Border Crossings

Border Crossings, Galway Arts Centre July 2016

SASA Gallery, Adelaide, March 2016

Michelle Browne |Julie Gough | Sandra Johnston | Sue Kneebone | Yhonnie Scarce | Dominic Thorpe

Curated by Mary Knights & Michelle Browne, assisted by Ursula Halpin

Border Crossings brought together curators and contemporary artists from Ireland and Australia to investigate cross-cultural issues surrounding ethnic conflict, the legacy of colonialism and the challenges of reconciliation that are relevant to both countries. Irish performance artists Michelle Browne, Sandra Johnston and Dominic Thorpe are recognised internationally for courageous, provocative performances that interrogate social justice issues and the complexities of history. Researching family histories and historical documents Julie Gough, Yhonnie Scarce and Sue Kneebone explore the complexities of cross-cultural relationships and engagements and ponder how was it that some of their Irish ancestors, so long familiar with the tyranny of colonisation so easily slipped into the role of coloniser, dispossessing the Indigenous people of their land, culture and language.

For Border Crossings Julie Gough researched colonial records and compiled data on 3775 Irish convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land. The records hint at the fractured lives of the men and women exiled from Ireland. For example, the entry for James Hevy reveals that the 22 year old seaman from Dublin was sentenced to transportation for life in 1833 and had a number of tattoos including the name ‘Isabella’ on one arm, and on the other, the wistful words: ‘the ocean may between us roll and distant though we be dearest should we never meet more I’ll still remember thee’. Julie Gough investigates the aura and politics inherent in a person’s name and indeed the memory or records of a name. Records and then graves mark the presence of Gough’s Irish ancestors which contrasts starkly with the absence of her Aboriginal family history: they have been erased from record. At the same time that the Irish were being imported, the Indigenous peoples of Van Diemen’s Land were exiled to Wybalenna on Flinders Island in the 1830s and 1840s in a “Conciliatory Mission” whose result was rampant disease and mass death.

The starting point for Sue Kneebone’s sculptural and photographic works was her many Irish ancestors. Kneebone utilises archival materials and colonial-era objects to interrogate colonial settler culture with a darkness that is sometimes laced with a bittersweet-humour. Sue’s practice explores ways in which the social and environmental chain of effects from the past follow us into the present. Her work focuses on the ramifications and legacy of the Australian colonial settler culture, exploring the intersections between nature and culture, history and memory, to imagine other ways of knowing the past and how it shadows us in the present.

The performance and sculptural work of Irish artist Sandra Johnston, is based on a residency in Warlukurlangu Artists Art Centre, one of the longest running and most successful Aboriginal-owned art centres in Central Australia. Warlukurlangu means ‘belonging to fire’ in the local language, Warlpiri, and is named after a fire dreaming site west of Yuendumu. While there, Sandra Johnston immersed herself in the community: mixing paint, making canvasses, bringing water and food. Gathering discarded objects – deflated basketballs, ash and coals, staples – Johnston imbues these objects with a political charge and a fragility that is life in the bush.

Dominic Thorpe’s performance work is recognised for being a visceral yet accessible response to stories of traumatic experiences, particularly those occurring as a result of cultures of silence. His work often deals with legacies and continuing realities of abuses that happen within and around institutions and systems which purport to care for people who are directed to them for help. Thorpe will exhibit new video and text based work and will also perform during the exhibition. His work takes the Irish ballad ‘Fields of Athenry’ as a starting point. By inviting a small number of people with lived experience of Ireland's much criticised direct provision asylum services to translate the song lyrics to their own native language, he connects Ireland's history of prison ships bound for Australia with the experiences of people who have come to Ireland from countries still enduring conflict related to past colonisation.

Yhonnie Scarce was born at Woomera in South Australia and belongs to the Kokatha and Nukunu people. Stories passed down the generations from mothers to daughters included the occasional oblique aside about a Patrick Coleman from Tipperary, the father of Dinah’s son William “Willie” Coleman, a pale skinned baby born around 1890 at Fowlers Bay. Sifting through the SA Museum’s photographic collection Scarce found a photograph of Dinah, her great, great, grandmother. The faded sepia photograph depicts a desert woman with a powerful gaze. In Border Crossings Scarce speculates about the nature of the relationship between her Granny Dinah and Patrick which has resulted in a large Indigenous family – many of whom have inherited Patrick’s fair Irish colour and some still bear his name.

‘Mary Reilly steals three handkerchiefs. It was a gambit to be transported to join her husband in Australia, exiled for life for stealing food.’ This text, based on a real story, comes from the first of Michelle Browne’s two performances during the exhibition, which will take place on 10th July at 2pm. Michelle Browne’s second performance, from noon until 5pm on Saturday 16th July will follow on from her research into Mary Reilly and investigate the wider theme of Irish immigrants in Australia and the gaps in time and space between them and their loved ones. Border Crossings was supported as a part of Culture Ireland’s 2016 International Program which commemorates the centenary of the Easter Rising. Organisational partnerships between the Trinity College Research Hub, Dublin; and the University of South Australia’s Hawke European Union Centre and the SASA Gallery supported curatorial research. The project has gained substantial support from the Irish Government, the English Government, the South Australian and Australian governments through Creative Ireland, the British Council, Arts SA, and the Australia Council of the Arts.

Click Here to read the exhibition catalogue essay by Mary Knights.

Click Here to read Circle after Circle - Border Crossings a text my Emily Mark Fitzgerald that accompanied the exhibition in Galway.

Click Here to read a review of Border Crossings at SASA Gallery, Adelaide, March 2016, written by Melinda Rackham for Artlink.