‘These Works are Their Messengers’ Interview with Henry Skerritt, curator of The Inside World: Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Memorial Poles from the Debra and Dennis Scholl Collection

Left to right: Joey Nganjmirra, Mapunu Ŋurruwuthunm, Yimula Munuŋgurr, Yimula Munuŋgurr, Bambarrar Marawili, Yimula Munuŋgurr, Joe Guymala. Installation at Frost Art Museum. Photograph by Zachary Balber.

The Inside World: Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Memorial Poles from the Debra and Dennis Scholl Collection

Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University

10975 SW 17th St, Miami, Florida 33199

Through January 10, 2021

By MARY GAGLER, July 2020

Henry Skerritt interviewed by Mary Gagler, August 2020

The Inside World, curated by Henry Skerritt, brings together over one hundred memorial poles by contemporary Aboriginal Australian artists from across tropical Arnhem Land, in Australia’s Northern Territory. Each installation populates the gallery with clusters of memorial poles (a.k.a. lorrkkon or larrakitj), evoking trees in a forest or pillars in a haphazard colonnade. I had some questions about the process and significance of the exhibition that he kindly discussed the exhibition with me by phone in late June.  

MARY GAGLER: What were your first intuitions about the structure of the show? 

HENRY SKERRITT:  To answer that I’ve got to go back a bit. The Inside World is the third exhibition that I have curated for the Miami-based collectors Debra and Dennis Scholl. I took a number of trips to Australia with Dennis to meet artists and take a look at what was going on in the communities. One of the things that caught his eye on these trips was the larrakitj that were being produced at Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, which he could visualize as an installation that would look very contemporary. Now the problem is he is not the first person to have that idea. Djon Mundine had had that idea in 1988 with The Aboriginal Memorial, staged in the context of the highly politically charged bicentenary event, which was the moment that people started thinking about memorial poles as contemporary art. More recently, the collector Kerry Stokes also did a big exhibition of larrakitj.  

The first question as a curator is how do you do something that’s not just repeating what’s been done before? So, we decided to survey the whole region and look at all of the communities that produce these poles from the stone country in western Arnhem Land all the way through to the sandy beaches of northeast Arnhem land. So, my intuitions initially were about this process of mapping; that using these forms you could look at the ways in which these local art histories are entwined but also how they are entwined in a global art historical context. 

Installation view of The Inside World at Frost Art Museum. Photograph by Zachary Balber.

MG: Another aspect of the show that keeps popping up in the materials is the collectors’ “immodest goal of bringing Australian Aboriginal contemporary art to US audiences.” There is a nice quote in the catalog from Wukun Wanambi where he says “the more I share, the stronger I get.” 

HS: It’s an interesting thing because Debra and Dennis Scholl are definitely art collectors, but I often think of them more as producers. And you know when people see these works they often say “oh, how sad that it isn’t there in the community” because they think the culture is dying, but what any of these artists would tell you is that the culture is really strong and geographically located, and these works are their messengers. These are the things that artists produce to send outwards as part of a cross-cultural drive. They are doing it because they recognize, as Wukun notes, that it gives them power. It gives them this independence, and sense of cultural respect, difference and esteem, and fundamentally it is about sovereignty and not being assimilated into mainstream Australian society.

MG: It seems like the artists from Arnhem Land are writing the book on how to implement art for political or cultural agency. 

HS: It’s pretty remarkable. For instance, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, in the catalog essay for the 2012 Istanbul Biennial, said that the artists in Yirrkala were the first activist artists, saying that since 1935 they have been using art to assert their sovereignty and political aims. Globally, these questions of art and politics have always circled around each other. In some ways, they are given the finest and most complete articulation in Aboriginal art of the 20th and 21st centuries. The great artistic breakthroughs and the monumental statement pieces of art in Arnhem Land tend to emerge out of political foment. And the proof in the pudding is that art has had a quite profound effect on mainstreaming the idea of Indigenous peoples’ direct ancestral connections to certain places, which should be considered something of a victory. 

Left to right: Joe Guymala, Noŋgirrŋa Marawili, Dhurrumuwuy Marika, Joe Guymala. Installation view of The Inside World at Frost Art Museum. Photograph by Zachary Balber.

MG: You’re making me think of art as a sort of parallel universe where an individual artist can explore an alternate-political-reality where they have cultural recognition and sovereignty.  

HS: Yeah, I mean I often use Jacques Rancière on this. For Rancière, aesthetics are a space in which ideas that were unthinkable, either politically or more generally, can be made real and substantiated. And I think there’s a great deal of that that goes on in the cross-cultural space of Aboriginal art. Take an artist like Noŋgirrŋa Marawili. What I find really interesting about Noŋgirrŋa’s art is that it requires some serious conceptual work to understand it from either side of the cultural divide. Noŋgirrna is developing her own iconographies and she is also working on the edge of abstraction at times. People in the Yolŋu community don’t have an easy answer for what she is doing. And that is different than how most people think about “tribal art.” It is a very interesting model of what happens when you start to think about yourself working across two conceptual worlds. Similarly, in his catalog essay, Wukun describes his art as being about breaking Yolŋu culture down into small understandable pieces, into a picture that can be understood across cultures. It is why he speaks in so many metaphors of fish and surfaces and depths and seeing through the waters: He is using a Yolŋu philosophical mode to get at the questions of his destiny, our destiny, and how those destinies are side by side but different. He is asking this question aesthetically, ‘how do we exist in multiple worlds that are overlapping?’

MG: Towards the end of your catalog essay you describe Jennifer Biddle’s theory of the “violence of identification,” implying that the simplification needed to identify through comparison does violence to the work and its origins. How did this affect your curatorial approach?

HS: The fundamental way that you’ve got to get past that is by starting with difference. There is no point in just saying Wukun is arguing the same thing as Rancière- you’ve actually got to read what Wukun says and take it on its own merit and think about why he is using these discursive and aesthetic styles. We are not trying to do a perfect translation but we are actually trying to think about how our differences can create a richer way of viewing the world. 

Left to right: Margaret Rarru, Garawan Waṉambi, Manini Gumana, Margaret Rarru, Baluka Maymuru. Installation view of The Inside World at Frost Art Museum. Photograph by Zachary Balber.

MG: In a way, you are ‘starting with difference’ with the title of the exhibition which names the ‘inside world.’ You start with what makes the artists different, what is being withheld and fueling their production but is not explicitly shown. 

HS: That is absolutely right. It is about recognizing that that inside world is there, but not necessarily feeling like you have access to it. So, it is about recognizing that that inside world exists but not constantly feeling like you have to pry it open.  

MG: Thank you so much, Henry. WM

Mary Gagler

Mary Gagler is a Baltimore-based arts professional and independent researcher. She is a recent graduate of the art history and museum studies graduate program at The City College of New York. She has presented original research on Australian Aboriginal art at the College Art Association annual conference, the Courtauld Institute of Art, and elsewhere. Her curatorial projects have been featured at SPRING/BREAK Art Show and Chashama among others.

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