It took every cell in my body to the edge’: on Black tenderness in Australian art

It takes a lot of strength to display vulnerability in a hostile world. Shantel Wetherall spoke to artists who are taking that risk by Shantel Wetherall

Tue 8 Jun 2021 03.30 AEST

Of the hundreds of works in the National Gallery of Victoria’s recent blockbuster Triennial, one piece stopped me in my tracks. Hannah Brontë’s immersive video work Eye Hear U Magik enveloped onlookers in a tender, ethereal story of women’s knowledge, passed down through generations.

How brave it was for Brontë to refuse the opportunity to be formidable, and instead make her most ambitious piece to date a deep exploration of her culture, spirituality and femininity. I stood for a long time, reflecting on the importance of Black artists claiming space to showcase tenderness – particularly in this moment of history.

Brontë’s work, I’ve realised since, is part of something bigger: a subversive art movement that celebrates Black vulnerability, and fills me with Denial of the humanity of Black folk is at the core of white supremacy, and it’s not simply a matter for the justice system; it’s been upheld through centuries of cultural propaganda. The narratives perpetuated through books, music, films and TV intentionally erase Black tenderness, cementing deep biases that foster an environment where doctors routinely withhold painkillers from Black patients, where armed police panic at the sight of a Black child. It sets up a maddening conflict between how we are perceived and who we know ourselves to be, which even affects how we relate to each other.

That’s why I find this moment so compelling. If Black power won our right to be in the room, Black vulnerability demands space for our soft human-ness to come with us.

But for Brontë, the process of getting to tenderness was not tender at all.

“This work took every cell in my body to the edge. It changed my life,” she says. She remembers being told that “when we heal our trauma we are sending it seven generations back and seven generations forward … What I realised was, it was a lot of release. It was the bursting of wet season after being held in.”

It takes a lot of strength to display your vulnerability in a hostile world. I spoke to more Australian artists who represent this movement for me, and asked them why they risk it – and which artists inspire them.

Australian fine art Photographer and artist Michael Jalaru Torres.
Photograph: Christopher Hopkins

Michael Jalaru Torres is a Djugun-Yawuru fine art photographer from Broome, Western Australia, whose work has been exhibited in China, Germany and across Australia. His photos often explore the issues facing Indigenous people, but his series Tether (2020) draws on a much more personal story. Using the relationship between the sun, moon, earth and stars, he portrays the perpetual bond between a father and daughter, and reflects on his own journey: raising his daughter while battling cancer.

Currents of the Sun, an image from the photographic series Tether (2020) by Michael Jalaru Torres

When I was 25, I was struck down with potentially life-ending cancer. My daughter was less than one year old, and she was my beacon. I was a single father going through depression but I still had to work, for us to have a roof over our head – I was working in media helping other people tell their story. But before she left for high school, she said, what are you gonna do? She forced me to look within, and I took up photography. That was my second chance at life.

I shot Tether the week before the big lockdown here. I had all these ideas for props and locations, but was forced to strip everything away and really focus on what’s important. The photos represent me being in a cold world, where my only warmth is my daughter.

The media has demonised Black men forever. We feel like we’re forgotten. I think it’s important that more Black men in Australia – especially in Indigenous Australia – start opening up, and sharing their experience. That’s why I wanted to do this: to show that we are vulnerable and we can share our story. Vulnerability is a true form of resilience. When you come through trauma you can recognise that.

The same story has been told about Blackness hundreds and hundreds of times. The curators are the gatekeepers, and artists feel pressured into sharing those stories because they know their works will get shown. But we have more stories. We’ve got funny stories. We’ve got scary stories. We’ve got all the stuff.

Blood of my Blood, an image from the photographic series Tether (2020) by Michael Jalaru Torres.

The artists that inspire me:

Warwick Thornton – Samson and Delilah (2009)This is the bravest film Australia has ever created. I love how Warwick Thornton does it his way.

Jimblah x Blkmpire – About These Demons (2020)Jimblah sings about Black vulnerability. The words he uses are powerful, but it’s also the way he sings them – he’s not trying to be perfect. That speaks to me.

Joe Williams – Defying the Enemy Within (2018)Williams uses a dark time in his life to shine light on mental health. It’s a prime example of we men embracing vulnerability, and getting strength from it.

Australian transcultural visual creative Lilah Benetti. Photograph by Christopher Hopkins for the Guardian.
Photograph: Christopher Hopkins

Lilah Benetti is an transdisciplinary artist based in Melbourne. Lilah’s mother is Italian, their biological father is Zambian and nonbiological father is an Aboriginal man from Djabugay country. Lilah identifies as Black and their work reflects their culturally eclectic upbringing. Lilah’s video work Inscape (2019) explores the impact physical spaces have on our reality: in it, Melbourne artist Akosia breaks free and decompresses in the landscape around Daylesford.

Growing up as I did, it took a long time to reconcile the idea that how I saw myself and how people saw me were two very different things. Inscape is about living in a closed world, in the city, in a confined space; it’s me showing myself that I will eventually always break free.

I work creatively with vulnerable youth, and a lot of them are Black. We’re all capable of a full spectrum of emotions, but not everyone has access to them. When we show anger, it’s not just anger; as a Black person, that is one of the most vulnerable versions of ourselves. Often we’re not allowed to feel those un-pretty emotions, or are told we can only have them behind closed doors in the company of other Black people.

During quarantine, I felt ready to be vulnerable. Black Lives Matter had exploded, Black culture was put under the microscope and people took time to not just see but feel the experience of blackness from a perspective that they may not have before. So many of us who stayed inside for such a long period of time had to dig into our shadows. I had the opportunity to mourn with the Black community globally, and show more vulnerability than I had before.

I see black vulnerability as a constant, active peeling-back of the idea that the world has of you. Black candidness is also vital: it allows the world to see our nuances, but most importantly it allows us to see each other and ourselves.

Australia has a specific set of problems, and we need to recognise that. I hope we can keep conversations centred around injustice while also contributing a story of tenderness – a story that includes reconciliation, healing and an opportunity to create space. We are not the first to express tenderness through the lens of Blackness. As a Black person you know the legacy that came before you, and your role in continuing it.

The artists that inspire me:

David Nana Opoku Ansah – Area Boys & Brotherhood (2020)Ansah has so much tenderness in these photos, and his work is so gentle and playful; it feels like you’re just a fly on the wall.

Zanele Muholi – Ntozakhe II (Parktown) (2016)There is just a gentle defiance here. Muholi uses a lot of symbolism through humble household things, like scours. It’s beautiful.

Sidney Poitier – The Measure Of A Man (2007)The most beautifully vulnerable, intimate autobiography. Poitier moves through the world like water; I try to bring that with me in the way that I practise and live.

Kalu Oji is an Australian filmmaker with Nigerian cultural roots.
Photograph: Carolina Sanchez

Kalu Oji is an award-winning Igbo-Australian filmmaker, writer and visual artist. His work primarily explores notions of identity, in particular the African-Australian experience. His most recent film The Moon and Me uses magical realism to explore the tenderness and uncertainty of growing up. It premiered at the Pan African Film festival in Los Angeles earlier this year.

Stand by Me was a big reference for The Moon and Me. I wanted to capture that moment in childhood when your world is just as big as your postcode and your friends. I wanted all the characters to be African, but to have it be very Australian as well. Working with children you have to be malleable; get to know them and understand their quirks and characteristics, and then figure out a way to bring out the most beautiful parts of them on screen.

I want people to be able to view my work in two ways: as an intricate analysis of the changing face of Australia, but also as purely enjoyable. I want African people watching to be able to feel, ‘That’s a sweet film with people who looked like me in it’. It’s a calm film, it’s meant to be kind of therapeutic.

Because of our history, so many of the films Black filmmakers make can be tough to watch. Often they explore extreme hardship – so when you are making work that is tender and more nuanced it can be seen as inauthentic. It can also intimidate people, because it’s a side of black life that people aren’t used to seeing.

Growing up, everything I looked to as an example of what it means to be an African-Australian man came from overseas. I think we’re in a very pivotal moment where we’re starting to forge our own identity and to tell our own stories. Whenever I make work I’m thinking, how would my younger self have received this? What would have changed about my life, and my perspective of myself? I grew up in Australia in an environment where I wasn’t proud of my African side – and to be vulnerable on top of that was a big no-no. I hope that the next person growing up in my circumstances won’t have to have those same feelings.

The artists that inspire me:


Ivy Mutuku – Practicing My Serve (2019)Mutuku captures such intimacy in her portraits. She’s able to connect with subjects through the lens in a very unique way.

Akwaeke Emezi – The Death of Vivek Oji (2020)I love Emezi’s ability to capture the everyday and make it extraordinary.

Logan Jackson – My Hero (2020)It’s not the textbook definition of tender, but Jackson tells a story with barefaced honesty. There’s nothing put on it to make it look pretty. There is such a beauty in that.

Jacob Boehme’s performance art piece Blood on the Dance Floor.
Photograph: Bryony Jackson


Jacob Boehme is a Melbourne-based theatre-maker, artistic director and choreographer of the Narangga and Kaurna nations, South Australia. His critically acclaimed work Blood on the Dance Floor is an electrifying and intimate journey through rarely explored territory; alone on stage, he blends storytelling, projection and movement to pay homage to the ceremonies of his ancestors whilst dissecting the politics of his gay, Black and HIV positive identities.

In this work, I stand in front of a whole room of people at my most vulnerable – at one point I’m not saying anything, completely exposed. That could go many ways, but more often than not it induces empathy, kindness and love from the audience rather than any kind of embarrassment, shame or disgust.

When I began making this work in 2013, there were a few significant dates approaching: the 30th anniversary of the first HIV case in Australia, the 15-year anniversary of my being HIV positive, and I was also turning 40. I thought, ‘Before you get any older, you’d better write that show that you always wanted to do’. My father passed away soon after. The family history that started to come out following his death was hugely influential in how I looked at this story. It’s about my blood, but it’s also about what we inherit. I wanted to incorporate the Indigenous storytelling methodologies that we have had in this country for 1,000s of years; that was the lens that I placed over the entire work.

To do work like this, I needed the right people around me: people of exceptional practice who would also be able to hold me in a very raw and vulnerable space. We needed the audience to feel that they were being held too. You can’t take them into the depths of trauma and darkness if they don’t feel safe enough. One really easy way to do that is through comedy. It’s something that we use in our community all the time. Who knows whether that’s inherent, or a response to the trauma of colonisation; it’s there, and it’s wonderful.

There is a lot more space for Black art now, but the cynic in me asks, have the power structures changed? Having a bunch of white people at the top creating the programs risks [us] becoming a new human zoo. We can tell all the stories we want and they can be as tender, as violent and as funny as whatever – but what will we achieve if something deeper systemically does not shift? So while we do take opportunities to take up more space, it is incumbent upon us to look at why we’re doing it and what we are leaving behind for two, three, seven generations to come.

The artists that inspire me:

Devi Telfer – Song Revisited (2021): This was the most powerful storytelling I have seen in a really long time. A woman being completely vulnerable; theatre without bells or whistles, that’s all about story.

Elaine Crombie – Janet’s Vagrant Love (2021)This is about a mother and her love for her sons, and her love for herself, told through really honest, open storytelling, comedy, and song. Such vulnerability and tenderness on stage.

Maria Randall – Divercity (2017): Divercity touches on the experience of growing up in cities to which we don’t belong, while yearning or the country we belong to. It’s just beautiful.