Jenna Lee

My practice has always been focused on deconstruction and reconstruction, on the transformation of material and meaning through acts of intervention as a sort of alchemy. At the core of this process was the hope of physically translating source material and books written about us, without us.

Up until recently this process was applied almost exclusively to copies of the book “Aboriginal Words and Place Names.” whereby I would tear, pulp, weave and burn the pages, healing and transforming them into new objects of cultural beauty and pride. The homogenising of books filled with words ripped from their connection to people and place would have a second life, one that I, as a proud Gulumerridjin (Larrakia) woman could determine the form and in doing so, determine how they are read.

Recently after much reflection, my focus has shifted, my process is absolutely concerned with the deconstruction and reconstruction of source material, but I now look to translate the recordings of the language of my ancestors. I have turned my attention away from homogenous books to the focused relearning, revisioning and reimagining the anthropologist complied Gulumerridjin dictionaries. I am now researching ways of deconstructing, reconstructing the Gulumerridjin language without the use of the Roman Latin alphabet or these colonially compiled books.

For my new research I am deeply interested in the oral, visual and iconographic language systems of my traditional near neighbours, in particular Indonesia, who share a history through contact and trade with Gulumerridjin people via Makassar traders. New works recently created or in the making imagine that the primary international influence for Gulumerridjin people was a continued and uninterrupted relationship with Makassar traders. Creating a respectful and reciprocal partnership of cultural influence as well as trade of language, objects, iconography, signage, and commerce from Indonesia, and by extension China, the Pacific and Southeast Asia.

My process aims to imagine how visual and written language as well language of objects, iconography, signage, and commerce would have evolved under these speculative circumstances. The resulting works from this new area of investigation imagine a present-day reality inclusive of these things for Gulumerridjin people without the influence of British colonisation.

This line of investigation can be seen in recent works like to gather, to nourish, to sustain 2022–23 on display as a part of TarraWarra Biennial 2023: ua usiusi faʻavaʻasavili curated by Dr Leuili Eshragi, where I imagine how our words relating to gathering for nourishment and sustenance could be translated in a new iconographic language and displayed in a grid system inspired by the traditional mark making of my people. This work sees over forty individual words translated and hung in an installation of ecological and lexical abundance.

In my film, gwoyarr-ma, 2023, which heavily inspired by ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) cooking videos, steps through the preparation and cooking lotus root or “gwoyarr-ma” in a dream like sequence as an analogy for the once abundance of Gulumerridjin language and land, and the nourishment that can be derived from words from our traditional languages. For the duration of eight minutes video I have the voice of my father, Chris Bandirra Lee, whispering gwoyarr-ma as if to teach and remind me in my sleep the meaning of this word. My aim for the video was for myself (and all who watch) to feel the full knowledge of one single Gulumerridjin word.

A huge contributor to this recent shift in my focus, was a dedicated two-month residency at the Kyoto Art Center, supported by Australia Council for the Arts that I undertook between September to October last year. While having Japanese ancestry played a role in my wanting to be in and learn from place, I returned with enough distance and time from the frenzied and isolated art making of the living thorough the Covid pandemic in Naarm (Melbourne) with a sense of clarity. It was only through that distance, the time and a ready openness to my physical presence in a new place could be source for new inspiration and generative making that I was able to reflect and return refreshed. It was the restart I had desperately needed, and the art I have made during and since can only be described as feeling “right.”

The article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 63 

Beneath the surface (of the billabong) 
2-22 July, 2023
MARS Gallery, Melbourne 

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