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DAAFF Yarns… With Jessica Clark

Nov 4, 2020

Reflecting on 2020, it’s more important than ever to stay connected and bring people together in what have been some pretty trying times. Part of Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair Foundation (DAAFF)’s ongoing mission is to strengthen the arts sector and help light the path forward for the industry. We think much of this work comes from simply sitting down and listening to each other.

In this series, we’re having a yarn with different members of DAAFF’s community to give you a little more knowledge about the Indigenous arts sector and DAAFF’s role within it. Today we chat to curator Jessica Clark, a proud Palawa woman with English, Irish, Turkish, and French ancestry, who currently lives and works in Naarm, Melbourne.

Words | Camilla Wagstaff

Jessica Clark

DAAFF  YARNS
with

Jessica Clark

Independent Curator

 

Tell us about a day in the life of a curator?

I am currently living in Melbourne, where I have been in lockdown for most of the year. So a day-in-the-life has dramatically changed, not that it was ever really standard or set. Before COVID-19, I was often travelling interstate for project meetings and to install exhibitions or visit galleries and meet with artists. My work pattern varies day-to-day alongside the administration that comes with project management: emails, calls, research, and writing. While that general stuff continues, what has fundamentally changed is a reliance on the digital to connect with art and people. In lockdown, I have been keeping busy managing changes to timelines, zooming, researching and writing for upcoming projects and visiting virtual exhibitions. I have really enjoyed attending weaving workshops online and engaging in webinars via Zoom like the Australia Council’s First Nations Roundtables series. 

I am currently working on the first of three exhibitions that will frame my practice-based PhD research focussed on investigating models for the curation of Indigenous and non-Indigenous art, while facilitating new dialogues, understandings and experiences of Aboriginal art. The first exhibition will showcase a beautiful collection of 40 to 50 baskets by the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, together with a series of video works by Taree Mackenzie that visually capture the interplay of colour and light. I am so looking forward to getting into the gallery and bringing these works together, and this show to life when we get the all clear. 

Can you tell me a bit about your past experiences with the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair?

The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair (DAAF) is a curator’s dream. More than 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Centres make the trip to Darwin each year to showcase their works together under the same roof. I remember the first time I attended DAAF in 2017, standing in the middle of the convention centre buzzing from opening. I was in absolute awe of it all – the colours, the energy, the vast range of styles and approaches, the experience, the incredible visual dialogues that were happening all around me – it’s a celebration of Country, culture and connection. 

DAAF showcases the breadth of First Nations art in this country, with each Art Centre presenting works by emerging and established artists, and offering so many opportunities to engage and connect with the artists. This year the art fair and its public program were transferred to an online delivery model in response to the pandemic, which extended DAAF’s reach nationally and internationally. With 2020 being what it is, it was so important that the fair continue this year albeit online – 100% of all sales at DAAF go right back to the Art Centres and their communities.

“ The Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair is a curator’s dream. More than 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Centres make the trip to Darwin each year to showcase their works, together under the same roof. I remember the first time I attended DAAF, standing in the middle of the convention centre buzzing from opening. I was in absolute awe of it all – the colours, the energy, the vast range of styles and approaches, the experience, the incredible visual dialogues that were happening all around me – it’s a celebration of Country, culture and connection.”

Images | Unloading artworks from the troopy. 2019 Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair. Photo by Dylan Buckee. Above: Aerial view of the 2019 Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair. Photo by Dylan Buckee.

Can you tell me a bit about your experience with DAAFF’s Curator’s Symposium?

The DAAFF Indigenous Curators Program and Symposium is usually a three-day event that brings Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander curators and arts workers from across the country together. 

The Symposium happens on the first day of the program. It’s a day scheduled for sharing ideas, projects and experiences. We hear from each other, listen and learn from each other, and every year that first day feels like a family reunion, reconnecting and also growing year on year. It’s also a platform for us to build connections – with Art Centres, artists and each other – and an opportunity to present work, test ideas, and engage in critical discussions about ways of working and the complex nature of the sector. The other amazing part of this program is that as a participant, you are paired with two or three Art Centres to work with over the next two days of the program. You’re unloading works of art from troopy’s, assisting with bump-in, working with arts workers and artists to curate their stalls, and also assisting with sales when the fair opens. The whole program is really focused on providing a space for us to talk, share knowledge, culture, and connect through experience. 

Last year I presented at the Symposium for the first time. I shared about the process and outcomes of a touring exhibition I curated in collaboration with Country Arts SA – VIETNAM – ONE IN, ALL IN. The exhibition explores and acknowledges Aboriginal veterans’ from South Australia, and their service before, during and after the Vietnam War. The exhibition featured a collection of works by thirteen Aboriginal artists – ten were paired with veterans and tasked to creatively respond to the recorded interviews we carried out, and an additional three were commissioned to create work in acknowledgement of the service of South Australia’s Aboriginal Vietnam veterans – both living and passed. I was really thankful for the opportunity to share about the project, the veteran’s stories, the artists’ responses, and its special place in heart. The tour and the incredible moments of healing and connection that happened along the way were important to reflect upon, as well as the conversations that unfolded in response. 

Image | VIETNAM – ONE IN, ALL IN, 2019 installation view at Walter Nicholls Memorial Gallery, Port Lincoln SA. Photo by Jessica Clark.

Image | Veterans, artists, and  project team at the opening of VIETNAM – ONE IN, ALL IN, 2019 at Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Adelaide SA. Photo by Edoardo Crismani.

What kinds of positive outcomes can you see springing from initiatives like these?

As a curator, I think one of the most valuable things the DAAFF program offers is insight into issues we’re facing as a sector, in particular Indigenous art in the broader context of Australian art and the market. The program acts as a platform for First Nations’ voices. It’s an opportunity for us to get together, to share knowledge and culture, to connect with each other and build skills and meaningful relationships. We have built a family at DAAF; a life-long support line that continues to grow each year. The time and space it provides for us to work together as a collective and to develop and interrogate strategies and solutions is really important. And this also provides important groundwork in relationship-building and connection within and across the industry, which leads to the other really great outcomes emerging from the Symposium and Program – especially collaboration. 

DAAF has opened up opportunities, expanded networks, and connected so many of us from across the country. I see many exciting outcomes happening year in, year out, as people connect for projects, to share knowledge, culture and research, for support or to talk things out. The idea for the exhibition I am curating with Tjanpi that I mentioned earlier sprang from my experience at DAAF working with the Art Centres, installing baskets in different ways, connecting with the objects and the people who have made them, and thinking about art objects as physical manifestations of Country. There needs to be more initiatives like this that connect First Nations curators, artists and arts workers.

Image | Installation view of Numbulwar Numburindi Arts display at the 2019 Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair. Photo by Jessica Clark.

Image | 2019 DAAF Curators Program, Group Shot. Photo by Dylan Buckee.

“ The program acts as a platform for First Nations’ voices. It’s an opportunity for us to get together, to share knowledge and culture, to connect with each other and build skills and meaningful relationships. We have built a family at DAAF; a life-long support line that continues to grow each year. The time and space it provides for us to work together as a collective, share knowledge, and to develop and interrogate strategies and solutions is really important. ”

Image | From the Online DAAFF Masterclass with Tjanpi Desert Weavers, 2020.

What do you love most about your job?

So many things! Curating independently ensures multi-tasking across varied projects, from exhibitions, to public programs, public art commissions, organising events, talking and writing about art and artists. I really love this about my job, working on different projects at the same time, talking about art and ideas with artists and other curators, working collaboratively, and the nature of exhibition-making in bringing people and art together. 

What is really important to me as a curator is the experience of art; the moment of encounter between viewer and objects, and the dialogue that emerges. I love that my work is fuelled by questions, conversations, ideas and exchange, and the magic that happens when works of art connect in space and time.. Watching it all unfold is the really exciting part of my work. I am so thankful for the time I get to spend with works of art – connecting artists and their stories, knowledge and ideas. The constant learning and the nature of the curatorial as a collaborative practice really fuels my passion for what I do.

What are the major challenges of your role?

With the uncertainty that has come with the lockdown, there have been plenty of curve balls managing projects in response to the daily updates and changes. I am really thankful that, for the most part, my work allows flexibility in terms of where it happens and when. The major change and this year challenge has been the restriction of travel. For now, meetings are happening via Zoom, research is delivered by post from the library, exhibitions are on hold, and home and work-life have melded into one. Time management has been a challenge at times. 

I am thankful for my background teaching art in high schools, the nature of the job as timetabled and routine taught me some really important skills managing multiple classes and subjects: now its multiple projects in different curatorial roles. List-making is key for me. I guess that’s the other thing I brought with me from teaching, the importance of writing everything down, whether that be tasks, ideas, or inspirations. I keep a journal just for this filled with notes from events and meetings, exhibition idea mind-maps, thoughts, and research, and it also acts as a record to look back on – reflecting on ideas and their development, and how I got there is a really important to my practice. 

What does 2021 hold for you?

I anticipate that next year will be transformational for me in terms of exhibitions and projects with the openings and launches happening online and in-person. I have two independent exhibition projects in the pipeline for next year as part of my PhD research at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery here in Melbourne. 

Next year will see the launch of the Tjitjiku Tjukurpa (Children’s Dreaming) Project – an online platform that documents and tracks the Anangu Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara (APY) version of the Seven Sisters Tjukurpa (Dreaming) through the teaching and recording of Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara Inma and language across the APY Lands. I have been working with the team through the projects documentation and development to produce an arts-focussed education resource that will feature on the platform – I can’t wait to see it go live. 2021 will also mark the opening of Experimenta Life Forms: International Triennial of Media Art (2020-2023) that has been delayed due to the pandemic I have been working with the team as a curatorial associate over the last year to develop of the exhibition and commission new works. 

I am so looking forward to being back in the gallery with art in the real, and the launch of these exhibitions and projects. And I really hope that 2021 will allow for interstate travel so that I can visit family and friends and catch-up on the time we’ve spent apart in lockdown. 

Images | Tjitjiku Tjukurpa (Children’s Dreaming) Project excursion. Photo by Millie Brown.

MORE TO COME

Thank you to Jessica Clark for sharing her knowledge as part of the ‘DAAFF Yarns’ series.  

You can see more of her curatorial work here; www.jessicaamyclark.com and read about the DAAFF Indigenous Curators Program and Symposium here; daaf.com.au/cultural-keepers

Thanks for reading, and be sure to subscribe as the series continues.

Profile Image | courtesy of Jessica Clark