Unfortunately there’s not a lot of room for nuance on the internet. Interviewing Hannah Presley, a quandary is unearthed from my first fact check: ‘I notice you’re using the terms Aboriginal, Indigenous and First Nations interchangeably in your responses, which one would you like me to use for consistency and clarity?’
We’re only a few minutes in, and our discussion is already intensely thought-provoking, reminding me of the huge importance of language and context when approaching the subject of Indigenous art. And that’s well before we’ve even got to how Hannah entered the world of art through working in galleries in Alice Springs, and went on to study a Bachelor of Visual Arts (Photography) after switching from graphic design. Not to mention her launching of a project at Footscray Community Arts Centre that lead to the creation of the Victorian Aboriginal Weaving Collective, completing her Masters in Arts Management at RMIT, and joining Tracey Moffatt as Curatorial Assistant for at the Venice Biennale 2017!
‘I’m referring to a diverse group of people, and I’ve used these words in their different instances very deliberately: to engage with the community respectfully.’ clarifies the Curator, who takes her responsibility as ACCA’s first Aboriginal curator in an ongoing role seriously. And rightfully so.
The 35-year-old took up her position in September last year, and the curatorship is part of the exciting new Yalingwa Visual Arts Initiative 2017–2022, launched in partnership between Creative Victoria, ACCA and TarraWarra Museum of Art. In addition to new positions for First Nations curators, it will include major exhibitions and three generous artist fellowships, to be offered over the next six years.
Hannah believes this project has the potential to make a lasting impact for Aboriginal artists in the South-East on the National and International stage, and her day-to-day is focussed on curating the forthcoming inaugural Yalingwa exhibition. Opening in mid-2018, this showcase will introduce nine brand-new works by Indigenous artists, commissioned by ACCA.
From podcast fangirling, to grappling with creative property rights, Hannah shares her perceptive point-of-view below.
I landed this job by…
… focusing on my relationships with artists. As an Aboriginal curator, it is key to always be seeking that balance between reflecting the realities of your community, and telling your own stories. I spend a lot of my time getting to know the artists that I work with, to help me translate their work in the gallery.
My first job in the arts came about after working for a number of years at the Alice Springs Women’s Shelter, where I learnt a lot about advocacy and connection to community and culture. The learning that came from that environment still informs my creative process, and gives me an inner strength that translates to the work I do within the arts. One day I just decided to walk into my favourite gallery in Alice Springs (Warumpi Arts; which unfortunately no longer exists) and asked for a job, the stars aligned and I started as Gallery Assistant the following day. This was possibly the most inspiring job I have had to date. I became part of a small team of young Aboriginal women who all had varied backgrounds and different connections to art. We all came together to create a vibrant, colourful and positive gallery space.
My time spent working with Tim Rollason at Araluen Galleries was also significant. He introduced me to curating and gave me my first show. We worked on major touring shows, local shows from all sorts of artists and a collection that included Albert Namatjira watercolours and important works from 1970s Papunya art movement. I still miss turning the lights on in the galleries each day and saying Good Morning to Albert.
When I moved back to Victoria the first job I landed was Curator of the Victorian Indigenous Art Awards in 2012. My time at Craft Victoria was another informative experience, and my most recent position as Curatorial Assistant for Tracey Moffatt; ‘My Horizon’ at the Venice Biennale 2017 was very empowering. Working with Commissioner Naomi Milgrom, Curator extraordinaire Natalie King, Exhibition Designer Anita Gigi and Editorial Assistant and Administrator Laura DeNeefe taught me a lot about the strength of women in the arts.
When I got back from Venice in mid-May last year, I was considering whether it was time to move somewhere else – there aren’t that many jobs for Indigenous curators in Victoria. I saw the Yalingwa Curatorship listing online and some people also sent it to me, including artists encouraging saying: “Get in there, we need you there!”. I thought, yep!
It was a pretty straight-forward job application, and I really enjoyed the panel interview. I think that the more opportunity that I have to talk, the more comfortable I become in those environments. One of the exciting things about the Yalingwa program is that there is an advisory group of all First Nations people, including elders, curators, and other important community members.
A typical day for me at the moment involves…
… a morning walk with my fluffy and very handsome 11-year old Maltese-Shitzu puppy Petey Presley. I have a very real podcast obsession, I find the mix of journalism and storytelling addictive, so podcasts get me through my daily commute. My all-time favourite is This American Life, but I’m into a bit of crime: (Sword and Scale) and the Wowee by local creatives Esther Sandler and Penny Min Ferguson is excellent.
When I get to work I’m researching for the Yalingwa exhibition and on the phone a lot. Many of my conversations with artists start with a check-in that could relate to family, politics and their overall well-being. Touching base with them is my favourite part of the day. I don’t think people realise how much admin is involved in curatorial work, I spend a lot of time at my desk and on my computer. That said, I’ve done a few research trips already, which have been amazing.
My position is the first time that ACCA has had an Aboriginal curator in an ongoing role, rather than as a guest. This comes with big responsibility on both sides, but at the moment my day-to-day is all about the Yalingwa show development.
The most rewarding part of my job is…
… the time I spend with artists and other curators. The Yalingwa exhibition will be entirely new work. It is an intimate experience working with an artist to realise new large-scale work, and I feel very fortunate to spend my days this way. There are always more stories and new ways to tell them, there is a sense of empowerment that comes from the way I approach my work.
My favourite shows to work on at the moment are collaborations with other curators. I have been working with Debbie Pryor over the past few years, I can relate to the relationships she builds with her artists. I enjoy the process of coming up with exhibition concepts with her and developing shows, her knowledge of contemporary craft and the gallery world is immense. It is great to connect with a curator who places respect at the core of their practice.
On the other hand, the most challenging aspect is…
… being aware of the talented Aboriginal artists and designers that are often overlooked by mainstream arts organisations. There is strong First Peoples leadership in the arts community of Victoria, and we all need to move away from giving platforms to non-Indigenous experts wherever possible and acknowledge the real voices that deserve to be the focus. First Nations artists across the country are engaging in new and exciting forms of creative exploration and if you are not keeping up, you are missing out.
The culture of my workplace is…
… dynamic and supportive; so many of my colleagues have their own creative practices, they are always going to see shows and participating in all the cultural events that Melbourne has to offer, so there are always interesting conversations happening in the office.
We also do The Age Quiz every day at lunchtime!
… laughing; I smile a lot.
At our recent staff Xmas party, I received an award for ‘Most Chill’, I hope I can maintain that as we get closer to the opening of my show.
On Job Day at school, I dressed up as…
I don’t know that we had a day like that at school, but I can imagine I would have taken any opportunity to wear a dress that was not my school uniform.
When I was in primary school I wanted to be a fortune teller, and not having a direct connection with the spirit world never stopped me from telling my friends all the wonderful things that would unfold in their future lives.
My idea of the perfect workplace is…
I love the idea of working on multiple projects that allow me to move around the community and talk to different people. There are a lot more voices out there to hear that are keeping the discussion present and relevant.
In seeking such people out, I always take referrals, asking everyone I know: “Whats cool, what are you liking at the moment, and who are you excited about?” I then try to reach out through Facebook or Instagram or whatever I can get my hands on, asking for these people’s contact details so I can chat with them. When that happens, I start the asking all-over again and it just goes on from there!
With this show, people see ACCA behind me and that is helpful, but I think it’s about being really respectful and genuine in your approach. So, when you are reaching out to someone, just assume that they are the busiest person in the world and be as polite as possible while concise. I’ve done a lot of grant reviews, and the ones that are successful are those that get to the point quickly because they showing respect for the reader’s time in that sense.
I really think my ideal workplace is much like everyone else’s: one offering flexibility, freedom and the budget to do what you want.
The best piece of advice I’ve received is…
… probably also my most recent. When I started at ACCA, Ms [Tracey] Moffatt told me to keep being strong and make the shows I want to make. I have always been inspired by the way she has approached her art, the strength it has taken her to build her career internationally and her undivided devotion to her practice.
Over the years, working in curatorship has changed…
The most obvious difference to when I first started in the arts, is the fact that I don’t wear a tool belt anymore. Now I get to work with an amazing Exhibition Manager and a professional install team!
Earlier in my career, I worked on the Desert Mob exhibition in Alice, which involved 34 art centres. We would be literally shaking the red dirt out of the canvases when they came in! I do think this is more about where I’ve been working rather than when; if I’m curating a show independently, I’m still doing everything on my own.
So far, I think I have learned to trust my gut instinct more than ever before, and I feel I have maintained my focus on guiding artists to tell their stories their way.
In the next five years, I’d like to…
Keep working with the Victorian Aboriginal Weaving Collective to find new platforms to discuss the issues around the future of weaving. For example, non-Indigenous artists and makers need to be actively aware of their privileged space, and ensure they are not taking opportunities away from First Nations artists. In our discussions with weavers, questions often come up like: “How do I balance sharing my craft through workshops with people who may then want to incorporate what they have learned into making items for retail spaces or exhibitions?” If the act of creating a work is taking away an opportunity from a First Nations maker, then I think that is something to avoid.
I would like to play a role in seeing more Aboriginal artists and designers reach mainstream opportunities and receive recognition for their contributions. There are also a number of First Nations curators I would like to spend more time with, like Clothilde Bullen at Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, and Coby Edgar. I would like to work on some more projects that take me overseas.
There is so much happening, so much to engage in. I think art and Aboriginal art is a really good way to understand a culture, and maybe even just find an entry into understanding.
Be bold. Be brave. Go see a show and ask some questions!
ACCA’s exhibition, ‘Unfinished Business: Perspectives on art and feminism‘ (pictured throughout this story) runs until March 25th. For more information on the Yalingwa initiative and Hannah’s forthcoming exhibition visit the ACCA website here.