We Chatted To Jonathan Jones About Making Indigenous Art That Rewrites History
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“It’s really, really difficult to take a photo of the artwork in its entirety because it sort of wraps itself around the room and envelops you,” says Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones of his major new work, which is showing in The 9th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT9) in Brisbane until April 28.
Jones’ epic multimedia installation, untitled (giran) 2018, mimics murmurations: a phenomena of nature in which groups of birds fly together in formation. According to Jones, this kind of behaviour in birds is one of those things that scientists still haven’t figured out – but might prompt us to consider how we humans coexist in communities.
The Asia-Pacific Triennial, now in its 25th year, features more than 400 works from artists across the Asia-Pacific region – and as an artist with a history of creating site-specific works, the exhibition encouraged Jones to consider the unexpected power of everyday objects, natural materials, and physical connections to community.
“I’m interested in this idea of collective thinking,” he tells Junkee. “How the formation of really beautiful patterns and arrangements in the sky can help us potentially start to understand how we exist in this country, how we operate together, how we can all call ourselves Australians. That we all have our own little ideas which can somehow come together to make something bigger.”
Over the years, Jones has been involved in many different disciplines, including architecture, archaeology, biology, and linguistics, alongside his visual art practice. This isn’t unusual—in fact, Jones points out, “in an Aboriginal context, people don’t usually silo knowledge off”.
Jones adds this as a noticeable difference to how Western knowledge is shared: ideas aren’t often in dialogue with one another and inevitably contribute to worlds collapsing instead of being built up. “In an Aboriginal system, you have to have those balances of knowledge and recognise that everyone holds knowledge; everyone is respected for their knowledge and…they all sit together in the same space.”
This artwork has been months in the making. Back in 2018, Jones put a call out asking the public for donations of bird feathers for the major new project.
It inspired an unexpected demonstration of collective action: “Hundreds and hundreds of people donated feathers from across the country; a lot of Aunties who I’ve worked with over the years had made lots of string…[and] people have been out collecting kangaroo bones. It’s been a really extraordinary group effort.”
The work itself is made up of between 800 to 1000 small tools and objects. Each individual tool within the installation has a bundle of feathers attached, bound by the handmade string. All of the individual tools and objects are installed on a large, curved wall and appear in the shape of an infinity symbol, which forms a continuous loop in upon itself.
Embedded within the wall behind the artwork are 44 hidden speakers that add a sound component to the overall experience of the work: here, the importance of wind is explored and discussed from a Wiradjuri point of view.
Jones also saw the process of making this work as one of reclaiming the interpretation of Indigenous histories. “As an Aboriginal person, most of what’s written about us isn’t by us. And it’s often been said that Aboriginal people are the most researched race in the world,” Jones points out.
With collaborative artist and Wiradjuri language holder Uncle Stan Grant Snr, Jones took historical records back to Elders in Indigenous communities and asked them how accurately the events were described.
During this process, Jones – alongside Grant – unpacked a text written by a non-Indigenous man who recorded ideas about the nature of wind that had been shared with him in Wiradjuri language.
To restore a more accurate record, the pair consulted the knowledge and memories of Elders living in the community today. “There’s a little bit of that, bringing knowledge back into community. There’s a little bit of matching knowledge and there’s a little bit about waking up some knowledge from those language resources, as well.”
At the end of the day, Jones isn’t only interested in making art that gets mounted on walls. He wants to see people connect with – and bring their own experiences – to the work. “It’s really important in that Indigenous communities can feel that they’re deeply attached to something – that the work has some relevance to them, too.”
For Jones, a significant aspect of creating this work has been in decolonising historical records, and he hopes that this process is carried on by younger people. “I think it’ll be really helpful for the next generation to realise that there’s a big bank of information in archives that we really need to know about.”
He also mentions there’s immense value in encouraging a new generation of Indigenous artists to help communities “wake up stories or to provide a platform that [these stories] didn’t have before”, especially where they’re only just starting to understand that practicing art can go beyond the traditional forms of painting or sculpture.
Jones hopes young artists can see that contemporary art has become a vehicle to engage audiences in in a way that meaningfully impacts its community, and how art has become a mechanism to prove that there’s value in taking action during times of crisis and in times of celebration: “It’s about…coming together and formulating solutions to bigger problems.”
(Images: Natasha Harth via QAGOMA)
Experience Jones’ amazing untilted (giran) 2018 and more at The 9th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at QAGOMA Brisbane until April 28, 2019. Visit the website for full details.