Jenny Fraser





image: from the other[wize] catalogue 2005

Publications & Reviews:

'03 Murri All Stars: Jenny Fraser, catalogue essay

by Linda Carroli

murri all stars [Framed TShirt & Collectors Cards]

upside down you turn me 2003

sorry Digital Print 2003

murri all stars [collectors card] 2003

the invitation




Murri All Stars: Jenny Fraser

As part of Campfire Group's NEWflames project, Jenny Fraser is the first to undertake a five-week residency to produce a body of work. Addressing various notions of identity, culture and language, Fraser's work intersects portraiture, politics and parody in wry ways. According to Christian Thompson, she is adept at the unsettling: "[She] is a silent interloper; an anonymous agent. Her work seduces with its familiarity, coercing the viewer into her minefield of Aboriginalised symbology. Recognisable visual reference points dislocate the viewer."1 In her exhibition, 'not really queenz'land', the form of this work is oh-so-familiar: printed t-shirts, snapshot portraits, maps, the old red-white-and-blue and that vexing word, 'sorry'. Fraser appropriates various vestiges of everyday life, highlighting an experience of everyday whereby Indigenous people live across multiple cultures and languages.

In so doing, she reinvents and resituates - she calls into currency and prominence that experience as one of powerfully located and compelling political agency. More importantly, she interrogates, as bell hooks commands, "the idea that there is no meaningful connection between black experience and critical thinking about aesthetics or culture."2 hooks identifies in postmodern culture multiple opportunities to remake hierarchies and "provide occasion for new and varied forms of bonding". Particularly concerned with the 'world of the everyday', hooks writes:

Much postmodern engagement with culture emerges from the yearning to do intellectual work that connects with habits of being, forms of artistic expression, and aesthetics that inform the daily lives of writers and scholars as well as a mass population ... It's exciting to think, write, talk about, and create art that reflects passionate engagement with popular cultures, because this may well be 'the' central future location of resistance struggle, a meeting place where new and radical happenings can occur.3

Fraser's work is sited within a comparable appreciation of daily life. It manifests firstly as a series of printed t-shirts, each bearing the name of a tribal or language group on the front and the slogan 'cuztodians of the land since time began' on the back. Represented in this show are 11 language groups whose territories are located in what has become Queensland, from the Straits to the Southern Western border. Each group is represented not only by their mobs' name on a t-shirt but also by a member of that group photographed wearing the t-shirt. The photos are snapshots taken by friends, family and Fraser herself. It's obviously about connection, about the ties of family and culture: Fraser's use of 'cuz' in 'cuztodians' engages the vernacular of referring to community as family, as cousins, brothers, sisters. The connections are intricately formed and traced across land, skin, culture and time.

The t-shirts are predominantly blue with red and white text and stars across them - it's a jab at the star drenched flags of colonial powers, the drapery of a red, white and blue icon that flutters its signification of unlawful yet persistent occupation. It's a reminder of the Victorian figure of 'Australiana' - or more recently, Pauline Hansen - with the flag cloaking her lily-white shoulders. Stars lend themselves to other, equally powerful, readings as signs. Consider those persecuted and executed by the Nazi's with stars emblazoned on their clothing as symbols of their transgression or otherness: not only the yellow star on the lapels of coats worn by Jews but also pink and red stars for queers and commies. Consider those whose naming as 'stars' confers on them rights, accolades and glory far beyond those of ordinary folk. Consider too, the star as a symbol of life, illuminating our existence as suns. Their rays stretching across time since what western science calls the 'big bang' or what Indigenous people call 'the Dreamtime'. The cosmology implied in Fraser's work belies its sloganistic presentation - 'cuztodians of the land since time began' - positioning a sense of belonging within this grand macrocosm with pinpoint accuracy. For Fraser, the men and women who have agreed to wear and be photographed in these t-shirts are 'stars', a constellation of shining figures of blackness or blakness, guides with which to mark and navigate the way ahead. Inescapably, the t-shirts are like football jerseys and you can't help but feel that in adopting the uniform as a marker of difference, Fraser is rallying a team spirit.

Arguably, Indigenous people exist and work in a language that is not their own, constructing, as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari describe, a 'minor literature' within a major language. Richard Bell is another Aboriginal artist working with text and language: "the fact that I have to use the language of the coloniser is a statement in itself. That I don't have the stories from the six tribes that I descended from is appalling. I've deliberately gone the opposite way. I've 'borrowed' instead from European artists."4 The characteristics of minor literature, as evident in Fraser's work, are "the deterritorialisation of language, the connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation. We might as well say that minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary conditions for every literature within the heart of what is called great (or established) literature."5 Instead of seeking to become major language, Deleuze and Guattari, propose that a problem is "how to tear a minor literature away from its own language, allowing it to challenge language"6. Further, they propose "to make use of the polylingualism of one's own language, to make a minor or intensive use of it, to oppose the oppressed quality of this language to its oppressive quality ... know how to create a becoming-minor." Speaking a minor language and of becoming-minor, Bell said that Aboriginal Art is "certainly the most exciting movement in the late 20th century. Another view that I take is that Aboriginal Art is a white thing. White people buy it, white people say what's good, what's bad. They sit in judgement."7 Yet, it's still Indigenous artists who make it and it is Indigenous stories that form the content.

Resistance too, it seems, is good business. The Weekend Australian Magazine recently reported that designers are trading in on political dissent or perhaps it's just that slogans, when framed as 'designs', are as consumable as everything else.8 In gestures of corporate responsibility, fashion houses are also demonstrating their support for various movements and organisations by selling political t-shirts to aid with fundraising. Such t-shirts and slogans once belonged to the realm of activism, artist collectives and political groups, sold in the name of fundraising, to protest and to make a statement. Slogans require particular kinds of literacy: the ability to differentiate between advertising, politics, a headline, a joke, art and culture jamming. Some say that our clothes are our second skin, that we are what we wear and t-shirts offer a few possibilities for the wearer. Like brands, they can mean that we belong, that we share a belief or uniform with like-minded t-shirt wearers. Like consumer goods, they are testaments to our taste, buying power and style. Like protests, they can mean we don't or refuse to belong, that we resist hegemonic political, economic and cultural agendas. Nevertheless, there is an inherent conflict in the economy of the political t-shirt. Produced predominantly in sweatshops, t-shirts are used to spread messages of equality, justice, peace, etc. Such economies all intersect in Fraser's work - produce it - and engender multiple possible readings and complexities.

None of us exist outside of power, none of exist outside of the military-media-industrial complex, none of us are free from the globalised economies of exploitation and oppression - there's no point in pretending that we are. For some of us, that inclusion is the only inclusion we ever experience. In problematising cultural politics as a 'zero-sum game', Dorinne Kondo identifies that "any oppositional gesture is inevitably recuperated in the juggernaut of commodity capitalism."9 While opposition can be both 'contestatory and complicit', that opposition does 'constitute a subversion that matters'. As part of that subversion, Fraser makes a choice to push through the narrow focus of the polity and symbolic order. Among the subversions she enacts is to make art out of everyday life, to foreground other everyday lives - to appropriate, culture jam and offer alternatives - and to subsequently locate in everyday life so much that matters.

by Linda Carroli
(c) 2003
1 Christian Thompson, "This Ain't Easy Listening"
2 bell hooks, "Postmodern Blackness", Walter Truett Anderson (ed), The Fontana Postmodernism Reader. London: Fontana. 1996. 114
3 ibid. 120
4 Richard Bell interviewed by Michael Eather. Catalogue for Richard Bell. Brisbane: Fire-Works Gallery. 2002
5 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, 'What is minor literature?', Russel Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha & Cornel West (eds), Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures. New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art & MIT Press. 1992. 60-61
6 ibid.
7 Richard Bell, op.cit.
8 Andy Baker, 'Does my conscience look big in this?". The Weekend Australian Magazine. The Weekend Australian. 22-23 March 2003. 44. This article examines the proliferation of fashion designers and houses cashing in on 'peacenik chic' through their lines of combat pants and t-shirts.
9 Dorinne Kondo, About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theater. New York: Routledge. 1997. 11