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UNSW sacks Indigenous artist

Uncle Vic Chapman AM speaking outside the Elwyn Lynn Conference at a rally to reinstate Tess Allas. Photo: Supplied

By WENDY BACON

Thirty artists and academics, including several significant Indigenous artists, have vowed to boycott University of New South Wales galleries unless they reappoint long-term Indigenous staff member and Director of Indigenous Programs Tess Allas, whose contract was terminated in October.

Allas, who has worked at UNSW Art and Design for more than 13 years, was told by the Dean of Art and Design Professor Ross Harley in October that her contract would not be renewed. Allas has been responsible for teaching courses about Aboriginal art and supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and other students. She is a practising artist with a masters in curatorial studies.

It is not unusual for contract staff members to be terminated in universities. What is extraordinary about this situation is a public campaign calling for a reversal of the decision and an outpouring of support for Allas from the Indigenous and the academic art communities.

A student-led campaign #StandwithTess launched an online petition with more than 1600 signatories, and scores of letters of support have been sent to Professor Harley from people familiar with Allas’ work as an artist, educator and academic.
Indigenous students have accused UNSW of wrecking their Arts and Design program, traumatising them and opting for silence rather than addressing their concerns.

At a #StandwithTess rally on November 5, artist Tony Albert called for the boycott of UNSW galleries. Albert is a well-known Indigenous artist who has exhibited in the Art Gallery of NSW and many other high-profile museums. His work critiques institutional racism. At the rally, Albert acknowledged Allas as a “proud Aboriginal woman and a teacher beyond comparison. Tess Allas is the kind of leading figure any university would and should hold up as a valued member of staff. Tess is not an academic whose concludence comes from reading and research, while she is incredibly versed in both. Her voice is one of lived experience, someone on the ground, someone present. I’m appalled at the way the university is treating Tess Allas”.

Albert described the decision to terminate Allas as one of institutional racism and asked, “Where is the recognition for the oldest, living, surviving culture in the world?” Albert is currently working with leading contemporary artists Richard Bell and Daniel Boyd. “We are calling for all Indigenous artists and their allies to boycott UNSW Galleries. We will never exhibit in the confines of this university again” unless Allas is re-employed.

A gallery of opposition
Signatories to the boycott call also include artists Joan Ross, Dale Harding, Reko Rennie, Julie Gough, and New Zealand-born artists Hayden Fowler and Angela Tiatia. First Nations Canadian artist Adrian Stimson of the Siksika Nation in Southern Alberta sent letters to UNSW Vice-Chancellor Ian Jacobs and Art and Design Dean Ross Harley and has posted a video in support of Allas on Instagram. Stimson says that he is “baffled by the decision” because Allas is the “most wonderful professional director of indigenous programming that UNSW could ever have.” He says that the failure to respond to his concerns shows a lack of “professionalism, accountability and transparency.”

Several senior academics have also supported the boycott, including art historian and feminist art theorist at Latrobe University Professor Jacqueline Millner;  Professor in the Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University Joseph Pugliese; and UNSW Associate Professor Joanna Mendelssohn. A blunt blog post by Mendelssohn on The Art Life website was headlined “Asset-stripping”, a reference to what she said was a “loss of someone so crucial to the well-being of students and staff.” Mendelssohn attributes the success to-date of UNSW Art and Design as a “quiet leader in the achievements of both its Aboriginal students and those from minority backgrounds” not to major funding but to the “efforts of one staff member, Tess Allas.” Mendelssohn regards Allas’ work as “crucial to the well-being of students and staff alike.”

For some years, Allas has held contracts as both a lecturer and a professional support staff member. She has curated and co-curated significant exhibitions including the award-winning With Secrecy and Despatch, which was commissioned by the Campbelltown Arts Centre in partnership with UNSW Art and Design in 2016.

Tess Allas declined to be interviewed for this story. City Hub sent questions to Professor Harley, who forwarded them to UNSW communications. UNSW responded with a statement: “UNSW Sydney is unable to comment on individual staffing matters because of confidentiality considerations. In line with University policy, all faculty staffing decisions are made at the faculty level with the final endorsement of the University. UNSW understands the concerns and interest in how it supports Indigenous students and staff. UNSW has a long and proud history in the education of Indigenous people. The University is committed to providing learning opportunities that embrace Indigenous knowledge, culture and histories. The University achieves this through interactions with passionate Indigenous staff, access to world-class teaching and research activities, and connections to a robust community. We continue to be a leader in educating the next generation of Indigenous students while inspiring Indigenous researchers and practitioners to achieve their educational needs and aspirations.”

UNSW is confident that by continuing its Indigenous Strategy in 2020, it will “create an improved structure for the ground-breaking work UNSW already does. The university has offered to meet with the Design and Art students in the New Year.

The Faculty Student Council and indigenous students are scathing in their response to this UNSW statement. President Jack Poppert says that the notion of confidentiality is being used to “stifle community inquiry, and as an excuse for their unsubstantial and unsatisfactory manner of dealing with our sincere concerns…. The University has failed to understand that we now have a demolished Indigenous Programs at Art & Design. How can this response have any meaning when ‘knowledge, culture and histories’ will not be present, in any meaningful way, on our campus in 2020, and perhaps beyond?”

“Tess embodies community”
Indigenous student Aneshka Mora responded to UNSW in this way: “ We cannot stress enough that this is not an issue of filling a tokenistic position at UNSW A&D. Of course, now in 2019, the necessity for such roles as the Director for Indigenous Programs and courses such as Aboriginal Art Now are institutionally recognised. However, what is often fatally forgotten is that if we are to ‘decolonise’ our institutions it needs to be done with the prioritization of community. Tess embodies community like no other….What we are concerned about, is not the filling of the position of the Director of Indigenous Programs or the lecturer of the course that Tess runs, we are concerned about the necessity of Tess Allas the person and we refuse to let false institutional promises dehumanise our experience and our community. “

Elder In Residence Vic Chapman, an 87-year old Yuwaalaraay man, strongly supports the students. Last November, UNSW Chancellor David Gonski conferred an Honorary Fellowship on Chapman, who has also been awarded an Order of Australia for services to the Indigenous community, tertiary education and the visual arts. In November this year, Chapman wrote to Gonski, the Vice-Chancellor and other senior staff expressing his deep “disappointment in your institution, arguing that the decision (to terminate Allas) “will in no way benefit the current crop of Indigenous Art & Design students and will only serve to decrease any future intake of Indigenous students in this faculty.” So far, he has received only an acknowledgement and no meeting has been organised with him.

This week Chapman told City Hub, “Tess is well known locally, nationally and internationally in the art world, with international curatorial awards, etc. Her strong support of students and staff in the workplace – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – surrounding her dismissal speaks volumes for her concern for them, her commitment and capability as a teacher.”

Chapman believes that the UNSW galleries will be poorer as a result of the boycott by Indigenous artists. If Allas is not at the university next year, he will also relinquish his role as Elder in Residence. Chapman rejects UNSW’s assurance that its indigenous strategy is not damaged by the decision to terminate Allas. “I have spent most of my almost 88 years working in the field of education. In the Teacher’s Handbook which governed the conduct of schools I worked in, there was a regulation which stated that a person of Indigenous descent could be barred from the Public School system on the protest of one non-Indigenous member of the school community. It remained in the Handbook until 1972 and acted upon until the late 1960s. I wonder if what is happening to Tess is an echo of those times,” he says.

Indigenous Leilani Knight also feels the echoes of the past,” I’m concerned for my future at UNSW and feel as though I’m fighting the same racist political tactics my grandparents did….Pretty words and cultural acknowledgements do not equate to almost 250 years of Indigenous struggle for recognition and equality.” For Leilani and others, Tess embodies the community of Art & Design, particularly her role in advocating for students from minority backgrounds. “Art & Design cannot claim to decolonize if it continues to let white men in power, like Ross Harley, make vital decisions about Indigenous staff or support without discussing with community first,” she says.

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