“many lies have been told about me.”
For a few seconds, those words floated alone at the top of a blank white wall. It was the first segment of the first work to be installed as part of the exhibition Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia. The words were soon joined by a cascade of others, forming a diagonal slash of stream-of-consciousness-style verse by contemporary Indigenous Australian artist Vernon Ah Kee.
In about an hour, more than 170 black vinyl words were affixed to the gallery wall, bringing to life the full extent of many lies and highlighting painful falsehoods that circulate about Indigenous people. Jonathan Scott, a graphics installer from the local firm Advanced Imaging, made the physical act of installation look effortless; in reality, the project was the culmination of more than a year of planning by museums staff and guest experts, including Australian Studies Visiting Curator Stephen Gilchrist, exhibition designer Justin Lee, and the artists’ representatives at Milani Gallery, Brisbane.
The work was originally created in 2004, and though the words remain the same wherever it is shown, the background changes with the venue. Because the Harvard Art Museums’ wall is smaller than that of past iterations of many lies, Ah Kee agreed to customize the work by slightly condensing the overall layout.
Before the installation, Gilchrist and Lee were in touch with Ah Kee to discuss everything from the style of font (Myriad Pro, a common advertising typeface) to the exact placement of the letters on the wall. “We wanted to make sure we captured as much of the artist’s intention as possible,” Lee said.
On the morning of the installation, Lee, Gilchrist, and a handful of other museums staff members watched and chatted quietly as Scott assembled the work. In order to keep the task manageable, he transferred the text in a few batches of about a dozen lines each. Every time he began to add letters to the work—removing one side of the paper to expose the sticky back of the vinyl letters, and then applying pressure to transfer them to the wall—the room fell silent with anticipation.
“In a way, it’s fitting that this is the first to go up,’’ Gilchrist said. “There’s a subversive aspect to many lies, as well as to the exhibition—we’re playing with the idea of penetrating museum walls with Indigenous art, of Indigenizing the space.”
Indeed, Ah Kee intends for his work to be provocative. Besides presenting an Indigenous voice in institutional spaces where Indigenous narratives have historically been omitted, many lies makes a political argument.
“many lies is quite simply about the level of denial that Australia perpetuates,” Ah Kee wrote in his artist’s statement, adding that “denial” of an Indigenous history is “so deeply embedded in [Australia’s] culture that we are unable to have a rational conversation about it.”
Gilchrist, who once had a poster of many lies in his home, and who himself belongs to the Yamatji people of the Inggarda language group of Western Australia, said he often has one of two takeaways. “Sometimes, depending on my mood, I think about many lies as the artist’s call to arms,” Gilchrist said. “Other days I think about it as being completely devastating: that there have been these lies told about Indigenous peoples, and they get reproduced all the time. It’s as if we don’t ever have the complete authority to talk about ourselves.”
All of the works in Everywhen offer a chance for Indigenous Australian artists to represent themselves and their art on their own terms. And like many lies, they may challenge prominent perspectives.
As Scott transferred the final words to the gallery wall—“I am unflinching and unforgiving”— Gilchrist mused aloud: “It feels good that everything that exists on the page or in your head is suddenly alive, and looks as great as you wanted it to look.”