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Boneta-Marie Mabo: Immersed



Boneta-Marie Mabo: Immersed

Deakin University Art Gallery 30 May to 13 July 2018


I first saw Boneta-Marie Mabo’s work when I visited Deakin University’s Institute of Koorie Education (IKE) in 2014 to meet with Professor Brian Martin. Whilst there Professor Martin took me to view her work as at the time she was a student at IKE.

and unique human beings, celebrating women at different stages of their lives who chose their own poses and were labelled exactly as they wanted to be known. The University was privileged to collect two works from this exhibition for the art collection.

I felt the sophistication of the work and the strong sense of design was impressive for someone so young. It could have been that the subject matter of this work, to honour her grandfather Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo, combined with the close personal impact of such an important figure in Australian history inspired such a powerful piece, but I had no hesitation in recommending it as an acquisition for the Deakin University art collection.

As a result of the very powerful exhibition at IKE, Boneta-Marie was offered a solo exhibition at the Deakin University Art Gallery and has risen to the challenge with a series of powerful portraits that celebrate, in her words, “…resistance against patriarchal colonialism. Each woman presents herself as she wants you to see her. The portraits offer a glimpse of individual resistance, power and beauty”. It is a privilege to welcome BonetaMarie back to Deakin and display this series at the Deakin University Art Gallery and I would like to thank Boneta-Marie for her hard work in developing this exhibition.

I was excited to once again reconnect with Boneta-Marie’s work when it was displayed at IKE in a solo exhibition in 2016. The exhibition at IKE was a second showing of her first solo exhibition at the State Library of Queensland, where she was the inaugural artist-in-residence for the State Library of Queensland’s kuril dhagun Indigenous Centre in 2015. Whilst undertaking the residency Boneta-Marie found portraits of Indigenous women without any name, or with labels such as “black velvet” or “gin”. As Mabo said these women were considered ‘to be objects’ rather than women. Rarely were these ancestors afforded any respect, so she created the soft sculptures to “encourage viewers to acknowledge all women that are passed who didn’t have the ability to have control of their image or of their identity”. Also as part of that exhibition she created a contrasting series of portraits presenting four women of today as full


Thanks is also due to the author of the catalogue essay, Dr Jenny Murray-Jones, whose insightful text helps guide us through the narrative of the works. The exhibition Immersed contains a powerful message, which I encourage you to explore. Leanne Willis Senior Manager Art Collection and Galleries


Immersed Dr Jenny Murray-Jones

Here, Boneta-Marie Mabo, a strong and proud Piadram/Munbarra (Mer Island/Palm Island) woman, articulates her journey of empowering black women with these powerful works that speak of the resilience of Aboriginal women despite the ongoing impact of colonisation. Mabo brings with her images a significant narrative of First Nations people in a colonial diaspora which separated, disenfranchised, estranged and dispersed clans, tribes, communities and families at the hands of a colonial regime in just over 200 years. To reclaim and reinstate our sovereignty, Mabo confronts us with the evidence of our reality and challenges the amnesia of the colonial mentality. When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represent themselves they take back some of what has been consumed and subsumed. Through the arts we give voice to our own perspectives and in doing so ward off the colonial discourses that have marginalised and dispossessed us. First Nations peoples have been oppressed by colonial notions of superiority, racism and sexism. Mabo delivers, from her perspective, the effects of this marginalisation and oppression as well as images of strength and survival. She states that “Our existence unsettles ‘white Australia’ because it is a reminder that we as First Nations people are still here, that sovereignty was never ceded.”1 Economic and political control are central to colonialism. In order for one power to displace another, systems are employed which artificially elevate their own beliefs of superiority and in turn marginalise those who are sovereign, reducing them to the ‘other’, ‘uncivilised’ and as ‘savages’.


With colonialism comes consumerism, all of the cultural elements of the colonised are stolen, taken, and consumed by the new regime. The rhetoric of the coloniser works at diminishing the value of the colonised, enabling consumption and displacement and submergence of cultural values. Mabo states, “We immerse ourselves in the fight for equality and justice..”. 2 Symbolism here refers to the entanglement of the fishing net, the oppression of the immersion, and the pressure of being held down. These women are subsumed in their fight for equality and justice there is a vulnerability. Yet as strong black women we cannot be the property of the oppressor. We hold our strength and honour our ancestors, their knowledge and resilience. Mabo’s palette of cool blues surround us in a sense of calm and serenity. Water is life giving and the oceans provide an abundance of food to sustain us. The symbolism here speaks of tranquillity, stability and peace, yet also a sense that we will continue to take pride in our cultural identity and sovereignty. There is ambiguity in the work Chelsea, is she drowning, is she being forcibly held under water? At first glance this is what could be happening, then we realise that her children are assisting her. She is holding their hands and they have their other hands on her shoulders. Yes, she is immersed in her fight for justice and her children give her strength and purpose to go on. In their journey they are strong and capable of breathing under water together in this place of which Mabo speaks, “fighting for equality and justice”.3

‘Not the last of tribe’ Chelsea Bond Munanjali, Yugambeh Oil on canvas 122 cm x 122 cm


Nayuka Gorrie Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri, Yorta Yorta Oil on canvas 122 cm x 122 cm


‘Holding on’ Latoya Aroha Rule Wiradjuri & Maori Oil on canvas 122 cm x 122 cm


‘Jalum bira minyung: Fishing for what?’ Melissa Lucashenko Bundjalung Oil on canvas 122 cm x 122 cm



Nayuka is absorbed by her challenges, her mouth is covered perhaps but to prevent the entry of water or to silence her truth, but she is brave and resilient, she knows fear, yet she confronts this. For a moment she can be overwhelmed, yet her strength has come from experience and knowledge, as her anxieties are simultaneously calmed by the soothing momentum of the water. Subsumed by the water the metaphor for her turmoil, Nayuka is focused and undaunted by her past. Survival is conveyed compositionally, through the image of birthing and hence movement towards the future. Latoya is breathing underwater as she remains relaxed, still and accepting. She clasps a branch from her country, it grounds and connects her. She is wearing the Green Stone Maui Hook around her neck, representing her MÄ ori ancestry. She is at home in the ocean, as the sea grass drifts with the currents having being ripped up by some tidal turmoil far out to sea. On her wrist is a bracelet, a precious and meaningful reminder of a loved one passed. This is no reclining nude of traditional western painting. The image challenges the colonial male gaze. The image is one of self-containment and strength. I see strength in Melissa, a woman who has fought the fights and knows who she is. She is not an object of the objectifying male gaze; she looks back, a force to be reckoned with. Melissa is comfortable in her own skin and as she subsumed by the battles against colonial marginalisation, but stands absorbed, strong and forceful. Is this inner beauty, an insistence conveyed by the scale and colours in the work, and her self-containment fortified by this immersion? Despite oppression

can art re-articulate woman and the colonial other in a new light? What is the significance of the fishing net? Is this a ploy of her opponents to immobilise her, to catch her and consume her? Yet she wears it with flare and style like an adornment which testifies to her confident sense of fashion. Inequality and injustice are often identified and transformed by the marginalised, who have the innate ability to see through the Eurocentric view of the world. Murrawah, is a young woman who is confronting her future, she is immersed in past present struggles, and she is aware of challenges that may lay ahead for herself and her family. However, the work presents an image of calm. Again, the scale of the figure, almost filling the canvas and the muscularity of the body challenge the patriarchal gaze. She has broken free of the bonds of injustice. There is a dreamlike quality here, she is breathing slowly and confidently, alive and well. She is immersed in all that concerns her sense of justice. We are �unashamed and unapologetic�.4 There is strength in this work coming from a place which resides in our being, both in our resilience and subsequent exhaustion, as we ebb and flow with the currents throughout our journey. Sometimes we struggle to surface for breath and other times we are calmly moving with the gentle current celebrating family and connectedness. We know how our history has been manipulated to suit the oppressors and validate their notions of superiority. The fishing net clings to her skin yet it is not confining. In the image Meg, Mabo evokes once more a figure immerged in her beliefs. The thrusting


Dhana Yuerabaya (Wirdi for ‘standing strong’) Murrawah Maroochy, Wirdi language group of Central Queensland Oil on Canvas 122 x 122 cm


‘A little bit of breath’ Meg Rodaughan Jaadwa Jadawadjali Oil on canvas 122 cm x 122 cm



of the body and movement are achieved compositionally through the use of diagonal marks and colour, suggesting that there is no deviation from her goal. To find justice for First Nations peoples, she dives in face first. The masses of tiny and larger bubbles denote resistance to the entry of water, but also symbolize disruption and refusal. We honour and perpetuate our ancestor’s fights for justice and a resistance to what we know has been instrumental in being marginalised in our own Country. Again, there is ambiguity here, is this woman only momentarily under water. However, although subsumed in reality, she is also moving through Country with all of its knowledge, culture and traditions. Unlike the others, she is moving quickly and the absence of calm is purposeful. Meg is going somewhere and nothing is going to stop her. The women in Mabo’s images speak for themselves and for others like them. They represent First Nations people pushing aside all of the paraphernalia and ideology of the ‘colonial corridor’ its imagery and its testaments, along with notions of terra nullius. Curator Juliana Engberg speaks of the colonial corridor, as a channelled display of colonial archival quotations, trinkets, specimens, trophies and images, all consciously constructing a case for the expansion of the British Empire on colonial shores and constructing its history along the way:  Through this arrangement we begin to gain a sense of how our national history has been ‘framed’ by visual representations, and in contemplating this tidying up and cropping process we begin to think about those things which the frame excludes or entraps. What is edited in or out of our national story.5


Mabo’s lens comes from an Indigenous truth and perspective which testifies to our sovereignty. There is honesty and unique truth in these paintings, to which there can be no rebuttal. Mabo presents her images here in ‘Immersed’ at the extension of those which have come before. From her 2016 exhibition ‘Black Velvet’ Brisbane State Library, Mabo re-appropriates and challenges demeaning colonial views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women as being available for sexual and domestic exploitation. Here too we meet the strong women of her community and we’re invited to celebrate in the strength and resilience of their being. As Mabo has suggested, maybe we are ‘unsettling’ to white Australia, our voice and our art jerk at this colonial amnesia in a confronting manner to some.6 Through this ceremony of visual narrative from Mabo, we find an inextricable meld of Indigeneity and identity giving the voice back to ourselves in a contemporary world. In relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, Curator Hetti Perkins states that: Such art does not merely recall the past as social cause or precedent; it renews the past, refiguring it as a contingent ‘in-betweenspace’, which innovates and interrupts the performance of the present. The ‘postpresent’ is part of the necessity, not the nostalgia of living.7 1 Email interview with the artist, April 2018 2 Email interview, ibid 3 Email interview, ibid 4 Email interview, ibid 5 J uliana Engberg Colonial Post Colonial, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 1996, p. 9 6 Email interview, ibid 7H  ettie Perkins cited in Ian Mclean ed., How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art, Writings on Aboriginal Contemporary Art, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2011, p. 302


Author’s biography

Born Melbourne 1956 second daughter to Norman Jones (Murray) and Shirley Bawden. Proud Yorta Yorta / Baraparapa woman. My father’s family are from Yorta Yorta and Baraparapa Country up and around Dhungala, now known as the Murray River. My grandmother was born at Cummeragunja Mission Station in 1905 to William Murray and Lila Atkinson. Great grandfather was known as Old Goondah. My grandmother and her sister were taken away at the ages of 11 and 8 years to be trained as domestics while their parents worked on stations around Swan Hill and Balranald. Under the Exemption Certificate, my grandmother and great aunt could never return home or associate with family. However this was done in secret. In my heart my identity has always been very strong and throughout my life I have strived to research as much as I could about our lives. My PhD was titled, Indigenous Families: Beyond the Voids of Colonisation. This was a practice exergesis which included a body of ten works at exhibition, practice and supporting artistic response to the research based on my family. As a child I studied art and went on the become a dressmaker and designer, but this wasn’t enough. I followed my heart and returned to full time study in Visual Arts going through Caulfield Institute of Technology. Later in life after the birth of my son I began working in Graphic Design and worked for the Victorian College of Agriculture and Horticulture designing distance learning material. I also worked in several Design Studios and freelanced for some time. I again returned to full time study at Deakin University at the Institute


of Koorie Education. I studied a double degree in Arts / Education and subsequently Honours in Visual Arts. My career as a secondary school art teacher began in Gippsland where I had been living for many years. I was successful in gaining a position as Lecturer in Graphic Design at the Institute of Koorie Education Deakin University, Waurn Ponds Campus and stayed there for nearly 9 years. During this time I completed my PhD and immersed myself in my love of research. Currently I am working with the Department of Education and Training in Koorie education. I love my work and am still involved in producing my artwork and other interests such as basket making and growing food, in particular bush tucker. I am honoured to have been asked to write an essay on Boneta-Marie Mabo’s body of work. As a former student and like minded fashion designer we have always had a lot in common. I have watched Boneta-Marie’s work flourish and expand over a good number of years and commend her for her commitment and her strength as a proud Indigenous artist with a voice never to be ignored!! Dr Jenny Murray-Jones

Artists Biography

Boneta-Marie Mabo, Piadram/Munbarra, a proud Aboriginal and Torres Strait woman, a sugar slave descendant, a prison abolitionist, an angry black woman, and a lover of fashion and art. In 2017 she collaborated with the Royal Australian Mint in the design of a circulating commemorative 50c coin to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum and the 25th anniversary of the High Court Mabo decision. In 2016 she was the inaugural artist-in-residence for the State Library of Queensland’s kuril dhagun Indigenous centre and in 2015 she won People’s Choice award in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Telstra Art Award for her art celebrating the life of her activist grandfather, the late Eddie Koiki Mabo. For the past five years this award winning contemporary artist has lead the Sisters Inside Young Indigenous Art Program. Sisters Inside is an independent community organisation, which exists to advocate for the human rights of women and girls in the criminal justice system.


Boneta-Marie Mabo: Immersed Exhibition dates 30 May to 13 July 2018 © 2018 the artist, the authors and publisher. Copyright to the works is retained by the artist and his/her descendants. No part of this publication may be copied, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted or reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher and the individual copyright holder(s). The views expressed within are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views held by Deakin University. Images courtesy the artist. Image measurements are height x width. Published by Deakin University ISBN 978-0-6483226-1-0 Edition 500 copies Catalogue design: Jasmin Tulk Deakin University Art Gallery Deakin University Melbourne Campus at Burwood 221 Burwood Highway Burwood 3125 T +61 3 9244 5344 E artgallery@deakin.edu.au www.deakin.edu.au/art-collection/ Gallery hours Tuesday – Friday 10 am – 4 pm Free Entry Deakin University CRICOS Provider Code: 00113B Cover image: Detail of Nayuka Gorrie Gunai/Kurnai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri, Yorta Yorta Oil on canvas 122 cm x 122 cm Inner page image: Detail of ‘A little bit of breath’ Meg Rodaughan Jaadwa Jadawadjali Oil on canvas 122 cm x 122 cm

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Boneta-Marie Mabo: Immersed  

Boneta-Marie Mabo: Immersed