CEDING POWER TO BUILD RELATIONAL SPACES:
A MATTER OF INTENTION
In the article Museums could be powerful, liberatory spaces if they let go of their colonial practices Jamara Wakefield, an art and culture writer, explores the practices by galleries and museums. She writes:
Every time I visit a curated space, I am reminded that museums are not currently designed as safe spaces for me. I want to let my guard down and enjoy art for art-sake. I am envious of those with the privilege to do so. My adult discomfort in the public art spaces is a razor-sharp reminder that there is more liberation work to be done in the art world. (Wakefield 2019: 2)
For Jamara, the issue is representation and how the institution refuses to see ‘her’. We hear many times and occasions the idea of creating “safe spaces”. What is a safe space? What is a safe Place? What are the “real” issues at hand? How are these “played” out for Black, Indigenous and peoples of colour? In the context of Wyndham Art Gallery, let’s examine this route.
The premise of Place is important to Indigenous peoples, and it is vital to identity, being and ways
of knowing. Place as Country is a living subject with its own agency. Country and all entities share an intra-activity through the premise of relationality. This writing’s agency is located and positioned on WaddaWurrung Country. Therefore, I am positioned within the dynamic of this Country. I respectfully acknowledge the ancestral Country of WaddaWurrung peoples and community. I pay my respects to my Elders and extend that respect to Bunjil, the great creator ancestor of the Kulin nations. I am Bundjalung, Murrawari and Kamilaroi, and my ancestry travels back through millennia on these respective Countries. This acknowledgement and positioning is designed with a matter of intention. Intention is important when we think of Place and space and for Indigenous peoples, Place is epistemologically and ontologically central to notions of action or intent. Not only history but meaning arises out of Place, therefore spaces are vital in allowing us an intentional interaction.
Jamara Wakefield asks some very real and pertinent questions and investigates the potential of the museum and gallery. In this, we are reminded of their limitations:
I am constantly asking myself these questions: Why does the decolonization of museums matter? Why do I continue to visit these colonized spaces knowing they rest comfortably in their resistance to change? I see museums as liminal spaces. The word “liminal” comes from the Latin root, limen, which means “threshold”. The liminal space is the “crossing over’ where you have left something behind, yet you are not fully in something else. When museums operate in their full liminal potential they are able to tell non-binary histories. (Wakefield 2019: 3-4)
We are also afforded their potential where the galleries’ third space, the crevice for artistic creativity and for Indigenous ways of knowing to enter. We are not sure whether all institutions have this potential, we believe that our art and cultural institutions are leaning to do this and in fact should have this potential. Cultural spaces could be our greatest allies if they successfully model the decolonial practices they are purporting to. So how does somewhere such as Wyndham Art Gallery become “our” ally? It does it through being very clear in its intent to build relationality with Place and disrupt the representations of power.
Museums could be one of our greatest allies in liberation struggles. They have the physical space, the means, and the public confidence to partake in a large scale social movement against colonial powers. Yet they reject this opportunity over and over again. They prefer to remain silent and hide in a world that desperately needs decolonizing. (Wakefield 2019: 5)
The ontology of the “gallery” is founded within the habitus of the colonial project and to reconfigure this, the gallery must not remain silent and to challenge the premise of power they are predicated upon. They must challenge the power that created it and seek for that power to be ceded in order for the “space” to become
a relational Place. This is what Wyndham Art Gallery has achieved. Its intent has challenged power, it has sought to predicate its space on regard for others, and to build deep ontological relationality with Black, Indigenous and Peoples of colour. This is its clear intent.
To take up the stance of Black power in the fight against race is to fight on a battleground that has been strategically selected without the lofty elevations of white validation or affirmative white verdicts, but one that affords us the martial advantages of a grounded sovereignty. (Watego 2021)
The trajectory of Wyndham Gallery inadvertently interrogates ontologies by the placement of Indigenous relationalities in institutional spaces- these then shift the patterns created by the colonial. The various exhibitions held over the past decade reveal this intent, creating relational spaces for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour to operate in. The result is a two-way connection of caretaking, through the premise of trust, where this dynamic is about embodying relationality and shifting the dynamic from the premise of disregard and self-regard. In bringing in deep relationality it is also about the institution ceding its own power. These various exciting exhibitions held at Wyndham are premised on this relationality.
In bringing people together in developing concepts, materializing creative practice and engaging diverse audiences, It brings people together in its concept development, physical production and through its display Indigenous creative practices that we can reconfigure spaces by the Place they bring. For this to occur we see a need to “decolonize” western configurations surrounding Indigenous ways of knowing and the approaches to examining them. It is here that Indigenous ways of knowing also reconfigure institutional spaces through Place, memory and practice. This is the powerful relational intent created by Megan Evans and Maree Clarke at Wyndham Art Gallery.
It is here that they both have intentionally thrusted this relational agenda where ‘Cultural decolonization is the perpetual struggle to make both Indigenous and settler peoples aware of the complexity of our shared colonial condition.’ (Garneau 2013: 15). And as a result of occupied territory and First Nation’s peoples remaining in a colonial state- decolonial theory and Indigenous lived experience needs to be adopted. It has risen from an imagined or failed postcoloniality. Decolonization is about our guests unlearning and disengaging from their colonial habits and it is in these two spaces of the decolonial and Indigeneity that creative practice has a major role to play. David Garneau states that one goal for the Indigenous is to Indigenise. If we are successful in this pursuit- we create culturally safe spaces for ourselves and others. What do non-Indigenous peoples and institutions need to do in order to ensure the platform for Indigeneity is safe? How do they ensure that the significance of Indigenous creative practice is privileged? We have our allies, and they have their relational intent!
Garneau, D. 2013. Extra-Rational Aesthetic Action and Cultural Decolonization in Fuse Magazine. Fall 2013, 36, 4. ProQuest Central. pp 14-23
Graham, M., 2009. Understanding Human Agency in terms of Place in Pan: Philosophy Activism Nature. No. 3. Pp. 71-78
Wakefield, J. 2019. Museums could be powerful, liberatory spaces if they let go of their colonial practices. RaceBaitr. https://racebaitr.com/2019/05/14/museums-could-be-powerful-liberatory- spaces-if-they-let-go-of-their-colonial-practices/
Watego, C. (2021) Always Bet on Black (Power) in Meanjin Quarterly Spring 2021 https://meanjin. com.au/essays/always-bet-on-black-power/