“We don’t need to find another planet” — Australian Indigenous artist Tony Albert on healing the land

Portrait of Tony Albert. Image courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf. Photography by Mark Pokorny.
Tony Albert, Healing Land, Remembering Country, 2020, greenhouse nursery, hand woven baskets, native plants. Installation view (2020) for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island. Photography by Zan Wimberley. Image courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney.
Tony Albert, Healing Land, Remembering Country, 2020, greenhouse nursery, hand woven baskets, native plants. Installation view (2020) for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island. Photography by Zan Wimberley. Image courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney.
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For the final segment in our three-part coverage of the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, CoBo Social Managing Editor Denise Tsui spoke with Tony Albert about the concept of his project Healing Land, Remembering Country, comprised of a greenhouse situated on Cockatoo Island.

TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of the Biennale of Sydney

 

Portrait of Tony Albert. Image courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf. Photography by Mark Pokorny.

 

It was a gloriously sunny day when we visited Cockatoo Island for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, titled “NIRIN.” In the centre of the beautiful courtyard on the upper island stood Tony Albert’s Healing Land, Remembering Country (2020), a sustainable greenhouse conceived for the Biennale. Sitting inside, chatting away happily was Albert himself. It was a tranquil sight, and one that offered much respite and serenity from the constant rush and frenetic energy of the day. It was also soon approaching sunset. The following day I met with Albert at Sullivan+Strumpf to ask him more about the project. Although I have followed his works since before I moved to Hong Kong, it was my first time meeting the artist. His warm-heartedness and generosity with his time, despite a busy schedule and a family emergency, left the deepest of impressions.

“NIRIN” marks Albert’s first participation in the Biennale of Sydney and Healing Land, Remembering Country feels like a departure point in some way from his other works, including two other works also included in the Biennale at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) and National Art School. Last year, Albert visited Heron Island, a coral cay in the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef, where he attended a climate school intensive.

“I’m a changed person because of that trip and having a much deeper understanding of how climate is affecting the whole world,” he tells me. “We don’t need to find another planet. We don’t need aliens to come and rescue us. We have everything at our disposal right here to change the situation we’re in.”

Healing Land, Remembering Country—an extension of Albert’s 2018 collaboration with C3West, a community art initiative helmed by the MCA, and Blacktown Native Institution—is a project that strives to quite literally give back to the land. Kangaroo grass seedlings, which are common and native to the east coast of New South Wales, are embedded into sheets of handmade paper placed in weaved baskets hung around the greenhouse. Albert invites visitors to participate by writing a wish or a memory on a piece of paper, sparking a “gifted memory” and immersing themselves within the warmth and glow of the greenhouse. Albert has collected the baskets from various Indigenous communities across Australia, each differing in both the weaving technique and fibers used depending on its origins. In so doing, Healing Land, Remembering Country presents itself as a harmonious cycle of growth and sustainability, of love and life.

Born in 1981 in Townsville and raised in Brisbane, Queensland, Albert is a descendant of four First Nations Peoples—Girramay, Yidinji, Kuku Yalanji and Guugu Yimithirr. Working across a multidisciplinary practice that is distinctly contemporary in technique and aesthetic, Albert has gained prolific recognition over the past decade and a half for his powerful, politically charged artworks that responds to legacies of colonialism and the history and misrepresentation of First Nation Peoples. A collector of “Aboriginalia,” amassing over 10,000 pieces, Albert has included objects from his vast collection as installations on several occasions, including the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, in 2018, and more recently, Art Basel Hong Kong in the Encounters section in 2019.

 

Tony Albert, Healing Land, Remembering Country, 2020, greenhouse nursery, hand woven baskets, native plants. Installation view (2020) for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island. Photography by Zan Wimberley. Image courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney.

 

The original concept from which Healing Land, Remembering Country grew stemmed from his earlier project in response to the horrific history of Blacktown Native Institution—which was the first institution of the Stolen Generations where children were taken away from their families to be forcibly “cultured” and assimilated into white colonial life between the 1910s and 1970s. It is a stained chapter of Australian colonial history, and one that still leaves an unhealed wound on Aboriginal soil. “The history there was still so ingrained in the community that my idea was to take it right back and start by actually healing the land itself,” explains Albert. Following his trip to Heron Island, and later witnessing Australia endure its most catastrophic summer in history; Albert expanded  the project for the occasion of the Biennale and the work took on new meaning.

 

Tony Albert, Healing Land, Remembering Country, 2020, greenhouse nursery, hand woven baskets, native plants. Installation view (2020) for the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, Cockatoo Island. Photography by Zan Wimberley. Image courtesy of the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney.

 

“It’s planted a seed within me, [about] what art can actually be. It challenged my idea of what art is. And now, art can be this community idea. It can be planting a memory. It can change the world we live in,” says Albert. “We just have to change our whole methodology of thinking and the way in which we look at the environment and that for me is such an important idea. I think the idea of gift-giving to the Earth, writing the memory and knowing that it’s going back to the land; it’s bridging that gap between humanity and the land closer together.”

“I’m a changed person because of that trip and having a much deeper understanding of how climate is affecting the whole world,” he tells me. “We don’t need to find another planet. We don’t need aliens to come and rescue us. We have everything at our disposal right here to change the situation we’re in.”

When asked what will happen to the seedlings, Albert explained that while he was open to the possibility of the seeds being planted across various locations—Alexandria Park Community School and University of Technology Sydney have both approached him already—he is careful about introducing a native plant in areas where it usually does not grow. Furthermore, climate change, he tells me, often has an immediate detrimental impact on the lives of Indigenous communities, even though their way of life contributes to the damage on a far lesser degree. Taking it back to where it began, the Blacktown Native Institution, therefore also remains important as part of the sustainability cycle and his gesture to lend the land a helping hand towards healing.

Rooted in the Indigenous way of thinking that the land is sacred, that we don’t own the land but rather, the land owns us, Healing Land, Remembering Country, stands as a gesture of gifting. “The idea is that maximum outcomes could happen from the one seedling,” Albert tells me. “My hope is that it’s bringing a community one step closer to understanding that we are responsible for what is going on beneath our feet. I am now so proud of the project and I can’t imagine having anything else involved.”

 

 

22nd Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN
14 March – 8 June 2020
Various locations, Sydney

 

** Due to measures taken regarding COVID-19, the venues hosting the Biennale of Sydney are currently closed to the public, but an online platform is now available with virtual tours, talks and more. For further information and the latest updates, refer to the Biennale of Sydney website.

 

 

 
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