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Bonita Ely Warrior: Scenes from the appropriation of Waraduri Land

The Artist

From Bonita's own webpages,  Bonita Ely’s first exhibition was in London in 1972, but recognition of her artwork in Australia effectively started at the Mildura Sculpture Triennial of 1975, where she exhibited a close and complex examination of Mount Feathertop, a location in the Victorian Alpine region that tested the tensions between observation and interpretation in visual representation.

Her interdisciplinary installation, C20th Mythological Beasts: at Home with the Locust People (1975) had its beginnings in New York where Bonita Ely lived from 1973 to 1975. Sunset Video’s poignant sound, composed by Mark Freedman, and images of working boats on the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty, the shore line of New Jersey all shrouded in pollution, drew the viewer into the installation’s spatiality as an active participant rather than passive observer.

This corporeal engagement of the viewer characterises Ely’s practice.

Exhibited in institutions such as Chisenhale Gallery, London, Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, Harbourfront, Toronto, and the 18th Street Arts Centre, Los Angeles, USA, Documenta14, Athens and Kassel, Germany  Bonita Ely’s experimental artwork is in international collections, such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and has been selected for significant contemporary art events such as Fieldwork, the opening of the Ian Potter Centre for Australian Art, Federation Square, Melbourne, and Documenta14 in Kassel, Germany and Athens in 2017.

She has produced three public sculptures for the City of Hue, Vietnam (1998, 2002, 2006), Sydney Olympic Park (2010 - 2012), and Broken Hill (2012).

Bonita Ely’s performances of the 1970s, 80s, 90s and 2000s explored our relationships to the natural environment, other species, and each other, such as the cultural clashes surrounding Aboriginal Land Rights enacted in Jabiluka UO2 (1979). Womanhood and pregnancy were celebrated in her performances, Breadline (1980), Dogwoman Communicates with the Younger Generation (1982), and A Mother Shows Her Daughter to the Universe (1982).

Examinations of complex environmental issues used the device of invented personas, for example the cheerful cooking demonstrator performing Murray River Punch (1979, 1980 plus Murray River PunchThe Soup, (iteration at Gertrude Contemporary with Emma Price (2014); Murray River Punch The 21st Century Dip (2010); the methodical secretary photocopying an exponentially degenerating photograph of Tasmania’s Lake Pedder in Controlled Atmosphere (1983).

Her personas as pregnant mother-to-be  Dogwoman Communicates with the Younger Generation (1982) and the woofing, howling, yapping, whining professor, performing Dogwoman Makes History, (1983) explored our anthropomorphised fascination with another species alongside the gendered construction of history, using images of dogs depicted in the artefacts of Berlin museums, documented whilst artist in residence at Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin in 1981, 82, and 1985.

During the 1990s she drew attention to genetic engineering and climate change. Her snabbits, half snail/half rabbit, raised in agribusiness regimes, become a feral monoculture embattled in the extremes of global warming in the series of paintings and installations, We Live to be Surprised (1989 – 92). Current iterations demonstrating the installation’s ongoing relevance have been exhibited in the survey exhibition, From the Kitchen Table: Drew Gallery Projects 1984-90; Flokstone, UK; Southwark Park Galleries - Dilston Gallery, London, UK; Griffith University Museum, Brisbane, 2019.

Installations such as Histories (1992), “1968”, sited in Sydney’s colonial residence, Elizabeth Bay House (1997), and Inside Mawson’s Sleeping Bag: the Poetics of Heroism (2000), interrogate our cultural histories at the interface of ontology and systems of knowledge. For example, the latter expounds the courage expressed in the Aboriginal oral history of the children of the Stolen Generations, as they struggled with fear, depredation, alienation, loneliness. Their courage is with that of Australia’s archetypal hero, Sir Douglas Mawson.

Her exhibition, World Wild Life Documentary at Performance Space, Sydney (2006), was an installation of works on paper and video. Produced over thirty years the artworks take the viewer behind an eagle eye, a curious mind, an obsessive collector and recorder of imagery, transformation and culture. For example, Chinese brush and ink paintings spontaneously capture the artist’s imaginative responses over a period of twelve years to a singular place on the South Coast of New South Wales, Bithry Inlet. For example, Southerly captures the South Coast’s stiff breeze straight off the Antarctic whereas Manning Clark’s Brain was executed mid morning when the bushland, drenched in direct clear sunlight, each eucalypt tonally set against its shadow, conjured the late Manning Clark’s brain thinking, thinking about Australia over the inlet in his family holiday shack … These works on paper accompany videos as equivalent time based mediums. Video-ed frozen time, real time and time lapse bare witness to the detailed metamorphosis of a particular natural environment.

A narrative video, Wild Life Documentary, composed of a bricollage of ten years’ footage of natural phenomena and cultural indices alludes to the intimacy of the human/animal, intent on social interaction, and significantly, a compulsive desire for inter species communication. Aesthetic, disjunctive and subjective interventions overlay acute observation to define our delusional stance when confronted with the hard facts of consequence.

The Murray’s Edge: a River in Drought (2007 - 2009), is a series of photographs of the Murray River documented from the headwaters in the Mount Kosciusko National Park to the Coorong in South Australia. The narrative sequence refers back to earlier witnessing of the river, creating a comparative study of the Murray River from 70s and 80s to the present.

In 2010 the Campbelltown Regional Art Centre commissioned an artwork focusing on the Georges River for the international exhibition, River. A series of photographs contrast remnants of the natural beauty of the river’s environment in contrast to the destruction wrought by long wall coal mining on the riparian environment.

Invited to represent Australia in Documenta14 (2017) Bonita Ely created the installation, Plastikus Progressus, a sardonic, futuristic, Natural History diorama of plastic eating creatures, genetically engineered using the CRIPR method to clean up our plastic pollution of the trans-ecology of water. Surrounded by a photographic history of this environmental decline beginning in 1907: the year bakelite was invented featuring pristine nature in Sydney, Athens and near Kassel, Urwald Sababurg Forest, next to documentation of the plastic pollution of rivers in Athens, the Fulda River in Kassel, and the Cooks River in Sydney. The diorama’s creatures, surrounded by plastic waste, are constructed from plastic vacuum cleaners, accompanied by often humorous, always poignant taxonomies based on the taxonomies of the Earth’s real creatures to demonstrate how  extraordinary they are.

In Kassel, the installation, Interior Decoration, addresses the intergenerational affects of post traumatic stress disorder, informed by her family‘s experience and thorough research. The military is domesticated; the domestic militarised. A Vickers machine gun is constructed from her mother’s Singer swewing machine and bobby pins. Trench, constructed from her parent’s bedroom furniture is surveyed by Watchtower constructed from a double bed, its floor a looping child’s cot mattress with all the padding removed. The sculptural pieces are surrounded by a dado, images related to trauma, for example wars, to monuments photographed in Zanzibar in remembrance of the slave trade, refugees and the impact of colonisation on Indigenous peoples, domestic violence.

Bonita Ely has a diverse practice, her methodology based on the premise that a particular idea requires the deployment of particular mediums, contexts and technologies. Her artwork of the 70s was a warning of environmental issues that now are in full focus, and continue as the focus of her practice as one of Australia’s important artists concerned with environmental and socio-political issues.

Bonita Ely, Associate Professor, lectured in Sculpture, Performance and Installation at the University of NSW from 1990 - 2016; also - University of Western Sydney; Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga; Sydney College of Art; Prahran College of Fine Arts, Melbourne; Preston Institute of Fine Arts, Melbourne.

Bonita Ely's Warrior

The Work of Art

Warrior, scenes from the appropriation of Waraduri land, is an etching  created in 1987  for inclusion into the portfolio , 'The Land'  which was published to  mark the bicentennial of European settlement. The image, although abstract, shows a design in black which incorporates a spiral. The  image  shows lines  to show movement and three-dimensional effects. It feels a forceful image which explains the title, appropriation of Waraduri land.  Again, it is a statement by the artist on the effects of European settlemen on the local populace.