Making ACCA a Little Blacker: An Intern’s View of Sovereignty, ACCA’s First Indigenous Art Exhibition

By Art Pitchford

‘Let’s make ACCA a little bit blacker’. These were the closing words of the speech delivered by Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman Paola Balla to an enthusiastic and overflowing audience at the exhibition opening for Sovereignty held at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) on December 16, 2016.  This was an event of importance for the art community, but also the wider Australian community. Sovereignty markedthe first time in ACCA’s 34-year history that an Indigenous Australian exhibition had been hosted at the gallery.

Curated by Paola Balla and ACCA’s Artistic Director and CEO Max Delaney, Sovereignty focuses “on the contemporary art of First Nations people of South East Australia” and showcases issues of self-determination, identity, sovereignty and resistance. The exhibition features works from over thirty artists, ranging from renowned Wurundjuri leader, activist and artist Willlam Barak (1824-1903) to works produced in the twenty-first century.  These included the digital films produced by young Indigenous leaders from Richmond Football Club’s Korin Gamadji Institute with whom I had the pleasure of working.

The films were originally produced as part of a three-year ARC-funded research project Aboriginal Young People in Victoria and Digital Storytelling, hosted in the School of Culture and Communication in the Faculty of Arts. This innovative, interdisciplinary project involves researchers from the faculties of Arts and Medicine at Melbourne, as well as Management and Marketing at Charles Sturt University, working with partners from VicHealth, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Sista girl (an Indigenous film production company) and the Korin Gamadji Institute. A series of digital storytelling workshops were run between 2014 and 2016 with alumni from the Korin Gamadji Institute’s (KGI) Indigenous youth leadership programme.

At the first two workshops held at ACMI in Federation Square, nine Aboriginal young people from southeast Australia were provided with training using cutting edge technology in order to enable them to participate in digital storytelling. The third workshop was held ‘on country’ at Camp Jungai in Rubicon. Digital storytelling, to quote key academics in this field, is “a practise which provides people with opportunities to tell their own stories through personal images and narratives”. As well as receiving technical training, the young people were mentored by Aboriginal elders about cultural protocols and by indigenous filmmakers about storytelling strategies.  Creative engagement with materials including photographs and objects from Bunjilaka at Museum Victoria was encouraged for the production of visual content for each participant’s story.

The films that were made dealt with issues concerning identity, racism and stereotypes, but also demonstrated the ways in which young Aboriginal people have so much to offer the broader community.  While the filmmakers were young and relatively inexperienced, the films were made with such courage and honesty that, when viewed by the co-curators of Sovereignty in mid-2016, they were immediately invited to form part of that historic exhibition.

When I joined the project in September 2016, I edited together a show reel of the participants’ workshop films and helped to facilitate the launch of the young people’s films in the new Arts West Building at the University. I was then fortunate to assist with the installation of the films at ACCA. Thus the launch of the exhibition at ACCA was the culmination of a long process.

My position with the project and exhibition came through the Faculty of Arts’ Indigenous Cadetship programme, which enables Indigenous students in their third year or above to gain workplace experience with an academic mentor in areas relevant to their area of study.  I could not have anticipated, however, that I’d have the opportunity to attend the launch of such a significant exhibition through my cadetship.

Like the young filmmakers who attended the opening, I was shocked at the sheer number of people who came on the night. In an atmosphere I can only describe as ‘electric’, we celebrated the ‘Welcome to Country’ given by Boon Wurrung Elder Carolyn Briggs and applauded Paola’s injunction to ‘make ACCA a little bit blacker’. As the community congregated to celebrate Sovereignty, I believe we certainly did.