Adam Hill’s sharp-edged imagery provokes discussion about truth and social justice.
The following is an extract from our brand new publication You Plus Me Equals Us available for purchase here.
I grew up in the blue-collar demographic in Penrith, where Aboriginals were called abos, and Italians were called dagos. In this great society of taking the mickey, I want to turn that tradition around, and point the finger at ‘bogan insecurity.
Reacting through painting
My work is a frustrated role reversal in terms of getting the point across. Painting is my response – I don’t set out to put a passive foot forward.
I’ve been painting for 12 years. My uncles were fantastic commercial artists, but I didn’t pick up a brush until I was 27. My focus was on the culture where I was, and on learning about the Darug people.
At the beginning it was a creative outlet, but after my first major solo exhibition, in western Sydney, it got under my skin: it became a necessity to keep painting every night. Then my work was accepted at the then new Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Penrith. I employed a NAISDA dance group from Sydney to open the show – I hadn’t been involved in anything on that scale before.
I left Penrith because I realised the only form of artwork you could pursue in western Sydney was in the cottage art industry. I wanted to take my message to an audience that was receptive and open – to introduce people to the fundamental flaws in our society.
Is reconciliation the best word?
The problem with attempts at reparation is they are always patronising. The white fella means well and wants to find the best way forward, but what’s the black version? Reconciliation is a fictitious thing. I think we need a more substantial term: we haven’t done anything wrong. I’ve recently been influenced by Mark McMurtrie, an Indigenous lawyer, and by Errol Wyles, who was killed by the KKK in Townsville. They’re deconstructing the system we’re in, and showing up the hypocrisies of illegal governance.
There are issues of social justice such as lower life expectancy and the high incarceration rates. In education, there’s been a failure to have a two-way process. We start the foundation for literacy, but the Northern Territory minister says students must speak English for the first four hours and ‘then’ the native language. I performed on the yidaki (didgeridoo) at New Zealand’s Waitangi festival, and they spoke Maori first, then English. It’s abysmal that we don’t have the same approach here, or a response to the haka.
Responses from students
We are seeing some changes in education. I’m currently the artist in residence at Liverpool Girls’ High – a male in an all-girls’ school talking about Indigenous social justice. Some people say my work is ‘too confrontational’, and in Penrith, kids can detect an activist, but it strikes a chord with many of the students at Liverpool. The biggest reward, despite the commodification of my art as a label, is when a Year 12 student emails you questions for her essay.
Many of the students are Muslim, and they ask, does your art speak for the broader community? It does come from the beginnings, from where racism is seeded. One girl was called a terrorist because she was wearing the hijab.
We are a racist country – in the British-founded sporting codes, most of the faces appear the same. I bring it back to what the country focuses on: as Kevin Gilbert [the Indigenous activist and poet] said, the Australian male only cares about beer, sport and sex. Social justice and sensitivity are not at the forefront of the dominant psyche.
A creative network
My inspirations are the ‘3G network’ – Gordon Hookey, Gordon Syron and Gordon Bennett. They are three of the most politicised artists. Other artists I admire are Destiny Deacon, Bronwyn Bancroft, Yhonnie Scarce and Bundik Marika – she has used her status as an artist to speak out about what affects her community. My subconscious art schooling was with the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists’ Cooperative – the longest serving Indigenous-run artists’ group. They have always tried to represent urban NSW Indigenous artists, and generally there is a political edge.
Opportunities to use art as activism have come through valued collaborations with highly accredited peers. [Authors] Anita Heiss and Larissa Behrendt have asked to use images of my works in their publications.
Taking the message further
Many Indigenous arts representatives who have gone abroad have not done so for the urban political artist - they’ve done it for the remote regional artist. Now after nine years of exhibiting professionally, I’m looking beyond Australia. I believe most of the arts world are clever enough to see beyond the tiring 'anthropological' view of Aboriginal art, and now I’m taking my first step with China. I can see that the sky is the limit. As on any continent, or in any major city, what you have seen so far of Aboriginal arts is probably the auction-house, 'carpet-bagged' examples, but I would welcome the opportunity to talk to people about the social and political issues.
It’s exciting that my colleagues and peers of all creeds are bringing their mates to my shows. They’re receptive and it’s spreading – they’re unifying in one cause.