The Harvard Art Museums’ new exhibition, “Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia,” showcases the unique conceptions of temporality in the art of Australia’s Indigenous people. The galleries, which opened on Feb. 4, contain a wide variety of pieces by contemporary Indigenous artists, connected by their exploration of Indigenous Australian history, society, and artistic traditions.
The exhibition includes more than 70 works of art in various media, most of them created in the past 40 years. Accompanying the contemporary works are historical and cultural objects on loan from Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. More than a simple celebration of aesthetics, the exhibition also reflects on the violent history of ethnic cleansing in Australia and modern efforts to reconnect with the country’s pre-colonial past.
Stephen Gilchrist, an art historian based at the University of Sydney and a member of the Yamatji people of Western Australia, guest curated the exhibition for the Harvard Art Museums. Gilchrist says that the project was born out of the museums’ desire to “represent cultures that were not necessarily represented in the [permanent] collection.”
According to Gilchrist, the temporal theme of “Everywhen” was his effort to balance the uniqueness of Indigenous art with a universal principle. The word “Everywhen” in the exhibition’s title was first used in the 1960s by Australian anthropologist William Stanner to describe his understanding of the Indigenous conception of time as cyclical and continuous. “I wanted it to be expansive and about something that was completely relatable, like time, but [I wanted viewers] to realize that time is culturally subjective and that it has been overdetermined in certain ways,” Gilchrist says. Through this exhibition showcasing contemporary Indigenous artistic production, Gilchrist says that he hopes to “mobilize powerful ideas of collective power and indigeneity.”
Following Gilchrist’s opening address in the museums’ Menschel Hall, Indigenous Australian artist Vernon Ah Kee, whose text-based installation “many lies” is part of the exhibition, joined him for a conversation onstage. Ah Kee said that “many lies,” a cascading word poem written in a stream-of-consciousness style, is “spoken from a voice of someone who has nothing left to lose.”
Ah Kee further explains in an interview that the black-and-white printed text of his work, which contrasts with the organic materials traditionally employed in Indigenous Australian art, reflects his goal of “remov[ing] [his] people from the status of historical record to modern people.”
Ah Kee is also quick to note that the Indigenous Australian story remains relevant today, given the struggles of Indigenous peoples around the world. Ah Kee says that his art “is not about trying to step away from my life and make political statements about it. This is my life.”
The exhibition itself also made reference to experiences of dispossession outside Australia. The opening included a traditional Australian “Welcome to Country and Acknowledgment of Country” protocol, which acknowledges traditional guardianship of land. During this ceremony, which included a Native American prayer and was held in Menschel Hall, the Harvard Art Museums recognized the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, the Wampanoag tribe of Gay Head, the Nipmuc Nation, and the Massachusett people, on whose land the museum buildings now stand.
Darragh J. Nolan ’16, a regular visitor to the Harvard Art Museums, says that he finds the modernity of the art in the exhibition refreshing. “It’s cool [to see] not just historical examples of aboriginal art but contemporary examples as well,” he says.
Helen Ji Li, another visitor to the museum, says that she found the exhibition engaging. “It’s a great opportunity to see the work of aboriginal artists firsthand,” she says.
“Everywhen” will be on view in the Special Exhibitions Gallery at the Harvard Art Museums through Sept. 18.
—Staff writer Hanaa J. Masalmeh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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