Jessyca Hutchens is a Palyku woman, living and working in Boorloo (Perth), Western Australia. She is a curator and art historian, with a DPhil (PhD) in art history from the University of Oxford. As well as currently undertaking a post-doctorate for the Repatriates project, she is also the Curator at the Berndt Museum at the University of Western Australia, which holds one of the most significant collections of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art and cultural material globally. She is currently working on a major exhibition for Perth festival for 2023, at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, titled Black Sky, and continually works on community access and education through the museum. In 2019–2020, Jessyca was the Curatorial Assistant to the Artistic Director at the Biennale of Sydney, working on a ground-breaking Indigenous -ed exhibition titled NIRIN, as well as edited the award-winning artist book NIRIN NGAAY. Jessyca has held teaching and tutoring positions at the University of Birmingham, the University of Oxford, and the University of Western Australia. She has written on Indigenous contemporary art and other topics for Third Text, Artlink, Artist Profile, Art Collector, AQNB, and contributed a chapter to the book Indigenous Archives: The Making and Unmaking of Aboriginal Art. She is a founding editor of an experimental publication on artistic research titled OAR Platform (www.oarplatform.com).
How would you define repatriation?
The form of repatriation I am addressing in this project is the return of cultural objects to their communities of origin. Some of my case studies will involve repatriations to places, including institutions, that are proximate to communities of origin, while materials may not be directly in their permanent physical possession on their traditional country.* Sometimes this is a temporary compromise, and other times it may be appropriate if the community is large and dispersed and wish to keep the collection together and accessible. In some cases, such as for photographs, it may be appropriate for copies to be returned, and certain rights and protocols established in regard to the original negatives. In all cases, I believe repatriation is only meaningful when there is a very high degree of decision-making and autonomy practiced by communities in regard to their cultural materials upon their return. Forms of mere access where institutions retain a high degree over a communities’ materials would not fulfill my understanding of a repatriation.
*For Indigenous Australians, country is a very wide concept that refers to the lands, waters, and skies that Indigenous groups are connected to. It generally encompasses far more than just a physical geography and includes the laws, spiritual beliefs, cultural practices, and responsibilities associated with being custodians for particular areas and sites.
What does your work involve?
My work broadly involves looking into the return of Indigenous cultural objects and materials from overseas institutions back to different Indigenous communities within Australia. This practice has grown in recent years, following on from more established trends towards returning human remains. It is occurring through community-led actions, established programmes, and sometimes in more ad hoc ways as community members, researchers, and museums recover little known parts of collections or make unexpected connections. My work involves surveying this very diverse field, and following different stories of return, engaging with different communities, collections, and researchers along the way. As an art historian who has long been interested in how contemporary artists engage with institutions, and also how Indigenous artists practice forms of cultural continuity, I am also looking into how return processes, and objects themselves, can set in motion forms of cultural revitalisation and new creative engagements with cultural heritage. There has already been a longer practice of established Indigenous artists engaging with the topic of repatriation through critical projects in overseas museums. Finally, we are beginning to see greater opportunities for wider communities to engage with their cultural materials and a wide range of cultural activities flowing on from this.
How does the project tie into your background?
As a Palyku woman I have seen my own family engage with various forms of reconnecting with our cultural knowledge, practices, and connections to country, which were severely disrupted by colonisation. Indeed, our cultural heritage remains severely threatened due to the impacts of mining. As an art historian and curator I have long been interested in the multitude of ways that Indigenous artists and communities have used creative practice to undertake forms of cultural continuation, resistance to on-going colonisation, and institutional critique. While often seen as one of the best ways that museums can engage in colonial reparation or to “decolonise”, the return of cultural objects must be viewed as part of a complex matrix of on-going struggles and cultural survival. My interest in this topic goes beyond the framing of it in terms of legal issues, cultural policy, or museum studies. The loss of cultural materials is one part of a multitude of ways that Indigenous peoples have been dispossessed, and the many pathways towards recovering these materials speak to many broader issues and unfolding stories.