Bindi Cole Chocka, Wolf in sheep’s clothing, 2013, inkjet print, 413.0 × 303.0 cm (overall)

The National Gallery of Victoria is currently playing host to two complementary exhibitions that explore the art that has emerged as a response to Australia’s fraught colonial history. Presented concurrently, Colony: Australia 1770–1861 and Colony: Frontier Wars explore the colonisation of Australia through a comprehensive survey of differing perspectives provided by historical and contemporary works that have been created by Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists working from the pre-contact era to the present day.
The erasure enacted by the practices of colonialism over centuries means that, for many, ‘identity’ as a concept has been lost to time. Through challenging global museum conventions, Colony: Frontier Wars in particular credits the subjects and makers of anonymous photographic portraits and historical cultural objects as ‘once known’ rather than ‘unknown’.

Exhibiting her work as part of Colony: Frontier Wars is Bindi Cole Chocka, a Wathaurong born photomedia artist who creates dynamic autobiographical works that push both her medium and the competing, fluid facets of her identity to their limits. Cole Chocka’s monumental photographic Wolf in sheep’s clothing appears in Colony: Frontier Wars. Below, the artist ruminates on the recurring theme of ‘identity’ in her own words.

This article was originally published in the March print edition of GRAZIA, out now. Subscribe to receive your copy here.

I didn’t always know that I wanted to pursue creativity. My mum had been a writer, a playwright and a writer of short stories, and was halfway through completing a novel when she passed away. She mined her own life in depth and very vulnerably for her creative work, and I watched her do that. I saw her get a real sense of satisfaction out of that.

However when she died, I got this desire to not be like her at all, to run as far away from anything that she was. But I eventually came back around to this idea that I was very much like her, and for me to find any true sense of satisfaction in myself and in the world, I needed to have a creative outlet. Because I had watched her mine her own life, that’s just what came naturally to me.

After she died when I was 16, I went really hard for about 10 years escaping life in any which way I could, through drugs and partying and with behaviours that culminated in a number of years in prison in my early 20s.

While I was in prison, I got clean and had some lifechanging experiences and when I got out it was like I was starting life afresh again. It was such a beginning in so many ways. But the one thing I knew that I wanted to do was be some type of creative practitioner. Art practice naturally became a methodology for me to help figure out who I was.

I didn’t set out going, ‘I’m going to use art to talk about identity.’ I just used art as a way to figure out my whole identity. Initially, I started with things that were obvious to me, like my racial heritage. It was something that I had always been told about and so [I thought], well maybe that’s solely what I am. What I found, as I used art as a methodology to unpack my identity, was that it worked in terms of reconciling parts of me and helping to form a whole. As I moved through different aspects of my identity, I [thought], ‘Okay, I know who I am in that area now, and now I can move onto this next area and figure out what’s happening there.’

I think it helped me to unearth things that I felt a little bit of tension about in terms of my identity and as a result, that tension kind of reconciled, and it helped me to find out what’s really important to me: what is surface level; what’s deeper; what’s the core; what are things that I really stand upon as a foundation in my life. It helped me rebuild myself. What I also found is that identity is quite fluid. It’s not necessarily a fixed thing, whereas I probably set out thinking, ‘Once I figure this out, that’s fixed now.’ But I don’t think that’s it. Clearly, racial identity is fixed in many, many ways, because it’s genetic. It’s DNA. But the way you view that identity [can be] very fluid. I can’t stop being Aboriginal, but the way I think about my Aboriginality has changed a lot over the years. In terms of my faith, Christianity, that’s extremely fluid in many ways because it ebbs and flows and it deepens and it changes and shifts depending on experiences.

I think that my work Wolf in sheep’s clothing can be applied not only to my Aboriginal heritage, but to all facets of my life, because it was such an uncomfortable process to become a born-again Christian. It was like I had spent all of these years looking at Christians like they were weak, needing a crutch and unintelligent. Then I find myself having this encounter with God that I just cannot deny. I found myself turning into the very thing that I used to mock. And that, for me, was an extremely uncomfortable process. I used to view Christianity through this lens of all these horrible things that Christians have done and the church has done, and now I’m a part of that institution. How do I reconcile this?

In particular, I thought, how do I reconcile this in relation to my Aboriginal heritage, which is just one part of my heritage, but it’s a significant part? There’s a lot of disdain in the Victorian Aboriginal community toward Victorian colonial Christian missions, because they are viewed as being part of the problem around decimation of the culture and language, initially in this state. And partly, that’s true, but I’ve done more research and discovered that missions were also for a long time really safe, amazing places for Aboriginal people.

What happened when I become a Christian, was that everything I thought was good became bad and everything I thought was bad became good. And then you have to work out this new way of being in relation to identity. It was like I had this identity that didn’t fit me anymore. I was just very uncomfortable for a long time.

For me, my belief in the existence of God overrides all of that. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to put my thinking brain aside and go, now I just blindly let go of all my critical-thinking skills and intelligence. I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to figure it all out and I don’t know if I ever will. I’ve learnt to be uncomfortable, and I intend on spending the next few years making work about this very tension.

Colony: Frontier Wars will exhibit from 15 March – 2 September 2018, at NGV Australia at Melbourne’s Federation Square

Tile and cover image: Courtesy of the artist/Tim Ross