‘I, Object’, currently on display at the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) until 29 August 2021, focuses on objects rather than paintings to reveal the rich history of Indigenous Australian culture from colonial times to the present day. Within the exhibition, a selection of rare shields are on loan from a private collection in Sydney.
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A phalanx of painted wooden shields from across Queensland, some dating from the late nineteenth century, stands at the entrance. Over tens of thousands of years, vigorous contact between Queensland’s many Indigenous language groups has meant an equally long history of shield-making, but despite their popularity and sophistication, these important cultural works are yet to receive wide recognition as a mainstay of Australian art.
The most visually striking of these are shields from the rainforest region of north Queensland. Known in the Djirubal language as bigan, Queensland rainforest shields were commonly cut from the exposed buttress roots of ficus trees. However, a number of shields from this region are made from hardwood. Bigan shields tend to be around one metre tall — larger than shields from the rest of the country. These great oval or crescent-shaped objects are lightweight and decoratively patterned.
Less well known are the smaller, heavier shields of southern and central Queensland, loosely referred to as Gulmari (or Goomeri, Gulmardi) shields — a term that has been associated with the small town of Goomeri in the South Burnett region. This name has become popular with galleries and auction houses when describing this style of shield. Unlike rainforest shields, Gulmari shields are often deeply incised, featuring blocky, relief-carved geometric designs on hardwood. These smaller shields form a special feature in ‘I, Object’, which contains many fine examples of a cross-section of Queensland shields.
Shields from western and central Queensland bear the influences of their painted cousins from eastern regions, which then appear to merge with the linear designs of the Central and Western Desert. These shields tend to be smaller, thickly cut, and have rounded ends — their linear decorations rendered in a restricted palette of red and white. ‘I, Object’ is a rare opportunity to see such shields en masse.
Together, these shields — some older than 130 years — have witnessed massive social change and upheaval through European colonisation. As the Australian colonies were established, anthropologists, ethnographic collectors and frontiersmen frequently acquired Indigenous shields, weapons and tools, with little apparent concern for recording the details of their makers.
In bringing these objects together with works by other traditional and contemporary Indigenous artists, ‘I, Object’ aims to celebrate the great creative legacy of Queensland Indigenous peoples, and in turn attract further scholarship and promote a renewed connection between these objects and their traditional custodians.
For many Aboriginal groups in Queensland and across the country, colonisation has affected many aspects of cultural and artistic traditions, which has led to the displacement of objects from their makers — and, in turn, the displacement of the makers from their traditional country.
As the state’s premier visual arts collecting institution, QAGOMA acknowledges this shared history and is conscious that displaying such historical cultural material in a museum context may remind people of this great loss of cultural inheritance.
Simon Elliott is Deputy Director, Collection and Exhibitions. For their expertise and advice, he wishes to thank Bill Evans and Michael Aird, Director, UQ Anthropology Museum.
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Acknowledgment of Country
The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land upon which the Gallery stands in Brisbane. We pay respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders past and present and, in the spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge the immense creative contribution Indigenous people make to the art and culture of this country. It is customary in many Indigenous communities not to mention the name or reproduce photographs of the deceased. All such mentions and photographs are with permission, however, care and discretion should be exercised.