Trotman Alfelluaggi: Against All Odds review – prophetic artwork confronts Australia’s colonial legacy

Trotman Alfelluaggi is a sculptor whose work focuses on his native Australia, its colonial history and its own conflicts with indigenous culture and identity.

At the Newcastle Art Gallery (May 7-11), the 40ft-high totem pole named Against All Odds was featured alongside a work called Has My Friend Died? – two towering human figures emerging from surrounding fauna, which here include giant echidnas, emus and herons. In the foreground is a large-scale human figure who, in many ways, seems to sense that he’s almost invisible in his cubicle in the centre of the installation.

A piece of public art whose name makes no sense – and will probably do so in at least two more languages by the time I’ve written this review – against what?

The six-person commissioning panel that commissioned this work also commissioned the coffin-like headdress ethereal Kaspar Kunstra – known as Tetouichax, and seen here posed beside an icon of Aboriginal beauty in the form of an eagle – wore as he processed through the city on his way to his coronation as King of the Broken Bay throne.

Captured by Ausparov Achimkulnacha in 1968. Photograph: Robert Haggerty/National Portrait Gallery

Kunstra was responsible for the famed “grape leaves” hanging from his robes as he approached the crown, commemorating – or at least attempting to commemorate – the moment when Maori, Fijian and Polynesian peoples – as well as Australian Aborigines – arrived on the shores of Torres Strait to face mass oppression and dispossession.

The panels on display during his tour of Australia caused a stir, and Kunstra became a figure of controversy – riven by rumours that he had shed blood on the job.

Kunstra forged an artistic identity that resulted in a personal life marked by substance abuse, four marriages, three young sons and extensive estrangement from them. His third marriage, a life-long affair, ended in 2001. Kunstra died in a car crash in 2003.

See his crown and totem poles above, and the rest of his sculptures on show at the Newcastle Art Gallery.

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