'Fresh Hell' is a work with which we all need to engage, writes Ngarrindjeri, Kaurna and Italian poet, podcaster and writer Dominic Guerrera.
Ryan Presley’s Fresh Hell is an act of truth-telling, a new era of work for the Marri Ngarr artist that digs deeper into the ugly truths this country is yet to confront. Truths that are still debated or actively denied and distorted – and often to the detriment of Aboriginal people.
Open at Adelaide Contemporary Experimental (ACE) since Saturday, 3 September, this bold exhibition will challenge gallery visitors and spark conversation about these uncomfortable truths.
3 September—29 October
Adelaide Contemporary Experimental
Lion Arts Centre, North Terrace, Adelaide 5000
In a time where Aboriginal political movements are polarised between “voices to the colony’s parliament” and “land back”, the future of Aboriginal politics looks more divisive than ever before.
Ryan’s work pushes beyond current agendas and instead explores history while imagining a future with Aboriginal people in it. We are no longer erased; in Presley’s work, we are front and centre, stronger, even if we are still depicted as fighting for our lives.
The artist is able to simultaneously confront the past and warn us of a weary future, one that is not so unimaginable given the status quo for Aboriginal people.
Fresh Hell is a cathartic strike at oppressive bodies, such as government and religious institutions: the oppressors.
For all the royal commissions into death in custody, the bringing of Old People home, the closing of gaps, and millions of dollars that have been invested – little has changed for our mob. In some cases, the issues only grow worse.
Equality seems a distant dream, when it’s the oppressors who are the ones trying to deliver equitable outcomes. But American civil rights activist Audre Lorde did warn us about the master’s tools.
While it may be an evolutionary step for Ryan’s art practice, Fresh Hell is also a bold exhibition for the South Australian art scene, which is often flooded with dot work and cultural fanfare.
Such works are beautiful and important, and can be more palatable for white audiences looking to engage with Aboriginal art, but they do not address the issues faced by Aboriginal people. There is a notable absence of controversial and confronting works or artists.
Although there is a hunger for more diverse Aboriginal art – like the recent exhibitions Just Not Australian and Drifting Sands at Port Pirie Regional Art Gallery, Staunch at Nexus Art, the hugely successful Wild Dog at Tandanya, and the forthcoming Embassy by artist Richard Bell at the Art Gallery of South Australia – Fresh Hell will join this lineup of art exhibitions in courageously pushing the dialogue amongst local art visitors.
The issues presented within these exhibitions often echo the dominant stance of the Aboriginal community, not those of multi-million-dollar campaigns. Artistic Director of ACE, Patrice Sharkey, is keen for this push.
“ACE invites audiences to experience contemporary art in an environment that is simultaneously engaging, challenging and welcoming,” she says.
“ACE’s programming is driven by the question: What is urgent to discuss today and who should be telling these stories?
“I see Ryan’s practice as a powerful act of truth-telling; bringing to light colonial conflict and dispossession, as well as sharing the strength and resilience of Aboriginal people.”
But while it’s important for these conversations to happen, it does need to be driven by the Aboriginal community and artists. Non-Aboriginal art institutions must take a supportive partnership role, not leadership – something ACE is demonstrating in this exhibition.
Ryan, who was born in Alice Springs but now resides in Brisbane, has been building a relationship with ACE since 2019, according to Patrice.
“I have known Ryan Presley since 2019, when he worked as an artist mentor on the ACE exhibition No Black Seas, presented as part of the Tarnanthi Festival and culminating in an invitation to present this new body of work,” Patrice says.
It will be a full-circle moment, with Fresh Hell being the artist’s first solo exhibition in South Australia.
Ryan delivers a one-two punch through the works in the exhibition, dazzling with technical artistry while also confronting the themes of his work.
I hope local audiences lean in and embrace the exhibition, and the uncomfortable truth-telling we all need to engage with.