Tania Ferrier’s Talkback
Words by Dr Leslie Morgan
American writer William Faulkner’s oft quoted line from Requiem for a Nun (1950) ‘the past is never dead, it is not even past’ has been used by many, including the then Senator Barack Obama, in his speech ‘A More Perfect Union’ (2008). In it he calibrated the history of racism and disadvantage in the USA. Its racial history, along with Australia’s Indigenous, colonial and migrant past, are threads taken up by Ferrier in her creative development culminating in the Talkback project.
Ferrier began as a painter and developed her practice to include photography and video. Her early exhibition, The Quod Project (2011), explored her family story through use of photographic images of family holidays on Rottnest Island. As a site of historical trauma, especially in terms of the exile and incarceration and burial of Indigenous people, Rottnest Island provided a fitting location through which to explore her own sense of loss. The project honed Ferrier’s skills in research, collaboration with other artists and compliance with Western Australian Indigenous cultural protocols — useful skills employed in the video collages presented in Talkback.
In 2012 she was the recipient of an Artsource ‘Go Anywhere’ residency that funded travel and work. In choosing to go to the United States Ferrier is among many who have looked to it for cultural and political innovation and ideas. Indigenous activists, inspired by the 1960s civil rights struggle sought strategic and political links with Black America when ‘Black’ became a political signifier. Ferrier’s empathy for oppressed people comes from her acute awareness of past wrongs and a belief in fairness and equality.
Ferrier’s aim was to document stories of African-American incarceration, but a chance meeting with photographer Merle Jackson provided a new impetus for her work.
A common joke within minority communities centres on the racist trope that people of colour are believed to steal purses from white people. However, Jackson had returned Ferrier’s lost purse, exploding such fallacious assumptions. This encounter led to a collaboration that shifted the emphasis of the project to address the aspirational feeling of black Americans during President Obama’s first term. For Ferrier, “it was all about listening” and this determined the shape and tenor of what became the Talkback project.
On returning to Australia the idea of bringing together American and Indigenous Australian voices resulted in a conceptual framework of Talkback, an ongoing and dialogical project involving other artists, in various iterations at venues across Australia and in the United States over the next five years.
The word ‘talkback’ is often used pejoratively to threaten those who question authority; as collaborator Yulissa Morales commented, “there was no way they [African-Americans] would talk back to a white person.” Talkback, however, appropriates the term in positive ways, giving voice to those who didn’t have it and providing the opportunity for them to literally speak back to us.
Ferrier’s multi-media installation, which is at home in either an Art Gallery or Museum, is the central exhibit of a hybrid arts installation that has its next showing at the A.I.R. Gallery in Brooklyn, New York. It also features concrete sculpture by Laura Mitchell and contributions from sound artists and photographers. The video collage features interviews with 66 Americans and Australians of different ethnicities and backgrounds, including prominent artists, such as Richard Bell, who discuss aspects of their personal histories and aspirations. In so doing, a dialogue about belonging, blackness, whiteness and intergenerational continuity and change is created.
The American interviews in Talkback were conducted towards the end of President Obama’s first term in office. In these aspiration emerged as a dominant theme. The Australian participants reveal a similar preoccupation with race and identity, albeit one that is shaped by our history of colonialism and the White Australia Policy.
In both sets of video interviews the notion of belonging is highlighted, as it is performed on a daily basis by many who have considered themselves ‘othered’ in an often hostile terrain of bigotry and exclusion.