Prof. Brian Martin: “Country is something we belong to”

Joining the Melbourne Art Foundation Board, Professor Brian Martin represents a crucial addition to an already exceptional cohort. Working as a practicing artist represented by William Mora Galleries, “…his research and practice focuses on refiguring Australian art and culture from an Indigenous ideological perspective based on a reciprocal relationship to Country.” Brian Martin is the inaugural Associate Dean, Indigenous at Monash University Art, Design and Architecture.

As a profound introduction, Brian Martin took the time to offer generous and considered insight into his practice, contemporary art, and community in this interview with Melbourne Art Fair.

[Melbourne Art Fair]
[Brian Martin]

You are deliberate to highlight the difference between Country and the idea of land as object within your practice, speaking to the ways that Country is a living representation of different forms of knowing and connectivity whereas we often tend to view land as separate to us. What role can contemporary art play in bridging the gap between our understanding of Country and the view of land as object?
I would prefer to say that Country is a living presentation of different forms of knowing and connectivity. Representation, for me, is imaginary whereas Country is real. This also underpins that “land” and its conception as object is what separates us from the real. Country is something we belong to. I think one way to answer this question is to view “art” more so as creative practice. The reason I am framing it this way is that there are no words in Indigenous languages in Australia that translate as art. In this way, creative practice is more holistic. The words we do have are verbs, for example “yuka” in Wergaia means to paint. These denotes action, they are performative, Country is performative, it has subjectivity. Creative practice in this way synergies the gap between Country and land.

You talk of the ungovernability of trees and speak of them as ancestors. How does understanding this relationship between trees and heritage inform the way you represent Country in your work?
The issue here is representation. I attempt to make the drawings a presentation. Trees have agency and subjectivity and they hold knowledge, histories and memories. Our relationality with trees is demonstrated with how we interact with them in making coolamons, shields, musical instruments, canoes, etc. The marking of a tree by removing bark to make some of these things is an action which does not harm the tree as it is about sustaining the tree whilst being able to make instruments and tools. Trees are also markers, showing us where various sites of significance are. They are also called upon in some parts of Australia to become vessels to hold peoples after they have passed into their Dreaming. The markings on trees tell us many narratives about what was happening in Place- they reveal the ancestral memories of Place. With this in mind, and the relational agencies these bring, I approach the drawings from this positioning- the drawings are a presentation of Country, rather than a representation. The mark making in the drawings is also vital to this presentation- the smaller panels in the drawings connect the relationship between abstraction and “representation”- so hopefully finding the point where they are “presentation”.

Does community require an anchor to place and time to give it context or is your sense of community a more unbound, fluid concept?
I believe it is both, because community or communities are not stagnant and not premised on binaries. Culture is also not stagnant and is every moving and fluid. However, this is also anchored on Place. Place is not only a geographical location but are also points in time. This is the importance of the relationality of people to each other, and for people to Place and vice versa. The interconnectedness between the human and non-human is vital to an Indigenous configuration of the world, as we are not “objects” in space with no relationality. All entities have agency and subjectivity with real material affects within the world, including human and non-human agency.

What is the most important learning you hope someone might walk away from when viewing your work, when viewing Country?
The relationship between presentation, representation and abstraction and the importance of Country. I do also wish for audiences to experience the performative nature of Country and drawing, and that they experience material affect from the drawings. Also, for viewers and audiences to take away a broader conception of what constitutes Indigenous creative practice.

The process of your work goes far beyond the mark-making on paper. Time spent on Country, development of connection and the experience of place is as much a part of the process as the translation to creative mediums. Is there a point where the process ends? Is this even possible?
This is a very interesting question in terms of the cycle of making. There is no “ending”. This is the performative nature of Country, the performative nature of the image and of creative practice. It is this agency within the cycle of making that continues in the viewer, and it becomes a different iteration, a different experiencing. There are many iterations of “experiencing” in the making and the viewing. Being on Country, documenting this, translating this into drawings, compiling the marks on the thirty panels of the drawing and allowing the image to reveal itself when placing the panels together. Then viewing the drawing as a whole, either on the floor or on a wall. The viewer has an interaction with the drawing on varying levels, the material and immaterial, the real and the imaginary. This is does not end as each viewer brings agency in their interaction. The interesting thing also is that as the maker, I am also a viewer and each time I get the revisit a drawing, it becomes a different Place in time, and whilst the Place where the image is located remains the same, the Place in time shifts my interaction with the drawing- each time and viewing is different.


Image: Brian Martin, Methexical Countryscape Pakaantyi #16 (detail), 2021, 220 x 160 cm, charcoal on paper. Courtesy the artist and William Mora Galleries, Naarm/Melbourne