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NYU Sydney's Stephen Gilchrist: "Indigenous people have a lot to teach Australians"

photo: museum steps

NYU Sydney professor Stephen Gilchrist, from the Yamatji people of the Inggarda language group, has curated exhibitions in Australia and the United States, and has written extensively on Indigenous art from Australia. He is interested in Indigenous modes of curation as a form of social practice and cultural activism.

Gilchrist has worked with the Indigenous Australian collections of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, the British Museum, London, the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, and the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College. He is currently preparing an exhibition at Harvard Art Museums that will open in 2016.

NYU's Global Dimensions recently sat down with him to discuss this work.

What course do you teach at NYU Sydney and what are the academic backgrounds of the students who take it?

I teach an Indigenous art history course and I have students from a range of disciplines who all bring their different perspectives, which makes for a refreshing and energizing experience. The course focuses on Indigenous art from Australia, and specifically how it has been critically received and presented in art museums, but we often try to broaden the discussion to include global indigenous issues, especially those that affect Indigenous peoples of the Americas.

How did you come to study Indigenous art?

As an undergraduate in Perth, Western Australia, I was fortunate enough to get an internship at the state art gallery and I was completely hooked. My mother's family is Indigenous and art, music, and performance have always been a part of our lives -- this wasn't necessarily something that we went to museums to experience.

How do you think the study of Indigenous art helps foreign students to understand Australia?

I don't think you can fully relate to this place unless you understand the many histories and philosophies of Indigenous people. And with an estimated 50,000 years of residence on this continent, Indigenous people have a lot to teach Australians and visitors about living ethical lives within this environment.

Are you involved in the field beyond teaching for NYU?

For the last 10 years, I've been a curator of Indigenous art in Australia at the National Gallery of Australia and the National Gallery of Victoria. Following my master’s at NYU, I was invited to be the curator of the Indigenous Australian Collection at the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College. I was able to curate from this collection of more than 500 works, which was definitely a professional highlight for me. I am also working on an Indigenous art exhibition that will open at the Harvard Art Museum in 2016, so teaching Indigenous art to American students is helping me think of ways to engage American audiences with indigenous art.

What has been most rewarding about teaching NYU students?

It has been really great to see Indigenous art though the eyes of students who have never encountered it before, and I love hearing their thoughts and impressions. In Australia, Indigenous art has always been wrapped up in politics, but American students don't have any misplaced guilt about this, and I feel the conversations can be much more open and critically insightful. I love introducing people to Indigenous Australian art, but I also love seeing the students make historical, cultural, and philosophical connections to Indigenous people in North America, which I think is important.

As an NYU alum, how did your time at NYU influence your scholarship?

I graduated from the arts politics program at Tisch in 2011 and it completely reenergized me intellectually, culturally, and politically, and helped internationalize my outlook. Being in New York made me realize that my work could potentially help indigenize museums in Australia, and that I could be a part of both preserving cultural practices and reactivating them. My research interests became more definite and rigorous, which is obviously the great benefit that taking the time to study provides.


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