Tropicàlia Capricornia offers Darwin Festival audiences a snapshot of the Top End’s broad and burgeoning contemporary art scene. Not only that, it also acts as a prism for our political and cultural landscape, through which the things that matter to us may be discerned and discussed.
The Top End is a unique place. Cyclone Tracey, crocodile attacks, the Intervention, INPEX… Stories such as these reverberate in our collective consciousness, shaping our distinct identity as they rattle through our small and porous population cordoned off from the rest of the nation by lonely stretches of red desert and the Arafura and Timor Seas.
Just as our identity is unique, so too is our art. Emotions and states-of-being are defined by a certain ambience endemic to the Top End, incorporating an idiosyncratic cocktail of ingredients as contrary and outrageous as our bipolar seasons. The aforementioned dust-bound isolation is captured in glass artist Andrea McKey’s half-desiccated piece Distance, Dust and Hope; while in contrast bountiful life and love, Territory-style, is lauded in Linda Joy’s colourful and celebratory work Mindil. Meanwhile, Al Oldfield’s Dry Season Thunderstorm summons the excitement that accompanies cracking pre-monsoon storms. The plastic toy gun also brings to mind the Top End’s status as a strategic military resource. Camo and khaki filters out of the Australian Defence Force’s Larrakeyah and Robertson Barracks and stipples our public spaces; while American accents are heard increasingly in passing as the influx of US defence personnel grows, with up to 2,500 US marines to be stationed in Darwin within the next two years.
Political and environmental issues facing the Top End make strong focal points for local contemporary art. As the Federal Government recently unveiled its official plan to allocate billions to ‘Develop the North’, artistic activism works to counter the real and potential dangers of natural resource exploitation. In The Life, David Wickens muses on the disjunct between ancient untouched landscapes of the remote North and the single-mindedness of the Top End’s FIFO demographic, hi-vis both in attire and ecological impact. Thematic similarities may be perceived between Wickens’ work and Therese Ritchie’s Mine, Mine, Mine. For her part, Carmel Ryan puts a positive spin on sustainability. As upcycling permeates nearly every aspect of Ryan’s wearable art practice, Carmel’s Miranda was created out of at least 15 pre-loved garments, a work that dances with a light environmental footprint.
Aly de Groot is another artist to use fashion and textiles as tools for activism. She is also one of the first artists in the Top End to use ghost nets in her practice, weaving them into sculptures and wearable art using techniques she learnt from Aboriginal artists. The need for conservation efforts in the Top End is further highlighted by de Groot’s imposing hand-woven Green Sawfish, a work that nods to the seven-metre specimens that were once pulled out of our northern waters on a weekly basis. These days, a fully grown adult is a rare sight as the now critically endangered sawfish suffers as bycatch on fishing expeditions, or falls victim to the tens of thousands of deadly ghostnets drifting imperceptibly in the Arafura and Timor Seas.
Sexual politics in the Top End is also a topic regularly explored by local artists. In Eve’s Expulsion, Gaye Coyne invites her audience to consider women’s inequality. Coyne is critical of the way religion is used to bolster discrimination against women, and it is interesting to consider cases where the great serpent of Indigenous mythologies has been used by Christianity to enforce Christian taboos. On that note, discrimination against Indigenous women is a particularly pertinent topic for us in the Top End. While national statistics are already worrying in that they show that one woman dies every week from domestic violence alone in Australia, Indigenous Australian women are a staggering 45 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence than non-Indigenous women. With almost a third of the NT’s population identifying as Indigenous, the susceptibility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait women to violence and discrimination continues to stare us in the face.
Homegrown contemporary art from the Territory’s own slice of Capricornia is special. It is both different from art created anywhere else in the world, and important in signposting the events and experiences that define this place. Despite recent funding cuts to the arts, there’s no doubt that contemporary art in the Top End is putting its best grassroots foot forward. New dedicated platforms for local contemporary art in the form of galleries and festivals have sprung up in recent times, such as the community-driven projects Darwin Fringe Festival and the Darwin Art Trail which both celebrate their successful second year running this year. Initiatives from many local galleries to overcome cultural boundaries through creative means continue on a strong trajectory, bringing together non-Indigenous, Indigenous and neighbouring Asian artists. And in 2015 not-for-profit organisation Tactile Arts made history, sending local contemporary ceramicists and potters to help represent the Territory at the Australian Ceramics Triennale for the first time.
It is testament to the health and promise of the Top End’s contemporary art scene that here we have a show that features such a variety of original work from such a variety of perspectives – and that it barely scratches the surface of what the Top End has to offer.