NOT WHAT IT IS CRACKED UP TO BE
The project was developed in Derby, a remote town in the north coast of Western Australia.
Located in a region where Aboriginal population is still the largest in percentage terms, memories of a dark colonial past in the Kimberley region are so evident that they still define the collective present and threaten to perpetuate themselves in decades to come.
The most important economic activity in the area is mining. The world’s largest open pit diamond mine is located in the region, and seams of coal and other minerals are continually located and evaluated for exploitation. Crews of mostly white temporary workers are flown from Perth.
Also, a dense network of prisons has been built around Derby. Some of those jails are specifically dedicated to the aboriginal population while others, such as the Curtin military base, are destined to the detention of illegal immigrants that reach the Australian shores from Southeast Asia. Prison and Mining industries, as well as a some tourism, generate services and a work market which mostly excludes members of the aboriginal community.
In this context shaped by structural racism, their options for economic independence are very limited.
My project explored one of the few options that low income locals have to ensure their economic survival: The manual carving of decorative boab seeds.
Baobab trees, locally known as boabs, are common in the area. The seedscases of these magnificent trees grow in many sizes that range from the dimensions of an apple to those of a rugby ball. The seeds and pulp held inside them are considered a super food, and the outside shells can be scratched with metal tools, creating light lines over a dark, velvet like background..
This activity is carried out by entire aboriginal families but also by white craftsmen, and the final products are dedicated mostly to tourist consumption. Carved nuts are sold for very low prices.
There is no evidence of boab carving prior to the arrival of Europeans. Like most mediums used by contemporary aboriginal art, it was introduced by the Victorian colonizers in a forced adaptation of the traditional expressions used by the original inhabitants. Cave and body painting traditions and aesthetics morphed into marketable commodities through the introduction of western mediums and tools such as canvas, oil paint or brushes.
Most of these works were introduced to the art market under the patronising label of the Noble savage. The symbols depicted were emptied of their deep cultural meanings and reduced to mere formal appearance in order to feed the metropolis fascination towards exoticism; Instead of offering emancipatory potential, they constitute a clear example on how artistic production can help perpetuate systems of exploitation, abuse and long term annihilation of cultural difference.
Aiming to subvert and expose the mechanisms of cultural appropriation and the role of artistic activity as a historical tool to empower racist policies in Australia, I devoted myself to collecting seeds from specific trees, preparing them and learning the basic carving techniques with the help of local artists such as Gordon Barunga and Samantha Ailles among others.
Once I learned the basics, I began the production of a body of work and discourse which followed in the footsteps of late Jack Wherra, the seminal figure in this activity.
Jack Wherra was a Ngarinyin artist born in the 1920’s in a coastal area north of Derby. His carvings, today prized collector's pieces, went beyond a decorative approach by portraying everyday situations of exploit and abuse. They are also remarkable for their novel incorporation of narrative elements owed to sequential and comic art. Beyond the figure of the artist, I understood Jack as an historian who operated outside western written tradition.
Wherra spent most of his adult life in prison, as he was a traditional executioner in charge of his community's law enforcement, and for doing this he was locked up until his boab nuts gained recognition from the local white art community, and his sentence was commuted.
In the 1960s, an American anthropologist arrived in the area and commissioned Jack to make 60 nuts that, decades later and after the academic's death, were auctioned by his heirs at Sothebys and acquired by Australian public collections.
I decided to replicate some aspects of this murky commission and carve my own 60 seeds. Deploying a conscious recognition of my privileged condition, I tried to reflect a complex context I could not elucidate nor pretend to fully grasp from my role as a visiting western artist.
Instead of the usual figurative elements characteristic of the authentic boab nuts, I decided to use an element which was absent from those carvings: written texts.
The phrases I carved, most of them suggested by members of the local community, refer to traumatic events and situations such as the high rate of child suicide.
Others talk about Agent Orange contamination in Derby, caused by a surplus stock from the Vietnam War that was shipped to Australia and used as a herbicide during the 1980s, using Aboriginal labor.
I also referred to the controversy of Elizabeth Durac, a privileged painter, descended from the dynasty of cattle ranchers who once owned the entire region and who, in search of notoriety, posed as an aboriginal male painter; the Bungarum leprosarium and its abandoned memorial; the evolution of concentration camps that later became Christian missions and finally Art Centres; the centenary hollow Boab tree, used as a prison and warehouse for aboriginal slaves; as well as annotations on my daily life during my stay in Derby.