Here + Now

Gunai poet Kirli Saunders is often on the road. Formerly the Manager of First Nations projects at Red Room Company, she regularly crossed state lines – Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, and the Northern Territory – to deliver the organisation’s project, ‘Poetry in First Languages’. These days she still travels but has expanded her creative practice to include the visual arts, splitting her time between writing and painting. ‘I shied away from [painting] because I didn’t have any technical training and I didn’t believe that my work told stories that mattered. But being trained as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as a writer has made me become more confident in telling stories in a range of ways.’

Saunders continues, ‘Painting feels really free in its making, and I’m enjoying expanding my repertoire and moving into new forms.’

Her latest artwork will be shown alongside several emerging artists – all with ties to the Illawarra – at Wollongong Art Gallery’s annual ‘Here+Now’ exhibition. Generously proportioned, it stands 2.4 metres tall across two panels, and is titled What’s your business here? (2020) – a question Saunders often considers carefully when working with Elders and Custodians of seniority.

It’s an important question for Saunders as she travels, one that responds to her responsibility towards the communities she works with and questions her intentions. The question also suggests a way forward when it comes to deconstructing colonialist ideologies – an important place to begin by reflecting on our own complacency with established systems of power.

‘It’s important to create works that draw us – us the audience, us the creators, us the broader community – into thinking about how we can decolonise, how we can step outside colonial systems in our day to day and ask questions like: what’s your business here? How are you caring for Country? How are you caring for community? And not just being complicit in the desecration of lands and culture and peoples,’ explains Saunders.

This year ‘Here+Now’ is curated by Ngugi artist-scientist Stephanie Beaupark and responds to these themes of decolonisation, place and community. ‘It’s sitting in this really key time,’ says Beaupark.

‘We’re in the middle of a pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Everything’s just really coming to a head. Myself and all the artists, we believe that decolonisation is the answer. Connecting to country, to the landscape, to community, and being mindful of your impact on this earth … we’re addressing these issues by being leaders and educators who are breaking social boundaries and initiating these hard conversations that really need to be had.’

Importantly ‘Here+Now’ centralises First Nations perspectives, showcasing work by Indigenous artists Jessica Brown, Meahlah Langlo, Alinta Maguire, Kirli Saunders, and Tom Page. But Beaupark wanted to be clear that decolonising is not solely the responsibility of Indigenous people, which is why the exhibition also includes emerging non-Indigenous artists Bella Chidlow, Will Edgar, the Ovuhm Collective, and Beatrix Rowe. She comments, ‘It’s really important for everyone to be involved in this process of decolonising. We need everyone on board for it to become systematic change.’   

HERE+NOW: A Decolonist Visualisation of the Illawarra
17 October – 29 November 2020
Wollongong Art Gallery, NSW

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