NGA International Indigenous fellowship reflections

Written by Freja Carmichael.

This year my birthday was unforgettable, it was spent flying across the world to undertake the 2016 National Gallery of Australia Indigenous Arts fellowship at the Contemporary Aboriginal Art Museum Utrecht (AAMU). The opportunity was offered as part of the Wesfarmers Arts Indigenous Fellowship program which was established in 2009 by the National Gallery of Australia and Wesfarmers Limited to support professional development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working in the visual arts sector. As alumni of the program (alongside Amanda Hayman, Katina Davidson and Sophia Sambono) I am very honoured to have been awarded the international residency.

Utrecht is located in centre of The Netherlands, It’s a beautiful city with historical canals, bicycles, cobblestone paths and buildings dating back from the 14th century. Positioned on Oudegracht, one of the main canals is AAMU, which has been opened since 2001. Here I worked on Mapping Australia: Cartography to Country, an exhibition that brought together works by Aboriginal artists and historical mappings by Europeans explorers. As part of the project, I researched and wrote exhibition texts and assisted in artwork installation. It was a great chance for new learnings of artists, communities and works, which I had not previously engaged with.

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Mapping Australia: Cartography to Country exhibition installation

I also worked closely with Brisbane-based Waanyi artist, Judy Watson for her contributions to the exhibition, which included the names of places video work. In 2015 I provided research assistance for this ongoing, collaborative project and it was special and moving to view it for the first time at AAMU and add to audiences understanding of this important work.

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Cara Kirkwood, Freja Carmichael and Judy Watson at Mapping Australia exhibition opening

The scenic train rides that linked all the cities together also made it easy to visit museum and galleries across the country. I was very interested in seeing what Aboriginal cultural material was in collections and at The National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden I had the chance to view a selection on display. I also continued with my interests in fibre art, by exploring both AAMU’s collection which featured works mainly from Arnhem Land and by visited different contemporary art and collection exhibitions.

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Freja Carmichael researching fibre at AAMU

Upon the completion of my fellowship at AAMU, an unexpected opportunity arose for me to visit Palestine for the Jerusalem Show 2016. The exhibition curated by Vivian Ziherl was part of the Palestinian biennial Qalandiya International and included Aboriginal artists Richard Bell, Megan Cope, Ryan Presley, Gordon Hookey and The Karrabing Film Collective.  Through already being overseas and feeling comfortable to continue my learning journey supported this additional trip where I visited historical sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, attended some of the amazing Biennial programming and participated in the show through speaking at the Birzeit University, Ramallah on Cultural endurance: arts of heritage. Visiting Palestine was an incredibly enriching experience where even the little things such as walking through the narrow streets of the old city of Jerusalem impacted me.

Since returning home, I continue to feel very grateful for these two very diverse opportunities where I was able to exist with different cultures and further understand histories, events and current circumstances. Being in the Netherlands was also a very personal journey as I was able to connect further with my Dutch ancestry by visiting my Grandfathers country. It was also an honour to share our culture internationally and inform diverse audiences of the work going on back home, including Art of the Skins project. Whilst at times difficulties did arise, with conflicting cultural understandings and the challenges from being far away from home, but through these experiences I gained so much, and what has made it even more special was the people I had the chance to learn from, spend time with and form new connections from around the world.