meanings embedded in First Peoples’ art. It aims to dispel the misconception that such art is merely “abstract” and helps viewers recognize the depth of language and inherited iconography that connects people to their ancestors and land.
Keemon Williams: Challenging Conventions Through Art
One of the artists featured in the inaugural installation of Wurrdha Marra is Keemon Williams, a Koa, Kuku Yalanji, and Meriam Mir artist who identifies as queer. Williams’ work revolves around redefining Australian, Indigenous Australian, and queer Australian identities.
In his Boomerangs series, Williams takes words like ‘INTERSEX,’ ‘CATHOHOLIC,’ ‘LIMP WRIST,’ and ‘MASTURBATOR’ and inscribes them onto colorful resin boomerangs. These words are chosen deliberately to explore the intersections of being First Nations and queer. By reformatting the boomerang as a mode for language, he confronts the personal and societal implications of these words.
Williams says, “Boomerangs traditionally are both ceremonial and hunting tools. A lot of these words are used to hunt me and people like me. So, I’m repurposing and rendering those words onto this platform — so they can no longer be thrown at me. I’m throwing them back out.”
Russell-Cook commends Williams’ ability to engage the public in challenging conversations about identity through his art. Williams’ work serves as a soft entry point for complex discussions, making it accessible to a broader audience.
A Turning Point for Artists
For young artists like Keemon Williams, having their work displayed in institutions like NGV Australia signifies a turning point in their careers. It’s a recognition of their talent and the importance of preserving and celebrating Indigenous art and culture for future generations.
As the NGV’s commitment to the First Nations collection and spaces like Wurrdha Marra shows, there’s a growing awareness and a renewed dedication to acknowledging the past, present, and future of Indigenous peoples in Australia. It’s a testament to the resilience of Indigenous culture and the vital role of art in advancing conversations about identity and heritage.
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