Throughout the history of screen culture, First Peoples have been portrayed as both an exotic curiosity and stereotypically deficient due to the ‘white gaze’ wielded by non-Indigenous Australians, who often defined First Peoples representation on-screen.
Around the 1970s, First Peoples stepped behind the camera en masse to capture their own story and control their representation, using the lens to return the gaze, look back, and look at each other. While celebrating, practicing and sharing culture, this gaze continues to resist and disrupt popular ideas of Australian identity, place and nationhood.
Canopy continues this tradition and comments on First Peoples self-representation.
“The canopy is teeming with life. It is a place where the biodiversity of species ensures the survival of us all. Through the imagery in my work, I’m exploring layers of being, from the individual to family, clan, culture, country and finally, to consciousness. Canopy invites audiences to still their minds and experience the work as a meditation with an open spirit and heart. It contains my home movies along with films I’ve written and directed.” – John Harvey
Artist bio and interview
John Harvey is an Indigenous storyteller, director, producer and writer across screen and stage and is the Creative Director of Brown Cabs.
John wrote and directed the short drama Water (ABC, MIFF, Adelaide FF, ImagineNative – Toronto). His second short drama Out of Range (SBS / Film Victoria) has screen at MIFF, Tampere Film Festival St Kilda Film Festival, winning Best Indigenous Short Film. John is the director and co-producer of online series Kutcha's Carpool Koorioke.
In theatre, John wrote and produced the highly acclaimed and sold-out season of Heart is a Wasteland (Malthouse Theatre, 2017), co-wrote the 2020 Sydney Festival hit Black Ties with the work selling-out in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Auckland. John is currently writing The Return for Malthouse Theatre (2020) and is currently commissioned to co-write Mudskipper, a new work for Queensland Theatre.
John produced the feature film Spear (TIFF, Adelaide Film Festival). He was a producer on the ABC TV series The Warriors (Arenamedia). He produced the chapter Sand for the omnibus feature film The Turning (Berlinale, MIFF) and has produced six Indigenous short films for screening at international film festivals and broadcast.
John was commissioned to create a multi-channel installation work, Canopy for the newly refurbished Australian Centre for Moving Image (ACMI), Melbourne. John collaborated with Torres Strait Islander visual artist, Ricardo Idagi creating the video element of Idagi’s 2011 New Media Telstra Award Winning work.
He spoke to Chief Curator Sarah Tutton about his work across stage, screen and galleries, as well as his approach to storytelling.
Can you tell us about your work Canopy and its title?
Canopy holds life and holds us. I think for me, it's that connection between us and Country. I liked the idea that the Country tells us everything we need to know about us, our lives and how to be in this world. At every stage of our life we're held, and the Country also holds us. I was interested in that as a parent, what kind of canopy do I provide for my kids? But also knowing that exists within the broader context of Country and the relationship between myself, my partner and kids, and where we live and how we relate to Country.
What kind of stories are you interested in telling?
I'm drawn to stories of time and family. I've grown up as part of the Torres Strait diaspora. My family moved to the mainland from Saibai Island in 1947 because of rising sea levels. I think a lot of people, a lot of Indigenous people, live off their country and there is that longing for home, but what is home? Home is family, home is connection. When I look at my body of work, I'm just telling the one story – you do that, you go back to things that you’ve told in all different ways. Also, I'm trying to have that conversation with spirit, which is something I love about creativity. An important thing for me with Canopy was just let the logic sit to the side because when relying on logic, you’re building a framework for language, that becomes a construct and requires defining it in a certain way. I like exploring connections and symbolism in my work that act outside that frame and gives the feeling of experiencing moments.
You work across both theatre and film, what are some of the processes from those areas that have informed your storytelling?
They're the same in the sense that you're trying to create a story and connect with an audience, but I really enjoy the differences in the processes. I love, particularly with writing for theatre, that you get to work with the actors on the floor – that's amazing. Whereas film can be a much shorter timeframe and those kind of creative development processes that are in theatre probably aren't there in film in terms of working with actors to explore the script. But I do love the cinematic experience of watching together and feeling that really close intimacy between characters, and as a filmmaker being able to work with sound and with vision on those kinds of experiences.
Canopy is almost a bit of a blend of that too. It’s screen-based but there’s also an association with space and feeling the story within the space and across the screen. Obviously, you're thinking about that with theatre and the physical relationships that you have, even though the audience is sitting, you still have that relationship, whereas cinema is often quite a different kind of relationship in a way.
We’ve talked about you as a theatre maker and a film director – how would you describe your practice in this context?
Just as a storyteller. It's a funny question because I sort of had a thing of thinking "Who am I? What space do I work in?" When I talk to theatre mob they’re sort of separate to the film mob and then I'd talk to film mob and they'd be separate to the theatre mob and... then I just kind of let it all go and stopped thinking about it and focusing on what I’m interested in. Stories are about exploration and being inquisitive and that’s what I’m fascinated with. What I loved with Canopy was letting go of the linear narrative and using a more meditative kind of visual language. We’re social beings and we understand story in so many different ways, so it was good to work in the gallery space and remove the narrative framework that often sits with film and theatre. With Canopy, there are images in their entirety, you’ll feel a connection but you don’t have to articulate what that is or look for a missing thread of the story. It’s okay to just feel something and take that with you.
Our collection comprises over 40,000 moving image works, acquired and catalogued between the 1940s and early 2000s. As a result, some items may reflect outdated, offensive and possibly harmful views and opinions. ACMI is working to identify and redress such usages.
How to watch
In ACMI's collection
On display until
16 February 2031
ACMI: Gallery 1
The Story of the Moving Image → Moving Australia → MA-06. Self Representation