Submitted Review

Nicole Monks ‘Miyarnuwimanha’

  • The Lock-Up • New South Wales

  • 11 September—07 November 2020

  • Una Rey • Published 30 September 2020

In Monopoly, minimum social welfare is in play: we pass GO we get $200. There is no means test. But when we get the GO TO JAIL card, we get zero. The message is clear: the Lock-Up is punitive, unless it’s The Lock-Up in Newcastle, a contemporary art space devoting significant weight to culturally reparative exhibitions. Miyarnuwimanha plays to tune, its cross-Country chorus of 15+ performing a collective refrain of showing & sharing with clear intent.

Rolling back time pre-1861 when the colonial jail was built, through sensory, elemental installations implanted with narratives of loss/theft & belonging. Collaboration is central, Monks weaving connective mastery: for instance, an instructional groundwork of beach & river sand, tea-tree & mulubinba (the sea fern & Aboriginal placename) imports Monks’ Yamaji Wajarri tradition, a Worimi Shark Dreaming sung into location by Luke Russell.

‘Sky-dome of emu-down, suspended above a red clay mandala’

Equally grounding & elevating, mili (light) comprises a sky-dome of emu-down, suspended above a red clay mandala by Monks and David Leha. Like rain on hot soil, scent-poetry fills the pen while in the enclosed yard, Jason Wing’s white feather & stones implied a light touch on the land, echoing Charmaine Papertalk Green’s video welcome in the foyer. In flanking cells, grave Christian and State archives & talismanic ornaments in feather, hairstring & kangaroo pelts each make key statements.

There’s work ahead, but Miyarnuwimanha is evidence of the comprehensive Aboriginal art history being formulated across the regions, stylistically, socially & politically. It can wear many labels: neo-traditional, new materialist, cultural revivalist, new-age, essentialist, indexical. But these are increasingly poor terms hanging in a critical closet, barely worn out. Or just worn out.

As these intergenerational artists declare, Country is more than Real Estate, & the game is not critical or taxonomic but therapeutic & restorative. Just as they acknowledge respective lands & lives, I’m reminded of living artistic ancestors Judy Watson, Michael Riley, Vicki West & Vicki Couzens. Maybe I’m just showing my vintage.