Agency Through Restriction

Emily Harle, Metal Magazine, October 12, 2020

When Aboriginal life was first visually documented in Francis J. Gillen and W. Baldwin Spencer’s The Native Tribes of Central Australia, both the authors and wider society were oblivious to the invasion of privacy these images inflicted upon Australia’s Aboriginal communities, infringing on sacred sites and traditions that are revered within these populations. Since then, photography within these communities is limited, and the majority of photographs taken are restricted in order to protect cultural sensitivity and preserve the sanctity of Aboriginal customs.

Patrick Waterhouse worked alongside local artists from the Yeundumu and Nyirrpi Aboriginal communities at the Warlukurlangu Art Centre to produce Restricted Images, an exhibition open now in Amsterdam’s The Ravestijn Gallery (until 7th November 2020). The works combine ‘restricted’ photography with Warlpiri traditional dot painting, which is added by the Aboriginal artists to restrict and amend the pictures. Today we speak with Patrick about the collaboration behind the exhibition and the significance of providing a photographed subject with agency.

 
(Q) Collaboration with those you are documenting and representing has always been central to your work. What inspires you to take such a collaborative approach when working on a project? How does this direct engagement with different communities influence your own artistic choices during the process?
(A) I think the collaborative nature of photography can be overlooked. Because my working process involves working with people for a long period of time, there’s a lot of sharing that happens – people are inviting you into their lives, opening themselves up, guiding you through their space, which naturally shapes the work. Acknowledging this process is central to this particular body of work as it engages with a history that failed to do so – a history in which the people photographed wouldn’t necessarily even see their own image and it would be disseminated across the world without their knowledge. I was interested in creating a process where those photographed had agency over their own images to explicitly show the collaboration within the representation.
 
When creating Restricted Images, you spent five years both living and working with the Warlpiri communities of Yuendemu and Nyiripi. Do you think that spending such a long time living amongst the subjects of your photography vastly improves the final product itself? How do you think this experience influenced your ideals as an artist?
Definitely! For me, getting to know people and building relationships is integral to making work, and I think there’s great value in doing something over a long period because your relationship to something shifts over time and you develop a deeper understanding. While staying in Nyiripi and Yuendemu, I was working on a wider project that looked at various aspects of the historical record, and Restricted Images was just one part of this. This experience had a huge impact on me.

I was working out of the Warlukurlangu Art Centre, which is one of the longest-running Aboriginal art cooperatives in the Central Desert. It lies at the heart of the community and is open to everybody and works beyond a place where people come to paint; it exists as a social centre in many respects, and I think that model is something the wider art world and institutions could learn from. Though some aspects are unique to it being in an indigenous community, I think there are lessons that we could learn from the centre about how art can exist in a wider social community setting.
 
In your Restricted Images collection, you worked with local artists from the Yeundumu and Nyirrpi Aboriginal communities, who ‘restricted’ and amended the images using traditional dot painting. How did this cooperative approach deepen your own understanding of the cultural infringements that Aboriginal communities have faced throughout history?
No culture is a completely static thing, and like all of us, this generation is dealing with technology and a variety of issues unique to these times. Despite this, aboriginal culture is still very much alive today and plays a deeply important role in the lives of the community. The stories and the culture itself have been passed down from generation to generation, and like all systems of knowledge, it’s codified. When it comes to cultural understanding and infringement, this history is complex.

Many of the ethnographers and anthropologists working in Central Australia were learning from indigenous communities and disseminating that information in a way that the communities themselves weren’t aware of. The term ‘fieldwork’ came from the work Spencer and Gillen did working with Aboriginal communities in the Western Dessert – work that involved living with communities, learning the language, documenting their rituals and their way of life. In some respects, they were the progressives of their day who managed to step outside the conventions of their time.

However, today we can see the more problematic elements of how their work was used, which involved objectifying and categorizing people. So although their work expanded wider knowledge of Aboriginal culture, it also ended up being used to enforce incredibly troubling racial and cultural stereotypes.

 
You have worked closely with many other artists and photographers for your projects. Can you name any artists specifically who deserve more recognition, and what about them or their work inspires you?
If there were space here, I’d list every painter at the Warlukurlangu Art Centre who I worked with – from the ages of 70 to 16 – who each brought their own unique and highly-skilled style and form to the project and collectively brought to life the philosophy of an inclusive community project. But I particularly want to mention Otto Jungarrayi Sims, who’s an elder and Chairman of the Art Centre, whose engagement with the work was integral to its development and he was inspirational as a guide through Warlpiri culture. Also, Sabrina and Julie Nangala Robertson, who both have incredible delicate precision and work ethic.
Athena Nangala Granites, another artist working on the project, has a massively eclectic style, an amazing diversity of techniques. My studio manager, Russell Bruns, is an artist in his own right. He’s doing some super interesting work that manages to be both social comedy and commentary, which is usually difficult to pull off.

Beyond the artists, there are so many people who make the work possible, more than I can name, who rarely receive the recognition they deserve. They do a huge amount and inspire me greatly. Cecilia Alfonso and Gloria Morales, who manage the Warlukurlangu Art Centre, have created an incredibly inclusive environment for the community and work behind the scenes to make everything happen.
 
Your work has provided you with opportunities to travel internationally, to places like Africa and Australia, and allowed you to experience a vast variety of cultures. Has this exposure to different societies influenced your own artistic decisions at all? Are you keen to continue exploring the world this way through photography and art?
I think travelling and staying for long periods of time in different places has been a positive thing for me. It’s complicated because, from an environmental point of view, we should be travelling, or at least flying, less. But from a personal perspective, I think travelling has been hugely beneficial as it opens our minds to different perspectives and we realise we’re not the centre of the universe – there’s a whole world out there. And I think all of those influences inevitably feed into one’s work. Edward Said wrote that Western humanism is not enough, we need universal humanism. That sounds right to me, and I hope that’s embodied in the work I try to do.
 
Restricted Images documents Aboriginal communities whilst ensuring that the privacy and secret customs of these communities are respected. What inspired you to photograph these particular communities, and to ‘restrict’ the images in this unique way?
Thinking about the subjective nature of history and wanting to explore alternative narratives is something I’ve been working on for a long time. I didn’t learn about British colonialism and empire in school, and I think even today, though in the current moment it’s at the centre of much discussion, in England there seems to have been a kind of ostrich approach to Britain’s colonial history where we bury our heads in the sand. I wanted to create a body of work that directly addressed this.

My initial idea was taking pieces of the historical record and adding in missing information and amending these documents with the people whose ancestral land had been colonized. The idea of restricting these images, which is one part of the wider project, came about whilst searching through different libraries in Australia – I kept coming across images and materials that had been restricted by institutions because these images featured sensitive material. This led me to think about applying this method to my own practice, but instead of the institutions restricting the images, I worked directly with the people featured in the images to give them agency over their own representation.
 
Your 2008 Ponte City series, a collaboration with Mikhael Subotzky, became well known in the photography world and could be seen as your first major community-driven project. How does this previous experience shape your current work, and did it influence the new Restricted Images exhibition in any way?
Ponte City was also a project made over many years. It involved many different modes of working, from typological work (referring to the doors, windows and television screens in the building) to documentary work to working with archives and found material. All of those are elements that exist in Restricted Images and Revisions. The main difference with this project is that each piece of work is explicitly made in a collaborative mode with many different artists and community members.

 
All of your projects are extremely collaborative, and as a result, you have undoubtedly experienced a variety of cultural influences. How does your engagement with different communities and ethnicities contribute to your personal outlook and views, and has this affected your everyday life in any way?
I suppose to some extent we’re all absorbing from different influences all the time and exist in a social context, so I’m sure it has, but in ways that I’m probably not even conscious of.
 
Your Restricted Images project reinforces the importance of preserving cultural agency over art and media, whilst respectfully documenting everyday life within the Aboriginal community. Will you continue emphasising autonomy and agency in future projects?
It’s definitely important to me and will be one part of my practice, but I hope to continue to work in many different ways.
 
What are your plans going forward from this exhibition? Do you have any other projects or ideas that you are currently exploring?
Before the virus struck, I was meant to be going to the Warlukurlangu Art Centre to work with the community so we could curate an exhibition of the wider Revisions project together. This has obviously been put on hold for now but hoping for this to happen when the world opens up a bit more. I’m also working on a project that I started on a residency in Chongqing, China, late last year. It’s also a collaborative body of work and it explores the process and possibilities of copying and how ideas evolve and spread.