Exploring identity through the work of a gay indigenous artist
Peter Waples-Crowe is a gay Indigenous artist who has just been shortlisted for the prestigious Victorian Indigenous Art Awards. Stephen A. Russell talks to Waples-Crowe about his work and his journey to understand identity.
Growing up in Wollongong, West Melbourne-based Koori artist and sexual health worker Peter Waples-Crowe always struggled with his sense of identity. Adopted into a non-Indigenous family, he didn’t have much exposure to his cultural heritage.
Despite this, Waples-Crowe found himself seeking an understanding of identity through his avid fascination with drawing and painting. He recalls producing a series of mock-up covers of The Australia Times that broached Indigenous issues including deaths in custody. Wrapped up in his dilemma was the fact that he’s a light-skinned Aboriginal man, and he was also coming to terms with his sexuality.
“I grew up on a housing commission in a poor family, and I didn’t have many gay role models,” Waples-Crowe says. “I knew I was gay early on, but I didn’t have the words for it. Trying to locate myself is always in my work. It’s all about the personal, the lived experience.”
His latest work, Genderbender Us and Them, has been shortlisted in this year’s Victorian Indigenous Art Awards (VIAA). A series of multi-coloured rough-cut stencils, it features Aboriginal portraits adorned with the tags They, Sis, Aunty, Brutha, Hunk, Fella, Bloke. This year has seen Waples-Crowe encounter a variety of gender diverse Indigenous people, including at Melbourne’s recent International AIDS Conference and a pre-conference event held in Sydney. “This year’s been about getting to know the transgender community in a much deeper way,” he says.
Describing his work as a series of ‘life maps’, Waples-Crowe draws on his personal experience, encouraging discussions around identity, dislocation and subcultures within the broader pop-culture framework. As a teenager in the 80s, queer icons including Boy George and Annie Lennox fascinated him, but he felt it was a little too surface, and that it’s only now we’re truly opening up a broader conversation about gender diversity.
“These days it's about the binary of male and female and people not fitting into it,” he says. “I haven’t felt like I fitted into the binary of black and white. Often in our lives we inhabit the in-between world, the different spaces that come up between the extremes.”
Waples-Crowe says meeting Brutha Boys and Sista Girls within the Aboriginal community has enriched his life, and he was a participant in a transgender yarning circle at the pre-conference event in Sydney, where he felt an affinity with people carving a new role for themselves within the broader community.
“I’m an out, gay Aboriginal guy with fair skin, I don’t fit into a lot of boxes and I don’t want to,” he says. “I want to recommence the journey to understand my Aboriginalness. Australia has an unresolved history between the first people and the colonisers, and I’m totally part of that.”
He refers to boxer Anthony Mundine’s statement that homosexuality is not part of Aboriginal culture. “Who documented our culture? The colonisers who came here and didn’t go away, with a lot of church influence. They wouldn’t have seen the gender diversity and wouldn’t have wanted to. We were seen as the noble savage. We were silenced, and we were straight. We need to go back and rediscover the diversity.”
Waples-Crowe says a lot of his work is about tackling notions of homogeneity within Australia’s Indigenous population.
“They made us into the Aborigines, like one big mass, but we were 500 different nations. Some cultures were matriarchal, some patriarchal, and we came from very distinct environments, from deserts to rainforests. My people come from the Snowy Mountains.”
Racial prejudice within the gay community, noticeable on GPS apps like Grindr, also troubles him, alongside odd notions like ‘straight-acting’.
“I think I’ve just rediscovered my queerness,” he says. “I’ve just been through the AIDS Conference where I coordinated the international Indigenous networking zone. That was an amazing experience on so many levels. I lost a partner to HIV, so I went through a real healing process.”
Studying a Masters of Fine Art at Monash University, Waples-Crowe says that while critiquing his own output has been confronting, it’s also aided him immensely and his artistic output has increased. The VIAA nomination, one of several he’s accrued, is just another reassurance the quest for understanding his identity is going places.
“I feel like I’m on the right track. Being an Aboriginal artist, you can get pigeonholed. I want to be an advocate encouraging conversation with our broader queer community.”
[Top image] Gender Bender us and them by Peter Waples Crowe.