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Testing Grounds

Testing Grounds

Roberta Rich studio


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During her time at Testing Grounds, Roberta is undergoing research and creative development towards her collective ‘Her Africa is Real’ (H.A.i.R) and their forthcoming project, Afropodes; Reimagining African Archives.

Roberta engages with notions of “authenticity” and its relationship to constructed identities and their forms of representation. Roberta aims to de-construct colonial modalities through her art practice while ascertaining empowering forms of self-determination, often referencing her own [diaspora] African identity and experiences in her work.

Roberta Rich

Photograph by Louis Lim

November 2019

What is like to be brown for a girl like me?
For a girl like me
Do you know what is like to be baas for a girl like me?
For a girl like me
Do you know what is like to be brown for a brown like me?
For a brown like me
Do you know what is like to be baas for a brown like me?
For a brown like me
– Dope Saint Jude

I have been looking at various materials that could be used to create a braid as a prop that is part of a much larger modular installation. I have sourced varieties of chain, rope and rigging as potential materials. I left some in their manufactured state, while others I spray-painted gold-chrome, which was a lot of fun. I’m not sure if it is the novelty of using this enamel, or watching the physical properties of the material change their “value”, where they are quite alluring now. It’s such a loaded image, I think about the inextricable relationship of class through this creative process, the connotations to labour, and the rope and chains after painted, now appear almost as jewellery, like rich minerals stripped from a land. I have been thinking about how and where this prop appears, whether reoccurring via video, or seen once as part of a performance. How much power would I give to such a loaded image, and what does that power look like for us? I braided the rope and chain after being painted, contemplating their purpose and their aesthetic. 

The gold chrome on the chain slowly chipped away. I like the gold flakes and residues left behind, but that was not the outcome intended. The chain became quite stiff, and with more movement, more paint chipping off. My hands were also rather stained with chrome so the more I held or tried to braid with the chain the less I wanted to be handling it, bringing me back to thinking about connotations of labour and a certain weighted nature. The rope I painted retained its chrome gold appearance and though the application of the gold made thicker ropes less flexible, I was still able to create a prototype towards the kind of iconography I was envisaging.

There has been a lot of dialogue and conversing about how to present complex stories of our experiences within this work. What aesthetics and methods are appropriate? How much do we give to the person experiencing this work? Who could our audiences be, working in the context of settler nation Australia? How passive or active are they? 

Is the braid gold? Is the braid even still in the work? 

H.A.i.R. are heavily driven by a conversation about present lived experiences, past experiences, and sharing these with one another as research towards shaping the work. It feels necessary (well our experiences are integral to ‘re-writing’ our archive) to work through ways of embedding this within the installation and performance components while negotiating our existing ideas of what ‘the work’ “looks like” ~ what form our archive takes shape, allowing these to continuously change and develop, reflecting layers upon layers, of herstory. 

The braid during our Afropodes; Reimagining African Archives CultureLAB at Arts House has been utilised in both expected and unexpected ways. The act of braiding so far has been incorporated as a meditative and reflective process within the work in progress. Another work in progress is that the braid is now a whip in a performance. Each time it slaps or makes contact with a surface, it leaves a mark, an imprint of its pattern, leaves residues of texture and gold flakes. The residues were not something any of us were focussing largely on, but spoke volumes through their remnants after an extremely powerful performance. The residual marks left behind of a fierce warrior battling re-claiming and undermining current politics of knowledge production.

Fresh eyes are a blessing yo. We’ve been working so intensively towards our CultureLAB at Arts House for some time now, and ‘the works’ current form these last few weeks; keen to receive responses and feelings at the upcoming presentation!

Spray painting braids and ropes and chains gold.

December 2019

I have been revisiting a series of my collage works, ‘At the end of each day, I’m sometimes tired,’ 2018. I was originally commissioned to create this series for Runway Journal’s ‘Spectacle’ issue #38, edited by Natasha Matila-Smith – I was invited a couple of month’s ago to present work at TCB Gallery in Brunswick, and decided to present these for a solo exhibition opening November 29th until December 15th.

This invitation gave me the opportunity to show these works beyond “the cloud” and the launch that was in Dharug country (Sydney). I had never shown these works in Narrm Melbourne before so it was an opportunity to experiment with form and scale in the artist run initiative, and further unpack ideas and conversations surrounding the commodification of Bla(c)k and Brown bodies in global frameworks – particularly arts institutions.

Having many discussions with practitioners working within various fields with differing approaches was really helpful in thinking further about how my audience is implicated/or not. The collages now had the opportunity to exist as many forms with an immediate presence in the gallery space instead of a private online viewing. Their humour, for me is very dry and blunt, and I wanted satire to continue within the works installation. I presented the work ‘Latest Acquisitions’, 2018 as a large-scale projection, to act as a type of “theatre backdrop” of sorts. ‘Latest Acquisitions’ 2018 presents an Anglo-Saxon figure, perhaps a curator, looking pretty happy with (potentially) their new collection of works – fragmented Black bodies appear upon canvasses within a gallery studio setting. The other collage works within the series (for example, ‘At arms length’, 2018, pictured below) are presented on two flat screen monitors adjacent to these canvasses, as if part of this “backdrop” but also presented as ‘the artwork’ within the space. The positioning of the projector also meant shadows of visitors within the space became a part of this ‘scenography’. 

There were also postcards of the prints for sale – $2 each. I wanted to propose the opportunity of purchasing or supporting my work with a certain dualistic tension. I’m drawn towards this tension in my practice without always being explicit of a push/pull, addition/subtraction relationship with regards to what narratives or actions are absent and present.

By proposing the accessible (in relation to a Fine Arts commercial arts market) price tag, I’m attempting to position gallery visitors to engage in the very act of owning, collecting their very own piece of “Black Art” – speaking to the notions of commodification that I am unpacking and critiquing within the series. TCB gallery invigilators now also bear the responsibility of carrying out the potential sale of these prints, and this was up to them, of how they navigated this position/or not. I wanted the gallery to be a space of reflection – to reflect upon one’s own body in this space. Do you identify with the fragmented body? How does it make you feel seeing this? Is the curator character more relatable to you? Or are you merely a cultural tourist, perusing through another gallery on route to see some more exotic art?

The other thing I want to mention is the importance of being with fam, community, and continuing to meet and see the work of amazing Bla(c)k and POC creatives. It is giving me life at this time of the year and re-energises me when I get a bit jaded and cynical and really deep into series like ‘At the end of each day, I’m sometimes tired’. I recently went to FLOW festival, and listening to all the beautiful artists and being in a space that is not entrenched in rowdy, oblivious patriarchal Anglo energy was super refreshing and what I needed after what’s been a huge last couple of months and year that was 2019.

One of my prints

February 2020

After the success and feedback from our CultureLAB, this month, Her Africa is Real have been regularly meeting at Testing Grounds, reflecting and discussing our next creative stages. We met with Moreblessing Maturure to do a reading/performance with Sista Zai Zanda for a work in progress, during Maturure’s recent Brunswick Mechanics Institute Artist Residency. We set lighting and recorded video of this, and it was so amazing to see the work elevated to another level.

Following this, H.A.i.R. re-visited our communal cook up of practising and learning to make and eat foods of southern Africa. Last time we did a take on a Cape Malay Curry and it was DELICIOUS. We documented this towards the development of a video installation work and did the same again this month with Pap, Chakalaka, Muriwo uneDovi with spiced chicken wings. There was great focus on learning methods, ingredients and language while we shared stories and experiences through this process. It made the feast so much more satisfying while engaging with the process of carrying on the practices of our families and culture.

Outside of my collective practice, I was invited this month to do an interview with peer studio artist Ava Amedi, for their project ‘Where Are You Now’. I tend to get quite shy of “artists talks” and the like, but I connected with Amedi and felt comfortable sharing, particularly in the context of an intimate interview with a peer who shares mutual interests and perspectives. I also saw it as a good opportunity to speak about my work in a more public context, particularly when you are so focused on an idea or concept, and how verbalising or describing parts of practice can help understand how deep (or whether you have gone too deep) or how one is articulating various journeys or avenues of research. For example, I spoke about my interest in the First Nations histories of the language of Afrikaans; a continual emerging dialogue in southern Africa’s cape region, about who formed the language and whose language is it really. But for many, who negate its unique production, see it as a “daughter” language of the Dutch Boere, the “Afrikaaners” colonial language. It is far more complex than these two sentences described here, but when I speak about certain research interests or perspectives in this way, it reminds me of where my own understandings lie and what narratives could (or not) be extended.

I’m (trying) to read more, but have mostly been immersed in dialogue and conversations within my collective, peer creatives and friends. Books I have close to me right now and in rotation are, Growing Up African in Australia (edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke with heaps of dope writers), Always Another Country (Sisonke Msimang), In Our Own Skins (Richard van der Ross) and CONTEMPORANEITY: Contemporary Art in Indonesia.

I am super PUMPED to be going to Yogyakarta, Indonesia for 3 months as a recipient of Australia Council for the Arts Debra Porch Award, to share, and learn more about Cape Malay history and culture. Indonesia’s colonial history and relationship with Dutch colonists is of great relevance for me, because of the simultaneous connection with southern Africa. The Dutch VOC displaced many Indonesian people who became slaves in South Africa and became part of the production of a unique cultural identity that is still very complex and continues to have debates surrounding its proximity to Africa, Asia and how or what language should or should not be used when thinking or defining such a diverse and complex identity (aka “Cape Coloureds” aka my fam and ancestors). Though I am aware of the Malay influence within my identity, it is still somewhat distant. Thinking back to my earlier visit to Jakarta last year in August, I was struck by similar spices, food, language (Afrikaans words that are the same in Bahasa Indonesian), Muslim communities (Islam is majority practised by “Cape Malays” who fall under the so-called “Coloured” category) as well as visualities I had never experienced much outside of being in my motherland. Very excited for this journey.

Sharing food

Photo by Jacqui Shelton

March 2020

I spent some time on Wathaurong country, 3 hours west of Narrm Melbourne for a residency project hosted by BLINDSIDE and the National Trust, held at Mooramong. Joined by artists Manisha Anjali and Anna May Kirk, we stayed in a cottage adjacent to a mansion on an estate developed by Canadian 1920s Hollywood silent film actress Claire Adams and affluent Scottish-Australian Donald ‘Scobie’ Mackinnon. The ‘Mooramong Mansion’ sits upon thousands of acres and has its own eclectic history of establishing a bird sanctuary, animal welfare ventures, matinées (probably soirée’s too), a collection of artworks and art deco furniture with impressive family heirlooms and a collection of rare books. Observing and in awe of their collected wealth and the presence of ‘Scobies’ Scottish ancestry through the display of Scottish swords and an extremely detailed genealogy of the Mackinnon family, I could not help but think about my own family genealogy that I can trace only so far, as a result of Dutch imperialism and slavery in ‘The Cape’. Similar to southern Africa and many other parts of the globe, domestic workers are the backbone of their economies. I thought about the backbone of this estate – there was an extensive kitchen and separate living quarters for “the help”, the domestic workers, the cooks, butlers and cleaners of the estate – who were they? How many workers were there? What is the First Nations history of this site?

I was privileged to be able to travel not far from Mooramong to Djabwurrung country and visit an important Aboriginal meeting place called Lake Buloke (co-opted by settlers to be now known as Lake Bolac). It has been recorded by Scottish activist James Dawson in western literature that ‘Lake Buloke is the most celebrated place in the Western District for the fine quality and abundance of its eels, and, when the Autumn rains induce these fish to leave the lake and to go down the river to the sea, [people] gather there from great distances.’ The annual Lake Bolac Eel Festival celebrates Lake Buloke as a sacred gathering place that continues to share, reflect and celebrate Aboriginal culture.

My skin is brown
my manner is tough
I’ll kill the first mother I see
my life has been too rough
I’m awfully bitter these days
because my parents were slaves
What do they call me
My name is PEACHES

– Nina Simone

I decided to have a bit of fun in amongst all the absences, and humour myself as a form of ‘assuage’ and role-play – Cindy Sherman style – with a kind of entitlement (that allowed her to problematically explore race and class that was then validated by the art world for her Bus Riders series, she also did Blackface) – and I would play the role of #arentwerich

It was loads of fun to shoot (no wonder everyone wants to be rich right?), and a different approach to creative development amongst the (often) emotional labour that comes with my other projects that are almost always personal. So it was interesting and fun to pretend that this was “my mansion” though at times forgetting in my enactment, no you’re not positioned working the bar; you’re behind the bar, waiting for your drink. 

For me, the collective project of H.A.i.R. and my own creative arts practice is so important not only for expression and exploration, but in establishing points of reference for our communities. This is not to say there aren’t any – I love the work of my southern African diaspora peers creating right now and who have BEEN creating – but our experiences are so complex and diverse that there are always new voices and untold stories to be told.

H.A.i.R. will be participating in the upcoming symposium hosted by Bus Projects and Liquid Architecture, ‘Collective-Kolektif; an Indonesian-Australian dialogue between artists’. Collective-Kolektif’ hosts Indonesian collectives including KUNCI Cultural Studies Centre, Ace House, OMNI space, Ruang MES 56, and ruangrupa; alongside Narrm Melbourne collectives Hyphenated Projects, eleven-collective, Sound School and this mob.

The symposium poses questions about ideas surrounding collectivising and why, within their contexts. I’m looking forward to hearing from Indonesian collectives about their experiences and working within saturated arts contexts. Not only will this be an exciting entry for understanding more of the cultural and political landscape of Indonesia to inform my upcoming residency, but also to share insight of working within peer communities, particularly if one identifies as diaspora.  

April 2020

Afropodes: Reimagining the African Archive (Afropodes) is an interdisciplinary, modular installation. Afro-podes “re-imagines” the traditional archive and presents “the archive” as performance, soundscapes and site-responsive installations. We currently focus on southern African narratives and where they exist (or don’t) in Melbourne. We ask ‘how do we connect with and learn from histories that we feel absent from; and how do we create new histories for our future people to be connected?’ Our vision for this project to platform African womxn herstories run and created by African diaspora womxn. Think active and passive installations, layered with performances, to reflect our complex narratives.

As there are many components for our ultimate final presentation, the project is still in development towards its premiere. We have been experimenting with live stream components, preparing to mix our collected audio of conversations; however continuing to develop audio for soundscapes, content for installations, determine appropriate technologies for presentation and develop our draft plans for designers to discuss the construction of the larger modular form. We are still very much in a content creation phase but have a strong vision of who our collaborators are.

We would love to hear from interested designers and architects to consult about approaches towards a versatile and flexible modular form. The eventual premiere (depending on current arts landscape) will be at Arts House, but we also intend for the installations and project to be presented at other arts spaces that obviously differ in size and resources. While in development, space is always appreciated, to meet with collaborators, record audio and film performances and to create content. We continue to apply for funding, as the project is collaborative in nature, as we want to be able to continue to support collaborators for their time and insight.

Having a studio at Testing Grounds for an extended time in an accessible location has been extremely valuable and always refreshes me for creativity, thinking and motivation. It’s been great to learn about other practices and approaches to projects and discussing each others ideas- its always so valuable, and I think sometimes you can forget if you’re thinking or working alone on particular projects about the value of perspective from peers outside of your practice.

Creative development


Roberta will subsequently undergo a studio residency at the Cemeti Institute for Art and Society, Yogyakarta, Indonesia as a recipient of the 2020 Australia Council for the Arts Debra Porch Award.

Her Africa is Real (H.A.i.R.) is an interdisciplinary collective that employs contemporary methodologies of performance, literature, soundscape and installation to reimagine “traditional” western modalities of an “African archive” in an antipodean context.

Past projects include Representation and Speaking, Bus Projects Public Program, Melbourne 2018; Brunswick Mechanics Institute Studio Residency, Melbourne 2019; Part A: it’s speechy, Seventh Gallery Exhibition, Melbourne 2019; Participants in Pan African Space Station’s broadcast as part of the Shapes of Knowledge Exhibition at MUMA, Melbourne, 2019; Afropodes: Reimagining African Archives, CultureLab Development, Arts House, North Melbourne 2019; Panel guests at Collective-Kolektif: an Indonesia-Australia dialogue on artist collectives, hosted by Bus Projects and Liquid Architecture, Melbourne, 2020.

Roberta and H.A.i.R live and work on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung peoples of the Kulin Nation.