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Ethnographic exhibitions usually display collections of tangible objects aiming at sharing and expanding knowledge about specific Indigenous communities or cultures for example. However, the very end of the 20th century marked a decisive turn in the curation of primarily ethnographic exhibitions in museums, since they tended to focus more on Indigenous voices and added a reflexive twist to their displays by showcasing commissioned pieces by Indigenous contemporary artists. This turn came around quite progressively as there were other notable evolutions in curatorial practices in museums since the 1990s: as a public evolution of private cabinets of curiosities, they were deemed a colonial institution by excellence built on the remnants of artefacts and specimens brought back from newly “discovered” countries in the 18th century. Indigenous communities’ roles in those exhibitions have followed a similar evolution, from mere “objects” of the ethnographic gaze, to becoming “informants” and more recently agents of their representations and even co-curators of such exhibitions. Located at the crossroads of such evolutions of disciplines (anthropology, ethnography), gazes and curatorial practices, Indigenous contemporary art is used to highlight new stakes in the representation and epistemologies of Indigenous communities, informing and redefining at the same time the notions of tradition and authenticity, shifting the visitors’ gazes to art pieces which work as visual echoes of voices that had previously been silenced. Inclusion of those voices as well as a new emphasis on participation, are the keywords of the necessary decolonization of museums according to the most recent evolutions in the rethinking of those institutions, between political and ethical statements and cultural practices. Far from being a crisis of identity for the institution of the museum, it has led to an ongoing renewal and rethinking recently marked by its official redefinition by the International Council of Museums (ICOM).

For instance, photographer Michael Cook informs his photomontages with European visual traditions and narratives. The British Museum displayed one of his works in 2015 in the exhibition entitled “Indigenous Australia” in order to show another take at one inspirational scene for European art from the 18th century, that of the “discovery” of previously unknown territories. While questioning the notion of agency and objectification, his photomontages strongly advocate the right to self-representation. In that regard, so does Julie Gough’s interpretation of History, and more specifically the Frontier Wars, as displayed in the exhibition “Our Land: Parrawa, parrawa! Go Away!” at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Through her visual installation placed at the exit, she seems to share with the visitor the general lesson of the exhibition, the fact that History should be considered through multiple stories, points of view and voices, waiting to be shared, heard and respected. Finally, this is also what Judy Watson’s etchings point at through its recuperation of Indigenous objects from the British Museum’s collections, displayed in the same exhibition as Cook’s photomontage. However, Watson’s work shifts from this craving for self-representation to a reflection on the role and very status of the museums in this representational coercion. All three artists are from Australian First Nations descent and their works investigate the relations between past and present while also revealing all the fleeting voices and agencies at work within the walls of the exhibitions.



“Indigenous Australia” (2015), British Museum

Michael Cook’s photomontages dialogue with Australia’s colonial past and former representations of First Nations populations. A strong scientific and artistic background form the basis of his reinterpretation of Australian colonial history and help shift back the gaze to what was invisibilized –and yet, always there– during colonisation.

In Undiscovered#4 (2010), the colonial subtext, or rather sub-image is obvious: as a British soldier sets foot on an unknown beach, the boat in the background leaves no doubt as to what the visitor is looking at. Or does it? A scene of discovery untitled “Undiscovered” has in fact a lot more for the visitor to “discover” indeed: the British soldier, visually striking out because of his red coat, appears to be an Indigenous Australian. In each photomontage, one Indigenous Australian interacts with different props and endemic animals on the beach, which harks back to different visual traditions, that of depicting fleets before they land on new shores and the subsequent scenes of discoveries, but also to that of the anthropological portraits of the end of the 19th century, where “specimens” of the native population were placed next to specimens of the fauna and the flora in order to create an impression of authenticity, in the first images of those populations that the Europeans broadly shared at the time. In another of Cook’s most recent series, Natures Mortes (2021), the European visual tradition that forms the backbone of the photomontage is that of the 17th century Dutch still life painting. The choice of these specific tradition and century enables the artist to subvert visual codes that created and expanded European epistemologies at the time and turn that gaze around to consider what was often left out of the picture and what was damaged by European colonial ambitions. In Natures Mortes’ “Colonisation”, all objects in the table are brought back from Australia or refer to this history of discoveries and colonial domination, from Australian endemic specimens of plants and animals once more to James Cook’s logbooks or other specific artefacts, staged on the very distinctive black background that was used in Dutch Old Master paintings.

Echoing those different modes of European representations, Michael Cook’s photomontages subtly engage with the rewriting of that colonial history of deterritorialisation or territorial dispossession into the story of the reterritorialisation of Indigenous culture in art. Recovering one’s representations and artistic agency is enabled by and anchored in the reappropriation by the artist of former photographic techniques and visual aesthetics and codes.

Michael Cook, Undiscovered #4, 2010. Courtesy of the artist, Andrew Baker and Jan Murphy Gallery.

Michael Cook, Nature Morte (Colonisation), 2021. Courtesy of the artist, Andrew Baker and Jan Murphy Gallery.



“Our Land Parrawa, parrawa!” (permanent exhibition), Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

This permanent exhibition aims at enlightening the different points of view at play in the context of the Australian Frontier Wars as European testimonies are always placed next to the Aboriginal communities’ descendants. History as it was first coined from a European point of view balanced by multiple Aboriginal stories that are added in the exhibition.

If most of the objects and testimonies are historical and displayed following an ethnographic approach, the last part of the exhibition is dedicated to Julie Gough’s The Crossing (The Consequence of chance)#3. From English, Irish and Trawlwoolway (Tasmania) descent, Gough debunks colonial history by harshly depicting colonial violent encounters in her installation made of a life-size tent, which shows thanks to transparency different scenes on each of its sides. Just like a shadow-puppet theatre, the visitor showed a typical scene illustrating Frontier Conflicts: a European settler recognizable with his hat shoots an Aboriginal Australian. However, if the visitor walks by the other side of the tent, he will be met by the reverse situation, the Aboriginal Australian spearing a European settler. The last blow is given to the visitors when they face the back of the tent: a woman is holding an infant in her arms, embodying “the Consequence of Chance”, while also showing what brings the two sides of the conflict together, as the scene could take place in both camps (European or Indigenous Australian).

History with an upper-case H, as a euro-centred version of the conflicts under scrutiny in this exhibition, finally gives up space for (hi)stories to resurface and be told, seen and experienced by the visitors, as they walk around the tent. Thanks to Julie Gough’s art installation, the collective vision becomes individualized, while giving a very human and inter-cultural dimension to the conflicts.

Julies Gough, The Consequence of Chance, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.



“Indigenous Australia” (2015), British Museum

Specifically commissioned for the exhibition, a few pieces by Judy Watson were reflections in both meanings of the term “reflection”: as the Waanyi artist superimposed images of objects from the museum’s Australian collections on top of plans of the museums’ rooms, the art works “represented” as well as “reflected upon” the role of the museum itself. As an example, the colour etching entitled “the holes in the land 3”, part of a series of 6 etchings, represents a woven pituri bag placed on top of the plan of Second Story Montague House (1786).

The title of the series is quite evocative since the holes in the land underlines the extractive process at work when explorers or scientists brought back artefacts leaving those gaping holes in the land, now exhibited in the very museum displayed in Watson’s pieces. From Australia to London, from gaping holes to foundations, the black silhouettes of the objects haunt the rooms of the museum. This is not without recalling the X-ray technique used in First Nations paintings from Arnhem Land, if not exposing here the backbone of animals and fish, at least rendering visible the architectural “insides” of the museum.

This artistic reflection becomes a criticism of the museum’s foundation, considered as a colonial institution by excellence at its creation. However, now, commissioning such reflexive pieces and integrating them in primarily ethnographic exhibitions shows a real shift in curatorial practices, emphasizing that the museum has undergone its own criticism even if a little later than the discipline that had seen it emerged, meaning anthropology. From the colonial foundations of the museum, Watson brings it to a visual postcolonial re-interpretation. The Indigenous gaze guides the visitors’, leading them to re-think the whole exhibition, while adding more substance and different stories to it thanks to Indigenous contemporary art.

Judy Watson, the holes in the land 3, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and grahame galleries + editions.

Judy Watson, the holes in the land 4, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and grahame galleries + editions.


Within the walls of their exhibitions, museums re-engage with the original communities and owners of the objects they display, re-establishing a dialogue with First Nations peoples. They render visible and replace as the focus of the visitors’ gaze what had been first erased by colonization–massacres, dispossession of land, cultural genocide, to cite but a few. Museums do not merely display cultural artefacts brought back by explorers or anthropologists “fixed” in time, they now offer different contemporary artistic gazes and new narratives, not only of dispossession but also of re-appropriation, simultaneously participating in the renewal of curatorial practices but also of the Indigenous cultures themselves through flourishing contemporary art aesthetics.

The renewal of curatorial practices associated with epistemological emancipation also add a political dimension to the art works since they debunk and offer a harsh criticism of colonial representations whose goal was to legitimize Western hegemony. From European representations to the Indigenous gaze, museums continue to seek their way through the decolonizing process while offering new narratives of cultural encounters. However, this process is as long as it is complex and involves a lot of other issues and struggles, amongst which the question of repatriations and returns which is fueled by the call for reparation and healing from those communities, hoping to co-create a more inclusive future thanks to this collaborative reflection on the past.


How to cite:

Singeot, Laura. "Shaking Ethnographic exhibitions with indigenous art in three steps." Photofile, Archivo Platform. June 26, 2023.

© the author(s), Archivo Platform.


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