"I am not always right, but I am never wrong'

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Darren Siwes' photographic print "˜Gold Puella' at an exhibition of Australian indigenous art in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo courtesy of the Australian Consulate General

A dark period in Australian history that carries a huge sense of loss, grief, and dislocation, as also a sense of optimism and defiance is the focus of an art exhibition now on display in Ho Chi Minh City.

Organized by the Australian Consulate in the city, the "Message Stick: Indigenous Identity in Urban Australia" exhibition presents 21 artworks from a collection of Artbank, the Australian government's contemporary art rental and initiative board.

The artworks carry personal life perspectives of 11 indigenous artists living in urban Australia.

Its key theme is the experiences of Stolen Generations, those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were removed from their families by Australian government agencies and church missions between around 1869 and 1969.

In 2008, the then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a historic apology to the indigenous population of the country for the atrocities perpetrated against them.

"All the works here are very much around identity," Darren Siwes, one of the artists, said at the opening ceremony last Friday.

Siwes brought three photographic prints on Kodak Endura metallic paper "Silver Puella," "Gold Puella," and "Bronze Puella" which depict the Queen of England's stamp on Australian currency usurped by the profile of a mixed race woman.

"These are very much works where we put out our identity, try to find it and try to express it."

Produced over the last 25 years, the works capture an artistic response to a period of social, political and cultural changes and also reflect a fresh view of contemporary indigenous identity which is more dynamic and adaptable.

Robert Campbell Jnr's "Welfare, Don't take my Kids," Adam Hill's "The Bigger Picture," and Richard Bell's "Always Right" which directly paints the message "I AM NOT ALWAYS RIGHT BUT I AM NEVER WRONG" reflect the deep wounds carried by indigenous communities in Australia.

Bell, who was born into the Kamilaroi tribe and is an active Aboriginal civil rights activist, once said, "White culture took away my tribal language and in return gave me a language that, on the social level, doesn't work."

Late Ian Abdula's "Mother With Fish" (1960) includes writings to describe itself: "["¦] The fish was for supper. In them days we used to have lots of fun but now that the white men have taken over the rivers we can't do what we want. I suppose the white people feel really good now but me I feel really sad."

Other pieces include H.J. Wedge's acrylic on paper "Star spirit" and "My Grandmother's travel," Christian Thompson's type C photographs "Hunting Ground," Julie Dowling's "The Ungrateful," Reko Rennie's "Message Stick" paintings, Danie Mellor's "The heart's tale" and "Native Gold" from pencil, crayon, and wash on paper.

Anna Burke, Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives who was on an official visit to Vietnam, said at the opening, "Indigenous culture is the oldest living culture on this Earth"¦ but sadly for too long we have not treasured it as we should.

"When we all look at these images, I hope we can see the creative spirit of these young indigenous artists, but most importantly the histories they tell."

Message Stick will be open to the public until June 13 at the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum, 97A Pho Duc Chinh Street, Nguyen Thai Binh Ward, District 1.

The exhibition, which is in Vietnam to mark the 40th year of diplomatic relations between the two countries, has travelled to many countries over the past two years.

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