Indigenous art triennial: a haunting exhibition of shock, celebration and defiance | Art and design

Defiance is a word which characterises Indigenous Australia better than any other.

It’s a defiance of wildly divergent land and seascapes, by vastly different peoples, which have proven fatal for others. And since 1788 it’s a cultural, physical and political defiance of violence, oppression, assimilation and the intent – and attempt – to vanish a people from this continent.

The third national Indigenous art triennial, which opened on 25 May at the National Gallery of Australia, is called Defying Empire. Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum that gave the commonwealth power to legislate for First Nations peoples, the title could not be more appropriate.

You’ll hear a lot this week – most of it from non-Indigenous politicians and commentators – about the significance of the 1967 referendum which, supported by nine in 10 Australians, also brought Aboriginal people into the census count. For a country that still clung to the vestiges of the White Australia policy, and racist legislation that was partly the template for South African apartheid, it was indeed a milestone.

But too much of Australia, especially its legislators and law enforcers, saw 1967 as an end in itself. There has been lamentably little progress on improving Indigenous outcomes since.

Aboriginal Anarchy (2012) by Archie Moore. Photograph: Archie Moore

Defying Empire shouts this out loud – yes, defiantly and of course proudly. But it does not whine or complain. It just says what has to be said – pure truth to power – while the politicians up on the hill talk on and on about 1967 and what it supposedly means to Indigenous people.

This exhibition is haunting, at times dystopian; at once both shocking, and a celebration of endurance – itself the sibling of defiance. It is also humorous in that unique way that renders Indigenous Australians the truest proponents of gallows humour – a fabulous capacity to laugh and joke in the direst of…

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