Since taking on the position of Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) early in 2017, Clothilde Bullen has not stopped. Last year took her to the Venice Biennale, where Tracey Moffatt’s retrospective My Horizon was on display. Moffatt was the first Indigenous artist to represent Australia with a solo show at the event. This year she will curate two shows at the MCA, while also mentoring artists at the newly established APY Gallery in Darlinghurst. To top it off, Bullen was handpicked to co-curate the ambitious multi-venue exhibition, The National 2019: New Australian Art.
This diversity of opportunities represents an efflorescence of Bullen’s potential as a curator, something that was limited in her previous role at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA).
“The Art Gallery of WA is a state based institution and of course it's very conservative and particularly being in Western Australia it's very very conservative and so the types of shows that you would be able to do or the people you could work with was quite limited,” reflected Bullen. However, being based in WA for the past ten years has given Bullen a keen sense of contemporary trends in Indigenous art, particularly through her work with artists from the Kimberly and the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands.
Uniting those works produced in regional and remote areas with Indigenous art from urban centres are the commonalities and solidarities among Indigenous and First Nations artists. As Bullen states, “we share the knowledge that our history hasn't been represented well, we have a struggle still ahead of us, there's still institutional prejudices and structural racism in Australia as a western colony.”
While no institution is perfect, Bullen has been enthused by the approach that the MCA has adopted. Bullen, who is a Wardandi (Nyoongar) Aboriginal woman with English/French heritage, identified the museum’s activity-based Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy as an industry-leading effort to create a space where Aboriginal people have a measure of cultural safety, something that Bullen notes is rare in government institutions where “you're often the only Aboriginal person there.”
However, Bullen is keen to push the institution further forward, for example in her November show Compass, which brings together the artistic work of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women. This not only dovetails with the theme of NAIDOC this year, Because of Her We Can, but highlights how institutions have often overlooked or ignored the works of female artists, particularly those from a non-white background.
Rather than the traditional model of the curator as the gatekeeper between the artist and the public, Bullen is keen to pioneer a practice of collaboration and facilitation. Noting that her work is fundamentally about changing people’s minds, Bullen sees succession planning as “absolutely critical to developing a larger political mass of Aboriginal artists and curators” and it is this critical mass that will achieve Bullen’s goals, rather than the work of one individual.
Bullen has outlined this philosophy further in A Call To Arms, an essay published as part of the Next Wave festival. Here, Bullen highlighted that despite Indigenous visual arts being a multimillion dollar industry, there were only 20 Indigenous curators working in government institutions in Australia, and roughly 100 Indigenous arts professionals working in paid positions in the wider arts industry.
Engaging the perspectives of Indigenous curators and arts professionals extends the ecosystem of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art from the point of artistic production to the presentation and reception of these artworks. While part of this is presenting Indigenous artists in new ways, it also entails rethinking the categories and practices that Indigenous art is forced into. Commenting on the George Tjungurrayi works displayed at Carriageworks as part of the Sydney Biennale, some of which are mounted horizontally on plinths at ground level, Bullen highlights how this alteration of Western curatorial practices reflected the actual process of their production.
“Go to the arts centre, this is what happens, there's dogs walking over the works, there's kids playing with it, it's not this ‘Musee d'Object’. It's a living thing that people interact with.”
Bullen will be further challenging ideas of what contemporary art is as part of the upcoming John Mawurndjul show, I Am The Old and The New. This title, which explicitly problematizes our understanding of what contemporary art means came not from Bullen, however, but Mawurndjul himself.
Bullen recounted that John Mawurndjul “recognises that he is a contemporary man but that the content of this work comes from 60 000 years ago. So he has a very good understanding of where he's placed as an artist within that and so that was him saying ‘I am the old and the new.’”
This direction influenced Bullen’s approach too, as she rejects the ethnographical or anthropological labels applied to Indigenous art. “We're positioning [the exhibition] as it should be, as contemporary art because any work that's created here and now is contemporary art. It might be created with a traditional medium but it is contemporary art.”
Including works by artists such as Mawurndjul in the sphere of contemporary art challenges Western understandings of art history which state that artworks can only exist in one time frame. Bullen counters that multiple time hierarchies can exist in a work, and that is what is captured in the work of Mawurndjul; the past, the present and the future.
Part of the preparations for the Mawurndjul exhibition will include a smoking ceremony of the entirety of the third floor of the MCA, with all the MCA staff present. This performative element associated with the work also highlights how these works are not static objects, but come with a life and a history themselves.
Bullen herself is open to these kinds of interactions between the artist and the artwork, as she notes, “John will come in early and so his interaction with the works is very performative as well: he might sing to one of the works.”
This goes back to an experience that Bullen had at AGWA where prior to the Patrick Bedford show the Neminuwarlin Performance Group performed a Joonba to open the space. What happened next challenged some of the most fundamental Western art practices.
“It's very naughty because you're not supposed to do this but we curtained off the spaces where the work was, particularly the ochre works, and they were touching the works. Now you know you're not supposed to do that and everyone's freaking out but the thing was, to do this joonba they had to actually touch this work. It was like a portal, it was going straight back to country and they had to do that so they were getting that energy and they could actually then do the performance.”
Opening up a discussion about art is part of what animates Bullen in her position at the MCA. Unlike other institutions, Bullen argues, “there is no dumbing down. Ask anything you want, let's talk about this, let's have a conversation and that's really what it's about rather than we'll tell you.”
Bullen sees the success of this approach in the way that young people interact with art at the MCA, which in turn implies an openness to a different way of imagining Australia.
“I think young people are much more versed in this and they're less scared to ask the questions. I think for an older generation, Aboriginal history in this country is quite terrifying. Wheras young people are like ‘we can ask the question.’ It's cool, it's good.”
I Am The Old and The New opens on July 6. Find out more and discover the MCA’s First Peoples’ collection here, https://www.mca.com.au/first-peoples