The secret magical hybrid life of us


What kind of country would Australia be if successive waves of immigrants had adopted more of the values of indigenous people? What would have happened if, instead of conquering the land, newcomers had modified their demands to the needs of country and those who were already there?

These are the questions behind Terra Alterius, Land of Another, currently showing at Sydney’s Ivan Dougherty Gallery.

The exhibition’s curator, Margaret Farmer, used to work in legal publishing. So she’s familiar with the doctrine of terra nullius, the bizarre idea that Australia was empty land, a blank canvas, before European settlement. The High Court formally abandoned this doctrine in the 1990s. Its influence persists, however, as the thinking behind it underpinned the building of our cities, the creation of our monuments, the growth of our industries.

In the face of this weighty foundation myth, Terra Alterius call for ‘something different’ could have seemed tentative, uncertain, ungrounded. Farmer’s fantasy might have flopped. After all, art in Australia today is more commonly understood in terms of the slick, the pretentious and the commercial.

Marshalling a small group of artists to help her realise this vision, Farmer found — perhaps to her surprise — that Terra Alterius may already be reality. In their daily creative life, these artists already practise different ways of thinking and making, accepting different responses to history and the environment. Some of the artists are indigenous Australians, others are from our many immigrant cultures. What they share is a spirit of generosity, the embrace of difference, so missing from our official government doctrine of selfish greed.

Start with Esme Timbery’s shell-covered models of Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. Timbery’s Bidjigal people were encrusting objects with shells long before the arrival of Europeans. By decorating these western icons in her traditional way, she incorporates them into a world of aboriginality. Contrast Timbery’s hand-made approach with the work of younger indigenous artist Jonathan Jones. He draws the barriers between land and sea, indigenous and immigrant, with parallel coloured lines made using a sewing machine. In Jones’ world the lines join and separate, working in harmony to make his art.

Nestling near Timbery’s work is Guan Wei’s Big Mouse Kingdom. Guan Wei explores the cultural transformations he and his family experienced in immigrating from China to Australia. Big Mouse Kingdom is a mythical account of Australian history where indigenous people meet dinosaurs, dragons and ancient Chinese ships. Together they create a world blown by fair winds that welcomes strangers. Here ancient Chinese medicinal plants join with Australia’s native plants to produce miraculous, hybrid medicines.

Cultural continuity and generosity are at the heart of Julie Dowling’s Dispossession Series: Lizzie, Tully, Spacey. This is a three-part portrait of a family that crosses racial boundaries with love and respect. The work stands in powerful contrast with some of Dowling’s earlier works dealing with the aftermath of white settlers treating their indigenous partners with contempt.

The human alliance guiding the emerging Terra Alterius is real yet fragile. This message is conveyed best in Lynette Wallworth’s Still: Waiting. Her interactive electronic installation shows a landscape of breathtaking beauty, where sulphur-crested cockatoos nest in a giant tree. Any movement on the part of a visitor, and the birds fly in confusion. The visitor needs to learn to sit and wait and absorb.

If we are careful, and if enough people see the world through the eyes of these artists, then Terra Alterius may indeed become Terra Veritatis.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.