Stephen Gilchrist, the Australian Studies Visiting Curator at the Harvard Art Museums, spent the last five years thinking about, planning, and organizing Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia. A member of the Yamatji people of the Inggarda language group of Western Australia and an associate lecturer in art history at the University of Sydney, Gilchrist shared his thoughts about visitors’ perceptions of Everywhen, the significance of contemporary Indigenous Australian art being on view at Harvard, and his pride in his heritage.
What do you think surprises people about the exhibition?
I think people are surprised by the diversity—that there’s more to Indigenous art than just dots and bark painting. There’s a great range of works on paper, canvas, acetate, and glass; there’s photography, cultural objects, and installations. I hope that people are struck by the beauty that will then compel them to pose deeper questions about the works and their relationship to them. I think people are interested in the fusion of the conceptual and the perceptual that seems to appear in many of the works in the show. Quite a few people have also commented on the gender equity of the show.
What should visitors take away from the exhibition?
I want people to understand the breadth, sophistication, beauty, and politics of this art form. I think the provocation of the exhibition is really to imagine the world otherwise. There are multiple and multiplying ways of being, seeing, and knowing the world and many of the narratives that we have inherited from art and social history are at the very least incomplete. The exhibition is about time, but it is equally about power and who gets to claim it. It would be great if visitors could spend time with these unfamiliar ideas that can potentially recalibrate their understanding of Indigeneity. Indigenous people are not merely from and of the past. We are couriers and keepers of what has been, what is, and what could be. I also really hope that people see the exhibition as not art of the other but simply as a significant form of contemporary art. It deserves our attention and deserves to be seen here at the Harvard Art Museums alongside some of the great art traditions of the world.
Does that context—of being here at Harvard, in New England, set against American history—change anything about how we encounter these works of art?
I think the institutional armature of the Harvard Art Museums helps people see the exhibition in a particular kind of way. It is at least understood to be fine art, if not always contemporary art. But I hope that people also see that Indigenous art possesses its own cultural value, wherever it is exhibited. Some of the central ideas of the exhibition are time, place, history, and belonging, so I hope that visitors are simultaneously interrogating their relationship to American as well as Australian histories. There are some echoes, parallels, and reverberations.
I think it’s also really interesting that some of the most important exhibitions of Indigenous art in the last 10 years have been at university art museums in the United States. Museums are particularly suited to grappling with the intellectual and definitional challenges of Indigenous art. It suggests that the people who visit university art museums really want to understand cultural contexts. People don’t just want surface, they want to go deeper in a sustained way. And museums can be the perfect place to do that.
Fifty percent of artists in Australia are Indigenous. What do you think accounts for that?
There are significant and complex cultural, economic, and political reasons to account for Indigenous people creating works of art for outside audiences. Of course, it is hard to generalize but I think one of main differences is that for many Indigenous people, art is simply part of everyday life. I also think that for Indigenous people, art was the language that could speak across cultural divides. It could make their respective communities valorized, visible, and undeniable.
Has working on this exhibition changed your perspective on your identity as a member of an Indigenous group?
When I came to the United States to study at NYU, I just wanted to connect with art from around the world and to spend time with the incredible collections that I couldn’t see in Australia. I saw Indigenous art and culture everywhere, probably because I knew where to look and who to ask, but I soon realized that other people didn’t. Throughout my studies, I realized that I had to use my curatorial voice to activate discussions and to agitate for change to make art museums, in particular, more culturally resonant for Indigenous peoples. I believe in the power of Indigenous art and I’m grateful for those who have also believed in my voice and the voicings of the artists. Every exhibition is a curatorial exercise in wayfinding and I think this exhibition has taught me that as I move through the world, relationships are my politics. It is about intellectual, cultural, and political engagement and who we can bring with us.