Sophia Cai on “How I See It: Blak Art and Film”

In our current age of YouTube, viral TikToks, and Instagram influencers, when anyone with access to a camera has a platform, we can easily forget that what we see on our screens is far from neutral. An increasing body of research shows how racial bias is built into the algorithms of contemporary imaging technologies, and how the history of lens-based media—and its techniques of capturing, recording, and control—is inextricably connected to imperialism and colonization.

“How I See It: Blak Art and Film” confronted this legacy of the colonial gaze through humor and disruption. Curated by Kate ten Buuren (Taungurung), the eight First Nations artists on view challenged the historical documentation of Indigenous people by settlers—and the ongoing misrepresentation and stereotyping by mass media—by placing the camera firmly back in the hands of the artists and the communities they represent. Ngaya (I Am), 2022, by Peter Waples-Crowe (Ngarigo), immediately set the exhibition’s wry tone. Using digital collage and mash-up, Waples-Crowe’s video installation layers cheesy ads for ski resorts and hydroelectric schemes over colonial-era Australian landscape paintings by Eugene von Guérard, highlighting the dispossession of Country—the sense of spiritual connection to ancestral land—and the exploitation of the mountainous Ngarigo land for financial gain. Humor is also central to the works of Destiny Deacon (KuKu and Erub/Mer), a leading figure in contemporary Australian art who is also known for coining the term Blak in the 1990s as a way to reclaim Indigenous agency. Deacon’s work operates on the basis of familiarity: She adapts popular culture, common visual tropes, and kitsch to create new scenarios. Where Waples-Crowe’s work is firmly a product of the YouTube era with its intertextual references, Deacon’s is rooted in the earlier VHS age in its method and analog aesthetic.

Part of the strength of “How I See It” lay in its inventive exhibition design, which avoided the tedious stringing of one black-box room after another so typical of film and video exhibitions. The show invited interaction from audiences, but the invitation never felt forced. The installation Avert, 2017, by Steven Rhall (Taungurung), for example, cleverly operates simultaneously on registers of play and criticism. Two horizontally cut holes in a gallery wall gave a view into a dimly lit room, which appeared unoccupied. Turning the corner, we then encountered another cutaway, this time placed opposite a wall-mounted screen that revealed the true meaning of the work. We were watching, and being watched, by other audience members. Rhall was reminding us that our images can be unknowingly captured and viewed with little input from us.

“How I See It” reckoned with spectatorship and its implicit role in the perpetuation of racial bias and misrepresentation. The very familiarity of the tropes and found footage wielded by the artists was a challenge to pause and reflect. How many times have we watched these scenes before? The artists and curator of “How I See It” recognized the power play inherent in looking, seeing, and recording, and asked us to open our eyes to these dynamics.

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