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Bindi Cole, Wathaurung artist and photographer, was born in 1975 in Melbourne. An only child, she was raised by her mother, Vicki Reynolds, in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda, close to Luna Park. Cole’s mother and maternal grandmother also grew up in St Kilda, and the suburb and its community have often been a source of inspiration for her work. Cole became aware of her Aboriginal heritage in her youth, during a period of time when she couldn’t live with her mother and stayed with her paternal grandmother: “I learnt that I was Aboriginal, that my nan had been part of the Stolen Generations and that we belonged to a mob called Wathaurung” (Next Wave Festival website, Cole 2008). Cole left school when she was sixteen, the same year that her mother died. She spent her early adulthood working in a range of jobs and travelling before deciding, at the age of twenty-six, to pursue her long-standing love of photography. As a child Cole had been fascinated by the photographic practice of a neighbour, Mary, who lived in the same block of flats in St Kilda. Mary sometimes took photos of Vicki, who was a dancer, and had set up a darkroom in a small shed behind the flat complex to develop her photographs. It wasn’t long before Cole began to take and develop her own photographs: “When I was a teenager and old enough to own my own camera, my mum bought me one, as well as developing tanks, chemicals, a black out bag and the other items required for me to develop films at home. I took photographs of my friends and my environment, then sat in my bedroom and processed my first rolls of black and white film” (Next Wave Festival website, Cole 2008).
Having made the decision to return to photography in her 20s, Cole worked to further her understanding of darkroom printing techniques under the guidance of Melbourne-based photographer Ponch Hawkes. In 2002, Hawkes helped Cole to put together a folio of photographic works to gain entrance to the North Melbourne Institute of TAFE, and in 2004 she completed a Diploma in Applied Photography. In 2005 she collaborated with Elizabeth Clancy and Kylie-Rose Douglas to create the exhibition 'Same Place, Different Face’, which encompassed a film and photographic series that share the same title. The exhibition documented the changing character of St Kilda, and was displayed during the St Kilda festival of that year. In 2007 she staged her first solo exhibition, 'Heart Strong’, at the Koorie Heritage Trust in Melbourne. A portrait of her father, Bryon Powell, which was part of this exhibition, was shortlisted for the 2007 William and Winifred Bowness Photography Prize.
Cole has developed an eclectic methodology encompassing painting, collage, text, weaving, film, performance, soundscapes and projections. She enjoys bringing a range of media together, and tries to include a substantial hand-worked element in all her works (Cole & Browning 2009). Besides Hawkes, she has been influenced by the practice of Sue Ford and Brook Andrew. For Cole, the depth of Ford’s career as a female artist photographer has been a source of inspiration, while Andrew opened her eyes to what she could aspire to as an Indigenous artist, and how it was possible to bring multiple media into conversation in one’s work (Cole, pers. comm. 2009). Cole has also been mentored by the writer and artistic director Donna Jackson, who in the past had worked with Cole’s mother, Vicki, a writer of plays and short stories.
Cole works with a range of manual and digital cameras, and all of her images are resolved with some degree of digital manipulation using programs such as Photoshop and Illustrator. For her 2008 solo exhibition 'Post Us’ at Boscia Galleries, Cole storyboarded the images, sourced costumes, props and models and shot the series in a studio on medium format film. Having processed and scanned the film, Cole then undertook a labour-intensive digital manipulation process using Photoshop, whereby the figures were cut out from the studio backgrounds and assimilated with backdrops which Cole had hand painted and photographed. Cole also created a soundscape to accompany these works in the exhibition space.
Cole’s choice of subject and her portrayal of them are always underpinned by some kind of social commentary and critique. Her works seek to draw attention to the way the category of Aboriginality, as it is constructed and policed by non-Indigenous Australians, circumscribes the variety of experiences that constitute contemporary Aboriginal Australian identity. A number of her recent works have explored controversial themes and individuals. Her portrait of the Aboriginal boxer Anthony Mundine, Do you like what you see (2007), received the Boscia Galleries Award for Photography at the 2007 Victorian Indigenous Art Awards. This work was inspired by the fact that The Daily Telegraph had refused to cover one of the boxer’s super-middleweight title fights that was taking place in Australia, as punishment for comments he had made about the prevalence of discrimination against Aboriginal sportsmen (Media Watch 2007). By presenting Mundine as self-absorbed and vulnerable, Cole’s image offered a counterpoint to his abrasive and outspoken public persona. Another portrait of Mundine, titled Nothing to Hide was shortlisted for the National Photographic Portrait Prize in 2007. In How to be a Domestic Goddess (2008), “Foxy”, an Aboriginal drag queen, stands in her glistening kitchen looking out the window. This work was shortlisted for the 2008 Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards and the 2008 Victorian Indigenous Art Awards.
In 2008 Cole was commissioned by the Unity Foundation to produce a calendar titled Men in Black, consisting of photographic portraits of male Aboriginal sports stars. The calendar sought to contribute to the reappraisal of black masculinity in Australia, and sought to raise funds for the Foundation, which is a not-for-profit organisation devoted to assisting marginalised Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to achieve success and wellbeing through social programs, events, mentoring and education. Such objectives resonate with Cole’s own ideals: at the core of her sense of purpose as an artist is a desire to instill pride amongst members of the Aboriginal community, and to create positive images of Aboriginal people that can counteract the negative portrayals that she feels are prevalent in the Australian media (Cole & Browning 2009).
2008 also saw Cole exhibit a series of works titled Not Really Aboriginal in a solo exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne as part of the 2008 Next Wave Festival. Not Really Aboriginal commented on the contestation of light-skinned, urban-based Aboriginal people’s identity, a contestation familiar to Cole herself:
“I’ve always been told that I was Aboriginal. I never questioned it because of the colour of my skin or where I lived. My Nan, part of the Stolen Generation, was staunchly proud and strong. She made me feel the same way. My land takes in Ballarat, Geelong and Werribee and extends west past Cressy to Derrinallum… All the descendants of traditional Victorian Aboriginal people are now of mixed heritage. I’m not black. I’m not from a remote community. Does that mean I’m not really Aboriginal?” (Cole in CCP 2008).
The series includes portraits and family scenes in which the subjects’ faces are blackened with minstrel paint. While she was formulating her ideas on how to approach the subject of being a light-skinned Aboriginal person, Cole learnt that a Melbourne costume shop stocked tins of Minstrel Black and Negro Brown pancake make-up, imported from New York. As Cole related to Daniel Browning on ABC Radio’s Awaye program, she was compelled to work with 'blackface’ because: “I had to take that old stereotype, or that old racist visual cue and flip it on its head” (Cole & Browning 2009). In the work Wathaurung Mob (2008), Cole and her relatives are arranged as a family group and have adopted serious, almost regal poses. The understated clothing and interior creates an impression of benign domesticity, however this homeliness is offset by the impact of the painted faces, the red bandannas and the way the subjects hold the viewer’s gaze. This work, among others, was included in the exhibition 'Inheritance’, shown at the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney (2009). Three works from the Not Really Aboriginal series were acquired by the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 2008.
In 2008 Cole produced a series of collaborative works with Aboriginal sculptor Lorraine Connelly-Northey for the exhibition 'A Time Like This’ at the Margaret Lawrence Gallery of the Victorian College of the Arts. 'A Time Like This’ commemorated a century of women’s suffrage in Victoria, and this series, which was acquired by the Koori Heritage Trust, took the historical objectification and control of Aboriginal women as its theme. In designing the works, Cole and Connelly-Northey collaborated with the Koori artist and writer Jirra Lulla Harvey. Harvey is a close creative associate of Cole’s; she curated and wrote the exhibition essay for 'A Time Like This’, and in 2009 Cole and Harvey were working together on a project involving the transsexual/transgender community on the Tiwi Islands.
Besides St Kilda, Cole has also lived in Newport and in 2009 was living in Altona North, which is on the shores of Port Phillip Bay just west of Melbourne. Alongside her art practice, she works as a freelance photographer for community events, and within the arts and music industry.