Negotiating the cross currents with Glenn Barry

It’s been a strange road to his craft for Gold Coast Indigenous artist Glenn Barry — one that coincided with an extremely personal journey.

In 1997, Glenn was a chef who was looking for career change, and had no idea about his Indigenous heritage. His search for new training led him to Coolangatta TAFE.

“I met Aunty Joyce Summers there,” Glenn recalls.

“They had a literacy and numeracy program, and part of it was doing art. I didn’t do art in high school: I didn’t think I was an artist on any level.

“It was extraordinary. [Joyce] picked my Aboriginal heritage that even my family said nothing about. It was very cathartic. Three months later my grandfather passed away and we found out the truth, and I’ve been in Aboriginal education and Aboriginal art ever since. It’s like I walked through that door and came home.”

Glenn’s catharsis put many pieces into place for him. One was his habit, since childhood, of scribbling diamond patterns on everything. ‘Scar trees’ are trees which have had bark removed by Aboriginal Australians for the purposes of creating bark canoes, shields or shelter, frequently in diamond patterns. Indigenous artistic carvings in trees (also often in diamond patterns) are referred to as dendroglyphs, although the two terms can be used synonymously.

“It’s like finding out you’re an Egyptian and have been building pyramids all your life,” laughs Glenn.

'I can see all of me and some of you, 2017' Glenn Barry

‘I can see all of me and some of you, 2017’ Glenn Barry

Diamond patterns and dendroglyphs have featured heavily in Glenn’s work since, including for SWELL Sculpture Festival, in his piece ‘I Can See All Of Me and Some Of You’. The wooden panels are carved in diamond patterns and placed on rotating steel poles. The panels then reveal hidden meanings when the patterns line up in specific ways. The idea came to Glenn in a dream.

“I woke up and drew it and I put the proposal in to SWELL and we met afterwards… they said it looked like a painting the way I drew it, and said if I did it in three sides it’d have more sculptural appeal, and that’s what I ended up doing. So that’s why it’s got three sides.”

Glenn’s most recent piece is currently showing at Cross Currents: from island to mainland, an exhibition which showcases and celebrates work by emerging Indigenous artists who have participated in the Stradbroke Island Indigenous Art Camp. This was Glenn’s third year attending the Straddie camp. He discusses his experience.

“I’ve found it’s a place to generate and consider the new possibilities of my art and sort of stop the rest of the world so I can go ‘this is what I’m doing this whole week.’

“The chance to invest into first nations art with high level practitioners like Brian Robinson and Judy Watson has been exceptional. I think the first year I went I became self-conscious that I was not like everybody else and was thinking ‘what is my signature, what is my style’ and the word permission came to mind. I gave myself permission to do what I want to do. A lot of the time I do things that are like automatic writing, automatic art, I don’t have a plan they just happen.”

'2 ways of initiation, 2017' - Glenn Barry

‘2 ways of initiation – from the scarred to the sacred, 2017’ – Glenn Barry

Glenn’s Cross Currents piece: ‘2 Ways of Initiation – From the Scarred to the Sacred, 2017’, unsurprisingly comes back to dendroglyphs.

“[There are] lots of ghost gums, fallen trees at South Stradbroke,” he explains.

“So I started collecting sticks… coming back to my diamond-shaped patterns.  [The piece] is about three metres wide and about three metres high — one side is white and one side is black. We talk about spirit in the binary: black or white; Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal; day or night. It’s all versions of how I see my environment, and it all comes back to identity. You know Glenn in Irish means ‘the valley’ so I can see both sides all the time, I’m not stuck on one or the other.”

Glenn may not have come into the practice later in life, but after twenty years of discovery he’s certainly developed a style and philosophy of his own.

“It’s the concept that I’m sharing as well as the aesthetic. I don’t just wanna do art for the sake of ‘oh it looks beautiful but what does it mean’. I like to propose opportunities for people to ask the question, not to necessarily have the answer.”

Cross Currents: from island to mainland is a free exhibition and runs at the Gold Coast City Gallery until 5 November.

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