Over the years, artists have capitalised on digital technologies to push the boundaries of their creative practice in new and exciting ways. This is particularly evident in Australia, where First Nations artists are utilising ‘new media art’i as a means of both political resilience and cultural expression.
Indigenous artists are no longer confined to producing works of a particular ‘Indigenous style’, but are expressing their culture in contemporary ways. More than ever, these artists are experimenting and working in variety of art mediums that include installation, animation, mixed-media, performance, video and digital art. Utilising these diverse platforms and mediums these artists actively engage with issues pertaining to history, identity and race. What has evolved into the landscape of Indigenous visual culture as a result, is a new wave of contemporary artists capitalising on the agency of art as a platform for agitation, pushing boundaries, challenging contested histories and reshaping dominant narratives around Indigenous art history.
In the 1980s, in the inner-northern suburbs of Melbourne, the production of large-scale murals by young Indigenous people symbolically and literally transformed urban spaces into locations that visually communicated Indigenous presence.ii These artworks disputed the false narratives that surrounded South Eastern Indigenous culture and the urban landscape. Contemporary artists such as Brook Andrew and Reko Rennie, interrogate the constructs of western art history and Eurocentric institutions by covering the facades of public buildings with bold, political artworks that reassert the presence of an Indigenous voice that has historically been supressed.
Tapping into this wave of artistic innovators is Gunditjmara/Yorta Yorta artist Josh Muir. Utilising the tools of his time, Muir’s flair for bold neon installations and digitally rendered graphics, showcases his ability to combine his Indigenous heritage with a broader contemporary visual language. Within his work he adopts images from pop culture and street art with a nod to his upbringing as well as universal themes of nostalgia and adolescence. Having spent much of his youth in Ballarat, inspired by cartoons and street art, Muir’s visual aesthetic conveys a rich understanding of what it’s like to be a young person, especially one growing up in a regional community today.
His latest installation What’s on your mind? reveals a personal and intimate side of youth identity. Combining elements of audio, animation and graphic design, this eight piece installation takes you on a journey through the artist’s mind, exploring personal self-discovery and struggles with mental health. Each of the eight digital prints are accompanied by audio and animation, which allow the viewer to engage dynamically and deeply with his inner narrative, almost as if we are entering the artist’s own personal psychosis.
Within each digital print, Muir skilfully and poetically utilises powerful symbols that speak to broader social issues of black identity while shedding light on the importance of Indigenous culture and connection to traditional Country as a means of dealing with personal struggles. Synonymous with power and sovereignty, the gold crown, as seen in FLOURISH, is a recurring symbol for many black artists working in an urban context and has been adopted in the works of Jean Michel Basquiat and Reko Rennie. With similar associations, the artwork SEARCH depicts two self-portraits. These self-portraits situate Muir within his own work, reinforcing the presence of Indigenous voice. CLEANSE illustrates the artist’s connection to his traditional lands. For many Indigenous peoples, Country is the main source of healing, and for Muir his connection with his Country has allowed him to cope with the pressures of mental health and the pressures of living in a colonial environment.
Whats on your Mind? demonstrates Muir’s creative sophistication as an artist of daring flair. His fun and playful aesthetic, pop culture references and use of digital technologies, illustrates his ability to engage and relate to broad audiences. In this way, Muir draws connections across cultures, but at the heart of his practice is a deep and personal affiliation with his traditional Indigenous culture and that of his lived experience as a young Indigenous man navigating the complexities of living between two very different worlds.
‘I hold my culture strong to my heart and it gives me a voice and great sense of my identity. I look around I see empires built on Aboriginal land, I cannot physically change or shift this, though I can make the most of my culture in a contemporary setting and my art projects reflect my journey.’iii
First Nations Curator, Bendigo Art Gallery
i New Media Art refers to artworks created with new technologies, including digital art, computer graphics, computer animation, virtual art, internet art, interactive art, video games, computer robotics, 3D printing and art as biotechnology.
ii Fran Edmonds, ‘Making murals, revealing histories: Murals as an assertion of Aboriginality in Melbourne’s inner north’, in Urban Representations, AITSIS Research Publications, 2012.
iii Josh Muir, email correspondence, January 25, 2019.