The Coe Gallery at The Vestibules, Our Stories, Our Journey

In July the Vestibules was proud to host The Coe Gallery’s stunning exhibition featuring paintings by Aboriginal artists, focusing on land and the natural world. The Coe gallery is the UK’s first Aboriginal owned and artist led gallery, founded and curated by Jasmine Coe, a Wiradjuri-British artist and daughter of Paul Coe. 

Artist Jasmine Coe standing in front of a large Native Australian artwork

Paul Coe is an activist and passionate proponent for Aboriginal land rights and was also the first Aboriginal person to study law at the University of NSW. He established the Aboriginal Legal Service and in 1979 took a case to the High Court of Australia challenging British sovereignty, he lost this battle but the case was a step forward for Aboriginal rights.

James Cook claimed the East coast of Australia for the British Crown in 1770, the principle used to claim the Aboriginal land was called terra nullius, latin meaning nobody’s land, meaning that Australia was judged to be empty. Violence followed as land was taken,  Indiginous men, women & children were massacred and European diseases and starvation claimed many lives. 

Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for over 60,000 years and have lived in harmony with the land. Instead of being owners of the land, they consider themselves custodians – care takers, carefully managing the land so as not to take too much, to stay in harmony with the natural world.

In 1976 Paul Coe & Cecil Patten travelled to England and planted an Aboriginal flag on Dover beach, ‘claiming’ England and challenging the Terra Nullius doctrine, Paul’s work helped to pave the way for the historic 1992 case of Mabo vs Queensland. 

This case directly challenged the acquisition of Aboriginal land under Terra Nullius and the High Court threw out the principle, meaning that Aboriginal titles over their land were recognised for the first time. However despite this there are many financial and legal barriers, the process is slow and there are still thousands of outstanding claims.

In recent years Bristol has seen the colonial narrative challenged, Jasmine Coe’s vision for the gallery is in “Contributing towards Aboriginal artists regaining control of their narrative and how their stories are told” [1]. Jasmine’s practice as an artist changed after connecting with her father in Australia after many years apart, she had the opportunity to connect with the land and learn more about her heritage. 

As a result of this her practice changed to reflect and embed what she had learnt and, as a Wiradjuri-British artist, acts as a way “of harmonising internal conflicts that arise from having two lines of heritage, which together hold a traumatic history” [1].  The exhibition was supported by Bridging Histories.

[1] THEBRISTOLMAG.CO.UK – July 2022 – Art of Connection Pg. 33

Note: The information in this blog is based upon the Coe Galleries supporting texts for the exhibition & part of an article taken from the National Museum of Australia.