Writer in residence Fiona Kelly McGregor on Dennis Golding’s The Future is Here at Carriageworks from 3-28 November 2021.
In September, I met Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay artist Dennis Golding at his Carriageworks exhibition The Future is Here. It was a bittersweet experience as I was the only audience member allowed into the venue during Sydney’s 107-day Covid lockdown. The display of around 100 superhero capes made by schoolkids in a workshop with the artist had been visible through the glass doors since July. But to stand closer, to be in the actual physical presence of the capes and able to roam the length of the installation, was to experience jubilation, excitement and play, a veritable hubbub of colour, as though the mute button on a playground had been released.
Golding is dressed in a bright shirt, shorts and loafers. He is an ageless 32, broad of chest and shoulders, his black hair and beard neatly clippered despite months of lockdown. His debonair appearance, quietly spoken manner and dazzling smile, like the capes themselves, belie more serious undercurrents.
The Future is Here was made through a Solid Ground residency, an initiative established in 2015 by Carriageworks in partnership with Blacktown Arts, providing education, training and employment pathways for Indigenous Australian youth in Redfern, Waterloo and Blacktown. Golding is the ideal candidate, having grown up on The Block in the tumultuous nineties and noughties. Much of the work was done with pupils at Alexandria Park Community School. ‘The children allocated to me were children of parents I’d grown up with down in Eveleigh Street. So it was a really great connection. Some of the young people also knew me. It gave them a sense of comfort which enabled them to explore these themes.’
Golding asked the school principal if he could do workshops with First Nations students, from the entire range of Kindy to Year 12. Each would be given a cape and asked to create their own symbol, to signify the special quality or power they would have as a superhero. ‘The reason I do this is to help bring stronger and more empowering representations of contemporary Aboriginal culture within urban spaces. These kids — we — are living in communities where Aboriginal self and culture haven’t been celebrated in so many ways. My own experience of growing up in Redfern centred on these ideas of how we can establish new narratives of urban spaces that speak about the lived experiences of people who are feeling surveillance and monitored.’
‘What was your superhero power?’
‘Invisibility. Growing up in The Block, we experienced police constantly surveilling us and riding around on horseback. Me, as a kid, playing in the parks, just being outside, we did feel that. It’s that same feeling you get when you put on a costume, how you feel a sense of transformation. Or empowerment. That’s what I wanted to give to these kids. … When I went around in the workshops and asked them what their superpower would be, a lot said Invisibility too, which was incredible. … I really wanted to help them understand that these are some of the contemporary social and political issues we face as Aboriginal people in the city.’
Devonshire Street, Surry Hills, c. 1999-2004. I am lying in bed with my lover in her warehouse. It is past midnight and the sound of helicopters is keeping us awake. The searchlights they beam down on the housing commissions two blocks away are so strong that we can see the light through the window. Northcott, The Towers and The Block in Redfern come under this sort of surveillance every few months. The operations are especially prevalent in the run-up to elections. Bob Carr’s Labor government trained a squad of bomb-detection dogs in preparation for the 2000 Olympics; subsequently, the dogs are trained to detect illegal drugs, including cannabis.
Golding’s first encounter with art was watching his mother Vicki Golding paint, often on fabric. Vicki Golding’s bright dot designs have adorned Wests Tigers guernseys. It was at home that Golding first learnt to cut and sew fabric. Hearing him speak of the influence his mother had on him in the so-called domestic arts reminds me of the foundational relationship Bidjara/Ghungalu/Garingbal artist Dale Harding has with his mother, textile artist Kate Harding. There is the playful subversion (or conversion), of the domestic to the public, the female to male, the white to black. Golding’s nan Ali Golding, of the Biripi nation, has long been a prominent member of the Sydney’ First Nations community and continues to work for her people.
The first installation of The Future is Here features capes sheeny bright, all colours of the rainbow. On them are painted an array of words, slogans, mysterious designs, or totemic animals such as turtles, birds and marsupials. A number feature black and white wavy lines in different configurations that represent the river systems of the children’s various ancestral countries. Sometimes there is just a word: DEADLY. Or:
The word that Golding cites as capturing the spirit or fulcrum of the project, is ‘imagination’.
‘All of these capes talk about connection to country whether in terms of language, family, animals, or an actual place these kids might go back to visit family. There are about 170 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander kids at the school, and we worked with over a 100 of them. There are four capes exhibited here that I brought over from the project at Blacktown Arts.’ The Blacktown Arts exhibit was mounted early in 2021, before lockdown.
The designs on the capes are as diverse as they are distilled, the range in ages evident in both style and content. Golding talks about the importance of getting the kids to celebrate the personal and the local, rather than turning to the obvious symbols of Batman and Superman. ‘To resonate to their own identity and reflect back on their own history.’
‘It’s interesting to me how invisibility says so much culturally — people have had to hide if Indigenous, or queer for instance — yet you turned it into a power. So you have turned it around to make a statement about visibility. I love that.’
‘All of these histories are in there. Also, these children are often from families that had to move into the city, for work or education or other purposes, which led to the establishment of civil rights in Redfern.’
Sydney’s historical narratives have taken a long time to place Indigenous people at the centre despite the fact this city’s urban Aboriginal culture is so rich, relevant and longstanding. The first Aboriginal protest against English invasion took place on 26 January 1938, the 150th anniversary of the Big Ship’s arrival; the group of delegates included members of the Ingram family, now prominent in the Redfern Indigenous community. Apart from the ongoing connection of Redfern/Waterloo’s traditional owners the Gadigal people, families began to congregate in Redfern in earnest in the early 20th century.
It is in Redfern that some of Australia’s most significant political, cultural and civil rights movements began. In the early 1970s, Black Theatre was founded, its influence resonating through a panoply of Indigenous performing arts organisations to this day; next door to Black Theatre was Radio Redfern. The All Blacks rugby team was founded here in 1945, their legacy remembered in the mural opposite Redfern railway station. Also in the 1970s, the Aboriginal Medical Service, Aboriginal Legal Service and Aboriginal Housing Company were established. The AMS has been in the frontline of the COVID-19 response. The tent embassy established in Canberra in 1972, grew from a Redfern-based group of activists.
Rhizomatic, resourceful, resilient. Tough, cheeky, proud. As the t-shirts say:
LONDON BORN ON THE BLOCK
PARIS SOLID AS A ROCK
Golding mentions Uncle Wes, esteemed elder in western Sydney, and how he is connected to the La Perouse community. This community likewise, on the lands of the Bidjigal people, has continuous links to the past, intersecting with folk in Redfern and the western suburbs. Golding’s stepfather is from La Perouse.
Dispossession has been as continuous as connection to country. In the 90s, families began to be evicted from the old terrace houses down on The Block. Golding witnessed this first-hand, as a child. ‘Some of my family, my uncles, were moved into the high-rise (housing commission) buildings of Waterloo. So some were lucky to still stay around the area, like Surry Hills, Chippendale, but most had to move further out.’
Golding was recently announced as one of 25 artists selected for the 2022 Adelaide Biennale (opening next March). He is thrilled about the gig as his first curatorial experience was at the Tarnanthi Festival in the Museum of South Australia in 2017, assisting curator Tess Allas. He will also present a new work at Cement Fondu in late October – the roadmap out of lockdown pending — in collaboration with Carmen Glynn-Braun as The Re-Right Collective.
‘We’re presenting our first major exhibition as a collective. We’re looking at home settings, and ways we can decolonise Victorian objects.’ Golding’s arresting work that won him the NSW Visual Arts Emerging Fellowship in 2020 is a precursor. For Cast in cast out, Golding photographed himself holding sections of cast iron around his body: lacework fences from those childhood terraces; prison bars; colonial annexation.
The other day I walked through the Aboriginal Housing Corporation’s high-rise development on Eveleigh Street, once the main artery of The Block. Much contested for what was perceived to be a lack of consultation and appropriation of public funds to the pockets of a few, the development is considered by some an inadequate solution to the removal of families from the old terrace houses that once stood all along this street. For over a year, local elder Jenny Munro, in protest against the AHC development, ran a tent embassy on the grassy oval created after the demolition of a section of houses in 1990s.
A 20 storey building now soars beside the railway line north of Redfern station, increasing the wind tunnel which is most noticeable further east around Regent Street and Botany Road. Here, the TNT towers built in the early 1970s have gradually been added to by other developments (Redfern Police Station is in these towers). The AHC development was also criticised for prioritising private and student housing over Indigenous housing.
I noticed Indigenous and Islander families in some of the ground floor apartments. I ask Golding how he feels about this. He talks about the trauma experienced by families who were moved out, and how gentrification is a form of colonisation.
‘Redfern has been such an important place for connection, community and protest. Many of our families, including myself, feel very conflicted about the community there now because the community we once knew has been removed. There is a building in that development that has been prioritised for Aboriginal families to move back into, but that’s just a number. There is a loss of agency. People have to go through this process of being selected, up to a certain number, so some are missing out. My family applying — including cousins — they can’t get anywhere down there. And they are new parents, and that was a community we all grew up in and felt safe in and connected. But not having any access or agency to come back to this community is problematic.’
1984, Wilson Street. The old railway workshops across the road are boarded up. There are four of us in this house, all young musicians working crummy part-time jobs to pay the bills. The rent is so cheap it has been possible to create a band room out the back, insulated with second-hand bats.
I can’t remember which house it was, but it would be renovated now, worth millions.
I ask Dennis if it struck him, as a kid surrounded by strong mother figures, how all the superheroes were white, and all but one or two male. ‘Yeah it did. And part of this project is about challenging that.’ He cites the use of bright colours. Indeed, the overall effect of the two installations is literally SUNNY.
The second series comprises larger capes made by adolescent pupils. ‘You can see there’s a LOT of red. There’s a lot of pink and orange and yellow. There’s something interesting about that decision making. I reckon it’s playing with the strength and power of the colour red and what it represents in terms of the Aboriginal flag. That’s a repetitive image for these young people, that they feel closely connected to. Red, you know, representing the earth or the land.
‘It talks about my own sexuality as well, as a gay man. I’m inserting these histories and experiences that I’ve faced growing up in Sydney. I’m questioning masculinity and how it sits with me in my own community. And my own understanding of what it is. I really want to challenge those ideas, these western structures. This type of heroism.’
You can’t look at these rows of capes without imagining their makers donning them and flying around in character. Part of the pathos of seeing the installation during lockdown is this absence and silence. Deflated, uninhabited, hanging objects; perhaps, like bats, they fill at night and fly off the wall into an adventure.
Golding says they had planned another series of workshops. ‘You know, as beautiful as it is to see all these capes hung up like this, I really think they need to be activated. At the very start of these workshops, in February 2020, we were hoping to do a photographic series with the kids wearing them. That was supposed to be the result of this exhibition too, for them to be properly seen.’
Video and photography are part of Golding’s practice as well. Extending the project with lens-based media was a logical conclusion to the children taking charge of their own narratives. Not only by donning the capes, but also by telling the story of their particular symbol. There is tremendous sadness in this. The project has been five years in the making and is now thwarted. Also in terms of the kids. They must be missing them.
‘Are any of them able to walk past and look at them through the window?’
‘Yeah, I’ve seen a few Facebook posts which is really good. We were hoping … Between the two lockdowns we had a meeting and the principal expressed interest in bringing the capes back to the school. And to have a permanent fixture, which I think would be amazing.’
Dennis cut out and hemmed all the capes, with occasional adjustments made for height. The bespoke nature gives their shapes a beguiling variation and asymmetry. They were presented on tables for the kids, with acrylic paints. A handful also used glitter.
The Solid Ground residency rolls around each year. Golding is still hoping for an opportunity to finish the project with a storybook and animation. ‘I’m really hoping it can still happen because Covid has really impacted our communities.’ At the time we meet, the virus is moving rapidly through the housing commission buildings in Surry Hills, Redfern and Waterloo. There is a lot of fear and anxiety within the community. The inability to visit family members is keenly felt; the lack of access to community. And in the western suburbs, choppers are flying over streets at night, beaming searchlights onto anyone below out after curfew.
Every year on 14 February, the memorial parade for a deceased Aboriginal boy goes past my house in Pitt Street, Redfern. In some ways it is a demonstration, the chants for justice ringing through the streets. Eleven years ago, when I first moved here, it was a parade of about one hundred locals. For several years now, the police have sent officers to supervise them. The amount of people marching has increased a little, and always been peaceful. The amount of police has increased exponentially: this year, the march had officers on foot flanking either side, and was tailed by police on horseback. The impression was of hemming the people in, containing a threat.
Now we have been released from lockdown, hopes for the reprisal of further iterations in The Future is Here may revive. Carriageworks is scheduled to re-open on 3 November. Dennis Golding’s The Future is Here will be fully accessible until 28 November.
Written by Fiona Kelly McGregor