Kandos is located between Lithgow and Mudgee and was once the largest cement plant in the southern hemisphere, attracting workers from all over the globe. Its high-quality cement was used to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge and much of the city of Sydney and it was the economic heart and life of the town. Unfortunately the cement works closed in 2011 and Kandos now experiences its fame every two years through its 4 day biennial contemporary arts festival, Cementa, which has taken place since 2013.
More than 60 artists converge onto Kandos to exhibit; video installation, sound, performance and 2D and 3D artworks in venues and locations across the town and its surrounds. Venues include shopfronts, vacant lots, the scout hall, local museum, community centre, golf course, people’s yards, rural properties and public parks. The works address the identity, history and current social, environmental and economic context of the town and its region.
Two years after the cement works closure was also a significant year in Kandos with the Kandos Museum closing. The ‘company town’ archive and idiosyncratic collection of technocratic and working class relics were put away for all time. Since then, volunteers and stakeholders have worked together to create a new narrative to participate in public life and they continue to work on collection documentation, archives, digitisation and conservation — material things that may increase in value or need to be discarded. New and emerging technologies may rekindle and build new traffic and recognition through the documentation of information and image to become a new narrative for a small town as ‘post-industrial’ and interdisciplinary site.
In the exhibition, Obsolete? Artist, Object, Small Museum, artists Nicole Barakat, Aleshia Lonsdale and Fiona MacDonald apply their creative and investigatory flair to considering a museum in Kandos. The exhibition explores the central question: how can ordinary lives, then and now, and provincial objects collected here or there, illuminate Big Picture issues? The artists create a regional historiography by engaging contemporary art’s collaborative processes in a conversation about the critical national events, policy and propaganda that have subjugated Indigenous people and on current environmental and land contests.
Nicole Barakat, Aleshia Lonsdale and Fiona MacDonald engage with the Kandos Museum and local ambiguity of place. The artists’ works veer from the anti-canonical and comic to the profound, etched with individual hopes, follies and tragedies. By using a theatrical mix of assemblage and performance, making and unmaking ‘quotidian’ or everyday objects or displaying sublime heritage artefacts, their strategies shed light on how in-groups assign value and claim History. They claim a voice for community collections: one that is too often drowned out by the metro museum’s drive for identity and power and the art museum’s demands for difference and the ‘new’.
Nicole Barakat re-makes Kandos op-shop sourced traced-linen doilies and souvenir tea-towels into conceptual art objects and presents performances ‘unpicking’ tea-towels sourced from the travels of an itinerant artist across Australia, including Broken Hill where her mother’s family, emigrants from Lebanon, set up a small shop. These reworked objects were in intuitive response to two significant things the artist found on her first visit to Kandos: a wealth of embroidered linen doilies in the op shop and a blunt description of the 1842 brutal massacre of Wiradjuri people in the Capertee Valley.
In the stories of Wiradjuri woman Aleshia Lonsdale, the past explains the present. She walks us down a red carpet towards cultural objects in museums, devoid of explanation, meaning and relevance to the wider collection, are seen as more of a curiosity collected during colonial days to be relegated to boxes in back rooms or the dusty rocks and fossils displays in country town museums.
Lonsdale says: “Until Aboriginal people regain control of the narrative of their history and begin to tell our stories our way the way in which we are represented will remain obsolete.” In most local museums Aboriginal history is either not present or is represented by stone tools lined up next to the rocks, fossils and taxidermy, entirely out of context and separate from the wider cultural landscape – portrayed as merely a stone age people of the past.
Aleshia Lonsdale states: “Aboriginal memory and the intangible are ignored, there is no representation of history through time to represent first contact, frontier wars, the stolen generation or other significant issues which are a part of our history through time. There is a need for Aboriginal people to gain control of the narrative and recontextualise their own histories within these collections, to reclaim connection to these objects and back to country for the benefit of all Australians to know the true history of this country. It is not the museum objects, their technology or their histories which I consider to be obsolete but rather the way in which it is presented to the public.”
In a region where tourism is the major industry our local museums invite the tourist to come and ’experience our unique history’. We live in the land of wine and honey where the mining history, colonial life and Henry Lawson are proudly celebrated. However there is still a failure to recognise that this has grown from grounds which have been manured with the carcasses of Aboriginal people. We also need to talk about the 26 Wiradjuri people who were driven into the swamp on that same land, killed and their heads cut off, boiled and sent to England for ‘scientific study’. If you are going to present the history of our country present all of it – not just that which is sanitary and convenient.
Fiona MacDonald puts the proposition that the museum itself is an engineered machine for achieving certain objectives. She works with photomontage to transform registration photographs in the collection of yesterday’s bearers of imagined capital accumulation, here propelled into heroic action. We hear the wheels creaking as her tin apparatus of Otherness sets out on the rocky road from the inequality of a company town to equality. Other images dust off the rust and transform dross to gold, at least metaphorically, with an Olympian pillar of typewriters or a Herculean set of timepieces ticking together like worker bees in the hive.
Three very different artists have imagined unique perspectives on how we can and will be able to engage with the histories of this place, Kandos, and inject new life into a town whose future seemed to be set in a literal concrete that would leave it dry for future generations. Through the imaginings of Barakat, MacDonald and Lonsdale we are able to see its past, present and future at once.
Obsolete? Artist, Object, Small Museum is presented by Cross Art Projects and Kandos Museum for History Week and open between 12 August to 9 September. You can participate in Saturday 9 September, 2 to 3 pm: ‘Mapping Massacres’, Professor Lyndall Ryan, University of Newcastle and the artists.