LISA SLADE discusses Aboriginal sovereignty featured by Ali Gumillya Baker

A descendant of the Mirning nation from the Nullarbor on South Australia’s west coast, Ali Gumillya Baker first exhibited at the Gallery in 2012 with her Bow Down to the Sovereign Goddess series. These photographs offered a contemporary retort to the colonial representations of Aboriginal women (some of which were on display in the nearby South Australia Illustrated exhibition) and invited audiences to recognise Aboriginal sovereignty.

Recently gifted to the collection by the artist, Sovereign Fleet Red, from 2013, continues Gumillya Baker’s quest by positioning her friend and colleague, Faye Rosas Blanch, as the sovereign subject of the work. A Murri woman of Yidniji/ Mbarbarm descent from Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands, Rosas Blanch is proudly depicted in profile, echoing the language of regal portraiture, wearing a headdress featuring a colonial ship. The ship is indicative of the First Fleet, which entered Gadigal country in 1788; thus, the spectre of empire, symbolised by the ship, is forever upturned by its being worn by a seemingly ‘colonised’ subject. This performative act refuses colonisation and uncannily claims empire for Aboriginal people.

The profile portrait also hints at the pernicious history of capturing non-European subjects in profile in the service of phrenology, a pseudoscience used to justify colonisation and eugenicist thinking. In fact, a cast of Gumillya Baker’s own great-grandmother’s head, taken by Norman B. Tindale in the Royal Adelaide Hospital at the time of her death in 1951, is today held in the collection of the South Australian Museum.

For Gumillya Baker, it is through art and performance, and research into the colonial archive that sovereignty is continually demonstrated and asserted. As a member of the Unbound Collective, who have exhibited as part of Tarnanthi and more recently performed on the opening weekend of The National in Sydney, Gumillya Baker – through the archive and through memory – continues her practice of engaging with the past to reconsider and reclaim the present.

Sovereign Fleet Red was on display in gallery 7 as part of Femmage and Ali Gumillya Baker performed as part of Unbound Collective during Tarnanthi in October 2019.

Lisa Slade is Assistant Director, Artistic Programs, at AGSA. This article first appeared in AGSA Magazine Issue 36.