A Powerful Group Show From Seven First Nations Artists

The base elements of earth, air, water, and fire have long served as creative inspiration. For artists from First Nations backgrounds, this is particularly potent subject matter.

Brought together by first-time curator Jenna Lee, the group exhibition Elemental at Craft Victoria highlights the works of seven First Nations artists, each bringing their unique perspective informed by more than 60,000 of knowledge of Country passed down over generations.

Here, we chat to Jenna about the works and themes in Elemental, and the energy propelling First Nations artists forward in this exciting moment.

Sally Tabart

Craft Victoria, Watson Place, Melbourne, interior designed by Karen Abernethy Architects, counter oxidised steel by Sean Godsell Architects. Photo – Tatjana Plitt.

The exterior of Craft Victoria on Flinders Lane. Photo – Stephanie Stamatis and Lauren Bamford.

Left: ‘Continuity of Protection’ 2, 3 and 4 by Lisa Waup.  Right: Blue Bird by Lisa Waup. Photo – Henry Trumble.

‘K’gari means paradise in Butchulla’ mural by Mia Boe. Photo – Henry Trumble.

‘The Wiinj Element’ by Iluka Sax-Williams. Photo – Henry Trumble.

Video artwork, ‘kelp, chemical waste, both edible’ by Edwina Green. Installation pieces ‘I’ll Carry My Own Water’ and ‘Oyster, First’ by Edwina Green. Photo – Henry Trumble.

‘Derril Mon Daanak (Clay Healing Pots)’ by Cassie Leatham. Photo – Henry Trumble.

Botanical installation by Shahn Stewart. Photo – Henry Trumble.

Artist, graphic designer and curator of ‘Elemental’ Jenna Lee. Photo – Henry Trumble.

Sally Tabart
22nd of June 2021

There are so many incredible First Nations artists creating powerful work across the country, whose practices are inextricably intwined with culture. Craft Victoria’s latest exhibition, Elemental, is a celebration of this.

Curated by artist, graphic designer and Craft Victoria member Jenna Lee (who is a mixed-race Larrakia, Wardaman and Karajarri woman), Elemental brings together the works of seven First Nations artists – Cassie Leatham, Edwina Green, Shahn Stewart, Iluka-Sax Williams, Lisa Waup, Mia Boe, and Moorina Bonini – working across a diverse range of mediums including painting, floral art, sculpture, weaving and video art.

Reflecting on this year’s NAIDOC week theme Heal Country!, the exhibition examines each artist’s personal, spiritual and ancestral relationship with Country through exploration of the base elements earth, air, water and fire.

‘For over 60,0000 years, First Nations People have thrived on this continent of extremes by connecting, respecting, harnessing, and mastering the elements’, says Jenna.

This exhibition represents generations of skills, stories and knowledge passed down to First Nations artists living and creating today, paying homage to those who came before.

Hey Jenna! What drew you to the artists you’ve curated in ‘Elemental’?

All the artists have practices I have admired for a long time as well as quite a few of them having existing relationship with Craft Victoria. For my first-time curating, to avoid being overwhelmed by the choice of so many amazing makers in Victoria, I wanted to start with artist whose practice I knew well and have existing relationships with. It has also been an amazing way to further connections and relationships with artist and meet some artist as well. Iluka Sax-Williams is one artist who I meet through the process of curating the show and it has been so special to form a new connection as well as have him make a new piece directly responding to the theme.

Each of the artists has mastered the use of the elements as either method, material, process or subject (and sometimes all of the above) each sharing messages that are personal but also have universal connection. I have looked up to many of these artist for years and having the opportunity to work with them in the capacity of a curator has been a dream. All the artists have been so giving and responsive my vision and the show is stunning because of what each of them gave.

I have learnt so much in this process and having the understanding from the artists and the support of the whole Craft Vic team has made it such a wonderful process.

How do the themes of ‘Elemental’ relate back to the NAIDOC week theme, ‘Heal Country!’?

Heal Country! Is such a provocative theme, it can be read quite poetically but also as an instruction. As a Larrakia woman living away from my country (Darwin NT) here in Naarm I found myself thinking of the ways in which Country itself influences my own art practice. In my practice working with the elements is how I connect with country and evoke those memories of place. Earth, Fire, Air and Water are not only extensions of Country but are what make up Country itself. Each of the artist in the show, although I have curated them in connection with one of the elements, also have a holistic way of thinking about the omnipresence of each element.

How did you start the curation process for ‘Elemental’ – and what are you hoping to highlight ?

It really began with an obsession with the elemental forces in my own work, I have strong links with water and fire in my practice and the way I work with them aren’t necessarily a part of the final product, more a part of the concept and process. I wanted to highlight this holistic way of thinking of the elements and how as First Nations people our connection and use of them in our work has layers of meaning. Curating this show has also given me the beautiful opportunity to step outside my own art practice and engage with and be inspired by other artists.

It feels like there is a real energy around young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and designers in this moment that is only escalating – is this something you’ve also noticed? Why do you think that is?

I think wider audiences are starting to really realise how hard we work as First Nations artist, makers, and designers – and the incredible depth and diversity of stories we have to share.

We are not self-made, but community made, family made, and ancestor made. The generations before us fought hard and worked tirelessly to have our art and stories acknowledged and we are now seeing a shift towards them being valued in a broader context. So many people who came before us made this path so we could walk it and it is with gratitude and responsibility that we make, curate and design. We are also very slowly starting to see audiences develop a deeper understanding of the diversity of First Nations art, that not all our art looks the same and that we were always a nation of nations, each with our own traditions of creative expression.

‘Elemental’ is now open and is presented as part of Craft Victoria’s NAIDOC Week program.

NAIDOC week (July 4th – 11th) celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This year’s theme – Heal Country! – calls for stronger measures to recognise, protect, and maintain all aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage.

June 19th – July 17th 2021
Monday – Friday, 11am – 6pm
Saturday, 11am – 4pm
Closed Sunday + public holidays

Craft Victoria
Watson Place (off Flinders Lane)
Melbourne, 3000

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