Interviews Contemporary Arts Organisations Australia (CAOA) meets on Larrakia Country
In August this year Contemporary Arts Organisations Australia (CAOA) held their bi-annual meeting in Darwin on Larrakia country to coincide with Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, the National Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander Art Awards, the National Indigenous Music Awards and the Darwin Festival. Regional Arts Australia's Alana Hunt, spoke with the chair of CAOA Alexie Glass-Kantor, also the Executive Director of Artspace (Sydney).
Alana Hunt: I suspect this is the most northern point in Australia within which your advocacy network has met. How did this location impact the meeting?
Alexie Glass-Kantor: For context, the Contemporary Arts Organisations Australia (CAOA) is a national network of 15 independent and non-collecting contemporary arts organisations, from every state and territory, that advocate for the small to medium visual arts sector in Australia.
Established in 1995, directorates from the CAOA network meet twice a year in different locations across the country, and this recent meeting in Darwin was the first time we visited the Northern Territory in over fifteen years. This meeting was an important opportunity for the member organisations of CAOA to come together during the week of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards (NATSIAA), the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair (DAAF) and auxiliary exhibitions and events, to connect with First Nations practices from across Australia – particularly since the majority of our organisations are working towards reconciliation plans and policies that aim to increase First Nations diversity, not only in programming, but in leadership roles and board representation.
Being in Darwin during NATSIAA and DAAF meant that we had the opportunity to connect with First Nations peers on Larrakia Land. CAOA initiated and hosted a roundtable conversation with Clothilde Bullen, Senior Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Exhibitions and Collections at the Museum of Contemporary Art; Stacie Piper, First Peoples Curator at the TarraWarra Museum of Art; Hannah Presley, Curator, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art; Nici Cumpston, Artistic Director of Tarnanthi Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Kimberley Moulton, Senior Curator of South Eastern Aboriginal Collections, Melbourne Museum and Zoe Rimmer, Senior Curator of Indigenous Cultures at the Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery, to discuss how leadership, advocacy and collaboration can be fully supported within our individual organisations and CAOA more broadly.
AH: In contrast to the hundreds of Aboriginal nations that are spread right across the continent, generally speaking the European invasion of Australia has clung to its coastal settlements, and in a sense our contemporary art organisations have too. Besides the obstacles of finance and distance, do you think Australia still finds it difficult to recognise contemporary cultural practices in regional, rural and remote contexts? What is unique about the role the small to medium sector that CAOA represents can play in this sphere?
AGK: As you say, there is a centring of cultural infrastructure within the capital cities so the CAOA network work to engage ethically with regional, rural and remote contexts in ways that are accumulative and considered through time. We are aware of the financial and geographical obstacles that challenge remote and regional artists and communities and this requires CAOA organisations to think very mindfully about ensuring that any collaboration in these contexts is fully supported. Our network needs to take on board a long-term view that builds capacity and collaboration with regional practices to ensure that the diversity of voices of living artists across Australia are heard in our programs . We recognise that it’s important to build resources to support and invest in regional artists, not only by bringing content into the cities but it can also be providing resourceful collaboration that lends capacity elsewhere.
AH: In recent decades there has been significant and on-going efforts to de-centre the Euro-American centres of the art world. The discourses emanating from Dhaka via Shahidul Alam’s biannual festival of photography Chobi Mela and the Dhaka Art Summit which, under the direction of Diana Campbell Betancourt, is working towards building an international connecting point outside of western urban contexts, come to mind. How do these international currents reverberate with your curatorial practices in Australia?
AGK: At the tail end of the exhaustion of ‘globalisation’, it is more critical than ever to create meeting points that exists outside of the historic Western centres, and to acknowledge that economic and geographic issues that affect artists working in regional, remote and rural contexts are concurrent with the challenges that impact Australia overarchingly.
Artspace worked with the Dhaka Art Summit on the 2018 edition, with Sovereign Words, bringing together First Nations writers from four continents over ten days to discuss new models of Indigenous leadership, culminating in a publication, alongside a major co-commission Idols by Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran. In 2020, we will be working with Dhaka Art Summit again, commissioning works by Taloi Havini and supporting a corpus of international collectives to talk about experimentation and critical ideas coming out of collective environments.
Alongside the Dhaka Art Summit, biennials across the region are conscientiously de-centering art away from colonial narratives and scaffolding a diversity of practices. Upcoming exhibitions to follow would include the 2020 Gwangju Biennale curated by Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala and NIRINthe 2020 Biennale of Sydney with Artistic Director, Brook Andrew, who will be bringing together First Nations practices and collaborations. Both the Gwangju Biennial and Sydney Biennale are developing comprehensive and in-depth online and web content with the understanding that not all audiences have equitable access to these exhibitions in-situ. Using digital content production effectively can invite audiences who can’t travel to these shows to still engage meaningfully with the unique programming in these biennales.
AH: Can you share any details of exciting upcoming projects involving regional, remote or rural artists that member organisations of CAOA are working with?
AGK: There are a number of key projects. Contemporary Art Tasmania (CAT), will be presenting a major upcoming project involving Walantanalinany Palingina (WaPa), led by a guiding council of Elders and senior practitioners with a short-list of cultural/artistic goals that are being auspiced and, where necessary, facilitated through CAT.
In mid 2020 the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) will present an exhibition exploring saltwater and freshwater fibre practices from the north of Australia. Curated by Freja Carmichael, the show will feature new commissions from artists working across Queensland and the Northern Territory.
Artspace has been invited to curate a pavilion at the 2020 Gwangju Biennale and next year will be presenting a range of First Nations artists from across Australia including remote, rural and regional communities. Artspace has also developed a multi-year national touring program in partnership with Museums & Galleries NSW, which has enabled Artspace exhibitions tour to venues nationally.
AH: Finally, what exhibition or event, artist or performer absolutely blew your mind while visiting Darwin?
AGK: This wasn’t my first time in Darwin for the festival but the energy, vitality, life force and spirit of the week was infectious and mind-expanding this year! It was a step forward that CAOA organisations were able to self-fund this trip to attend Darwin for the week of activities around the DAAF, NATSIAA and the Darwin Festival. More than half the CAOA directors had not previously been to the Northern Territory at all, so it was timely for everyone to engage with the breadth and dynamism of works on offer and to gain greater understanding of the way communities across Australia come together to advocate and speak for intergenerational change and First Nations leadership. What really blew our minds was being able to participate in the discussions, exhibitions and activities that were occurring, the opportunity to meet with our curatorial peers, and to have a frank discussion about the kinds of steps that can be taken when thinking about strategic planning and collaboration to move the kinds of policies, missions and visions that shape CAOA organisations forward. We were humbled and fortunate to be participants in the week, to view the breadth of work available and share in the passion, resilience and intellectual strength that underpins First Nations practices across Australia.
Above image: Susan Balbunga, Mät 2018, Gunga (Pandanus Spiralis) and natural dyes. Courtesy of Milingimbi Art and Culture Centre.