A stunning new exhibition has opened at the Bega Valley Regional Gallery (BVRG), featuring some of Australia’s most important Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. ‘Weapons for the Soldier’ attempts to shed light on the forgotten stories of Indigenous men who have fought for their land and for Australia.
Initiated by young men of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunyjatjara (APY) Lands, ‘Weapons for the Soldier’ brings together an impressive 41 artists who have created work examining attitudes to weaponry, warfare, and the connection to protecting land and Country.
On opening ‘Weapons for the Soldier’, Bega Valley Shire Mayor, Cr Kristy McBain began “I studied history at school and we learned about white settlement of Australia, and even about American Indians, but we didn’t learn anything about Indigenous Australian history.”
This exhibition is an opportunity for viewers to explore some of that history, through paintings and other works about conflict, with many artists portraying “what it is to be a soldier today, and to fight to protect your land and culture.”
Weapons for the Soldier was initiated by the young men of APY lands including Vincent Namatjira, Aaron Ken, Derek Thompson, Anwar Young and Kamurin Young.
Many Australian art lovers will recognise the name Namatjira. One of the instigators of this exhibition, Vincent Namatjira is the great-grandson of well known Indigenous art pioneer Albert Namatjira. Vincent and the young men connected with other Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists who they saw as peers.
With the permission and support of other senior men who often paint weapons and stories of conflict, these young Indigenous artists have explored what it means to be a soldier today and to fight in order to protect your land and culture.
Twenty-seven of these artists are from the art centres of these central Australian lands. A further 14 are some of Australia’s most important Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, including Ben Quilty, George Gittoes, Shaun Gladwell, Reko Rennie and Danie Mellor.
Developed during the ANZAC Centenary, the exhibition and these universal themes have resonated among audiences across Australia.
BVRG Director, Iain Dawson, says “fighting for Country and a deep connection to Country are recurrent themes explored throughout the exhibition. Collectively the works are evocative of both the broader tenets of the ANZAC legacy and the distinct position of Indigenous people within Australia.”
“The exhibition and its themes have resonated with audiences across Australia, and we are very much looking forward to dialogue being fostered here in the Bega Valley,” Mr Dawson says of the show, which opened the week of Remembrance Day.
“These are works that will promote conversations around multi-geographical and multigenerational fights for land, Country and freedom experienced by Australians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, as well as the Indigenous experience in Australian military history.”
Many of the senior Aboriginal artists that have collaborated in the exhibition are elders in their communities, recognised custodians of traditional Law and culture, like Taylor Cooper and Witjiti George.
‘‘The Tjilpies (senior men) from the APY Lands have spent their lives protecting Tjukurpa (culture), country and family,’’ says Frank Young, Chairman APY Council, ‘‘for Anangu people this is the most important thing.”
From working with other artists it became apparent many discovered common ground here. ‘‘Connection to country and protecting country is something that artists from all over Australia make work and share stories about. This has become the heart of the project,’’ says Young.
Vincent Namatjira researched the often-overlooked contribution of Indigenous Australian soldiers and has explained “I use army surplus camouflage material as the background to represent the soldier”.
Recently, in a portrait of co-collaborator artist Tony Albert, Namatjira took this symbolism further, and describes the background as “representing the Indigenous man fighting for Aboriginal Australia – art is his weapon.”
Audiences may leave this moving exhibition having been struck by Namatjira’s sentiment, that these works are themselves weapons – strong, beautiful, wry and relevant.
Participating APY Lands Artists are: Alec Baker, Eric Barney, Willy Kaika Burton, Pepai Jangala Carroll, Taylor Cooper, Sammy Dodd, Witjiti George, Rupert Jack, Kunmanara (Brenton) Ken, Ray Ken, Hector Mitakiki, Junior Mitakiki, Kamarin Mitakiki, Kunmanara (Willy Muntjantji) Martin, Peter Mungkuri, Vincent Namatjira, Kunmanara (Jimmy) Pompey, Keith Stevens, Derek Jungarrayi Thompson, Thomas Ilytjari Tjilya, Bernard Tjalkuri, Ginger Wikilyiri, Mick Wikilyiri, Mumu Mike Williams, Anwar Young, Frank Young, Kamurin Young, Young men of Amata.
Invited Artists: Abdul Abdullah, Tony Albert, Brook Andrew, Lionel Bawden, George Gittoes, Shaun Gladwell, Richard Lewer, Uncle Charles ‘Chicka’ Madden, Jonathan Jones, Danie Mellor,Steaphan Paton, Ben Quilty, Reko Rennie, Greg Semu, Alex Seton.
Weapons for the Soldier will run at the Bega Valley Regional Gallery until February 8, 2020.
Due to the large number of works in the exhibition, some will be shown in the nearby Bega Civic Centre. These will be able to be viewed during normal office hours.
For more information on the exhibition and the gallery programs visit the BVRG website.