Hours of operation

Hayley Millar Baker speaks to Nyctinasty

Installation view of Hayley Millar Baker, 'Nyctinasty' at Gertrude Contemporary, 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro.

In the artist's own words, Gunditjmara and Djabwurrung artist Hayley Millar Baker speaks to Nyctinasty. This text was developed by the National Gallery of Australia, edited from an interview with the artist, recorded in Narrm/Melbourne, 20 December 2021. The artist statement was first published by the National Gallery of Australia.

By Hayley Millar Baker

As early as I can remember, probably around three or four, when my family used to go out camping, my nan taught me how to draw and paint. She is an incredible landscape painter. Most of the time we went camping, it was back towards Country, around the bottom of Gariwerd/the Grampians, which is around my nan’s great-grandfather’s Country, Djabwurrung Country. Between there, and over the other side of Victoria around Mount Macedon and Dartmouth, we were always surrounded by mountains.

My mum is an illustrator as well, so I was always exposed to art. My dad’s mum was an artist too, she did a lot of realism pictures, she drew with pastels. With all the different influences from everywhere in my family, particularly from women, that’s just how I grew up. You can’t really separate me from my art, because I am my art, and identity plays a lot into that.

My nana, my dad’s mum, her family came here from Brazil. My [maternal] nan’s family was still on the mission at Lake Condah. In the 1950s, my pop, my dad’s dad, migrated here from India. The mission was still open at that point. All those histories clashing has played a big role in me thinking about who I am and where I am in the world, and those stories that I carry as well.

There’s a big connection between all the Countries that my nan’s family come from. My nan’s great-grandmother is from Taungurung Country, from a clan there that are specifically mountain people, the Nira-Bulok mob. She followed the songlines down through Gunditjmara Country, when the mission opened. At the same time, my nan’s great-grandfather, who was a Djabwurrung man from the big mountain Country there, he got taken down to Lake Condah Mission as well. So they met just before Lake Condah Mission and entered together. Lake Condah is right next to Mount Eccles, which is a dormant volcano. So all the Countries that my family left from, or lived around, they’re all mountains.

I formally trained in painting for nine years. I look at the landscape not as a landscape; it’s its own being, it’s got its own life, it’s got its own history, and stories.

When I changed over into photography, I think I wanted to trick people into believing that what I was putting across is the truth. And I go through so many different sorts of truth—abstracted truth, hidden truths, exposed truths. But when I moved into photography, I knew that the click of a button wasn’t going to do it for me. So I constructed all of my photographs. I was very mindful, given a lot of the landscapes that I was talking about, sacred landscapes, are also landscapes where pretty horrendous things happened, landscapes that are really personal, and while I want to tell the story, I don’t want to give specific spots away. When I was building the images, it was a way for me to ‘paint the picture’ and protect the place still, almost. I don’t look at it as a static image, and so I guess that’s where my storytelling comes into it. I hope that’s what audiences get out of my work, that it’s a constant state of living, that the story is within it.

I never trained in photography but have inherited my pa’s photographic archive. My nan used to paint photographs; he would take the portraits and she would handpaint them for his clients, before colour came in. And then by the late 1970s, they really pumped up their colours, so everything is just so vibrant with the slides. Thinking back to the family albums, I just wanted to be able to take all of that away. There are many reasons why I do black-and-white. I thought that adding colour would date it, that it would take away from the key themes and concepts, and the things that you need to look out for, to be able to understand the work further, so I desaturated it. I make an image to be seen several times, to go back and think about it, to watch it again. Black-and-white aids the viewing of the work and its interpretation, the connection to the audience.

Installation view of Hayley Millar Baker, 'Nyctinasty' at Gertrude Contemporary, 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro.

Nyctinasty is the first work that I have not named after a song, a book, a movie, a line from a movie. I have this deep interest in horror, thriller, real psycho, get-your-brain-thinking movies. I am petrified of the dark because of what I can see and feel in the dark, without having full control over myself. And that’s because of my relationship with ghosts and spirits.

Horror film is what I looked at for the ingredients to make Nyctinasty, taking those ingredients and then changing them so much that they become almost delicate. For anybody who doesn’t have that connection to a spiritual side, the film will seem horror-esque, but to anybody who does have that experience, it’s going to be a connection to the way they experience it. I also revisited a lot of Tarantino films. People probably wouldn’t pick that up watching Nyctinasty, but I love his long-winded scenes. He really builds it up, and you get lost in that space.

It [the Western film heard in Nyctinasty] was a very deliberate choice. Initially, we were looking into news programs or just music playing. I wanted something that wasn’t going to be a distraction from what was happening. It also is a homage to my pop, who absolutely loves Western films. And you could look at it in the way of colonisation, cowboys versus Indians, the survival of Aboriginal people, of everything that we went through, from genocides to assimilation, to surviving now, trying to thrive, and being not so much on a level playing field, but getting to have our own domestic spaces rather than being told what we have to do. In Nyctinasty that space is the domestic space of an Aboriginal woman and the practice of culture now.

There are many shape-shifting stories within my mob. In I’m the Captain Now 2016, you can see a spirit in the doorway, or in another image my auntie is on the top of the tin roof, and below her is Bunjil’s shadow, which speaks to shape-shifting. Then there is the absence of people totally in the vacant landscapes of the massacre works, A Series of Unwarranted Events 2018, to The Trees Have No Tongues 2019, the scarring of the spirits in the space.

Installation view of Hayley Millar Baker, 'Nyctinasty' at Gertrude Contemporary, 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro.

I have never, until now, had the courage to speak my own stories because I was always so conscious that the people before me hadn’t been able to speak their stories. And so in making all these works, it was a real act of appreciation, of gratitude, of making sure that my family’s stories, and not just explicitly my family’s stories, are not forgotten. While they’re brutal stories and brutal histories, and sad identities really, I have been involved in all of that as the narrator, adding my bits and pieces and that inheritance of magic and connection—putting us into history, into future’s history. My nan was extremely grateful that I did that.

My family line and a lot of Djabwurrung and Gunditjmara people are magic people. My mum is a healer and she can also astral project. I can’t heal but I can astral project and I can see and hear things. There’s a lot of magic that has been passed down. Some people choose to ignore it, some people embrace it.

I look at time in all of my work. It’s a big cycle, things don’t just end, things are passed through me. This idea of the connection to magic, and spirituality, being an everyday experience, occurrence, embodiment for Aboriginal people, and bringing that into a domestic space—it is extremely special, but also that’s just who we are.

All of my photographic work is highly abstracted. The content and the themes and the experience are there, but I’m not going to tell you what the truth is. With Nyctinasty it’s different, because I’m not asking anybody to consider that as truth. I’m not catering to anyone. I feel like most people will be able to connect to a certain degree. I feel like women, especially, will be able to connect, because women are very intuitive. I feel like any Indigenous person worldwide will have their similar stories within their culture. I’m offering up an abstracted autobiographical narrative, and it’s up to everybody else to figure out where this sits in their plane of existence.

My work is very oblique storytelling. I’m providing a foundation and then I’m out of it. It’s not up to me anymore. Where you want to start and end as an audience member is up to you. I spend such a long time researching, whether that be for content, or the way it’s going to be made, or its influences. It doesn’t end with me and it doesn’t end with the work. It ends with what has been added to it by each person who views it and what they take from that. The way that I made Nyctinasty was so the audience feels that they are there in that vacant space—you are there and you’re involved. In the film there are no outside sounds that indicate time of day, except the crickets. And when you go outside to the fire pit, there’s no next-door neighbour views, or anyone else around. So it’s this micro-world that also exists as the psyche. The house abstracted as the brain. When you have experiences like this, you don’t know whether it’s your mind playing tricks on you.

Installation view of Hayley Millar Baker, 'Nyctinasty' at Gertrude Contemporary, 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro.

There’s many things in this film that are made to mesmerise, to make you feel like you’re meditating, where you are feeling as well as watching—the hands and the crushing of charcoal, the spitting of the fire, the pot boiling with the egg bouncing around, the vacant wall, where you know there’s nothing there but there’s something there. And even the sound throughout the film sends you into that meditation space.

In the beginning I went through a really deep thought process that lasted quite a few months about what ceremony and ritual and iteration mean for me. Before I make my work, I narrow it down to a key instance, or specific story, or specific experience, and then I blow it right out. And so it occurred to me that every day I do this particular thing at night-time. I’ve been doing it since I was five or six years old, and I’ve never really thought much about it. It’s not about blocking out everything—I can still hear things and see things in the direct space, but I’m not warranting somebody to come to me and directly involve themself with me.

I do exit the body and go and talk to people. In 2020, I met my nan’s great-grandfather on the astral plane, and it was really lovely. It’s not often that people I know come forward, but my grandfather always comes forward. This time he brought himself forward and I watched the entire way that he had died. I was there with him for his last couple of minutes, and he spoke to me. Those who have passed, they’re not gone, their bodies are just simply not active.

For me this is a continuation of culture in the everyday. This is what ceremony means for me now, in my contemporary, for who I am right now, living in this urban landscape that has been so colonised. And going back to that domestic space, that’s just an everyday occurrence for me. This is my cultural connection. This is my inheritance. This is because of all of the people that came before me. And this is my ceremony.

Installation view of Hayley Millar Baker, 'Nyctinasty' at Gertrude Contemporary, 2023. Photo: Christian Capurro.

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