Robert Andrew Within an utterance

Does identity have a basis in language? How important is having the right words to communicate with our group, to imagine a future and unspool the past, to our sense of self and kin—to our essential humanity?

Brisbane-based artist Robert Andrew works on uncovering the language, culture and history buried beneath our feet. He builds machines that excavate language and ancient knowledge systems recorded in the earth—his process, he says, is a bit like an archaeological dig. After Robert, at thirteen, discovered he was Aboriginal, a descendent of the Yawuru people from the Broome area in the Kimberley, much of what he learnt about this part of himself came first from historical documents, mostly settler accounts. The colonial script, in short, but also, for Robert, a bridge spanning time: a pathway towards ancestry and knowledge.

At Mona, Robert continues his work excavating biography—his own, and others’—and unearthing lost family histories, in collaboration with pakana community, pakana curator Zoe Rimmer and Aboriginal linguistic consultant Theresa Sainty. You will see three new works in the museum, which delve into lutruwita’s (Tasmania) own buried history and respond to conversations Robert has had with local speakers of palawa kani: the revived language of Tasmanian Aboriginal people; and a complex ongoing project drawing upon community memory, extant voice recordings and European written records of the island’s original eight to sixteen languages, of which no living speakers remain. A mechanical plotting system translates language into movement then ochre, charcoal and elemental patterning on the wall. Dripping water erodes a compacted column of ochre and soil, revealing layer upon layer—like a landscape in continuous motion. And a video work takes mark-making and palawa kani even further towards pure abstraction… Suggesting what exactly? Neither ancient relic nor extinct tongue, but a knowledge system in perpetual renewal, here and now.

Curated by Emma Pike

Header image: Data Stratification, 2021, Robert Andrew (detail)
Image courtesy of the artist