Look again: the artist reinventing Australian money for postcolonial payback

That Ryan Presley’s ‘blood money’ is worth more than real currency is apt: Australia’s wealth came at the expense of Indigenous lives

At the foot of the stairs in the foyer of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, a teller with a cheery smile hands me a banknote. At first glance it looks like any other Australian $10 note: on one side, there’s a portrait of a man wearing what looks like an Akubra. Men on horses gallop across the swirling blue and yellow backdrop.

But it’s not Banjo Paterson whose face peers out from under that hat. It’s the Gurindji activist and stockman Vincent Lingiari, who led the Wave Hill walk-off in 1966 – the strike for Aboriginal workers’ rights that became a critical moment in the land rights movement. And it’s not the lyrics from Waltzing Matilda scrolled across the image in tiny print, but the opening of the petition to Lord Casey from that historic event: “We, the leaders of the Gurindji people, write to you about our earnest desire to regain tenure of our tribal lands.”

The note is “blood money”, part of a work by the Alice Springs-born and Brisbane-based Marri Ngarr artist Ryan Presley. The Blood Money Currency Exchange Terminal is a new foray into installation for the visual artist and on show as part of Primavera, MCA’s annual exhibition for Australian artists aged 35 and under.

Ryan Presley’s Blood Money Currency Exchange Terminal in the foyer of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.
Ryan Presley’s Blood Money Currency Exchange Terminal in the foyer of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Photograph: Jacquie Manning

The currency booth, right inside the MCA’s glass front doors, looks so much like the real thing that patrons disembarking from cruise ships moored at the quay outside are perplexed to find they can’t buy legal tender there.

But in return for your very real dollars, the teller – a performer – will hand over a piece of blood money for you to keep. Exchange rates advertised in the window tell you how much the $10, $20, $50 and $100 blood money dollar notes are worth in Australian currency. These change daily.

On the day I visit, one Australian dollar will buy me $0.56 in blood money. Participants often get miffed, Presley says, when they find out that the exchange rate comes out in blood money’s favour: “They don’t want it to be worth more than Australian money. It has to be equal, but not better!”

Ryan Presley
Ryan Presley: ‘The rate’s always higher than Australian currency. It’s at least as much as the pound.’ Photograph: Jacquie Manning

It’s an odd reflex that even when audience members know they are really buying a limited edition print of Presley’s paintings, and that all the money collected through the installation will go to charities in Sydney and Alice Springs that work with Aboriginal young people, they instinctively treat the transaction as if they were purchasing real currency. I’m not immune: I put the blood money, along with the purchase receipt, in my wallet. Later, on my way back to the office, I confuse it with a real $10 note and almost try to exchange it for a sandwich.

“The rate’s always higher than Australian currency,” says Presley. “It’s at least as much as the pound. That’s what a lot of colonialism was: extraction of assets, extraction of resources.”

Trade was “the beating heart of the British empire”, and trade was about money. Australia’s wealth came at the expense of Indigenous people’s lives; the bristling audiences feel at being shortchanged is a mere shadow in the face of that injustice.

The paintings, which Presley began in 2009, are meticulous and impossibly detailed watercolours of a scale far larger than the wallet-sized prints. Four are on display upstairs in the gallery, with other works from the Primavera exhibition.

A Blood Money Infinite Dollar Note by Ryan Presley featuring Bembulwoyan, commonly known as Pemulwuy.
A Blood Money Infinite Dollar Note (2018) by Ryan Presley featuring Bembulwoyan, commonly known as Pemulwuy. Photograph: Ryan Presley/Supplied: MCA

There are obvious sticky legal implications that come with the process of replicating legal tender, even in an artistic project. Presley sought advice to help navigate this, following the RBA’s guidelines on banknote reproduction and spending time in the Reserve Bank of Australia museum and archives.

He also looked at the iconography used on Australian money, and at the figureheads valorised by their appearance on banknotes. The image of the woman on the reverse of the real $10 note, Dame Mary Gilmore, for example, surprised him – particularly her poetry, also printed on the note: “No foe shall gather our harvest or sit on our stockyard rail.”

“I thought that was an interesting phrase to have on the note for a settler-colonial country,” says Presley. “It’s a bit hypocritical.”

He’s replaced Gilmore with the poet and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal. Each painting and blood money note features a different Indigenous figure of resistance: “People who fought long and violent conflicts against colonial encroachment and they’ve been essentially ignored.” Blood money is also heavier and thicker than actual currency, though with an eerily similar texture and scent. On the paintings upstairs, dollar values are replaced by the infinity symbol, a gesture to the ongoing and unquantifiable damage wrought by colonialism. In place of a clear plastic window on the note I bought, there is a raised fist.

The result is a work that not only critiques the brutal exploitation of Indigenous people under colonialism but also draws into sharp relief the relationship between the movement of capital and the colonial project.

It’s important, then, that the work has a material effect. In the first two days the exchange terminal had been open in Sydney it raised more than $6,000. Presley hopes to double that by the time it closes on 28 January: “It’s the pinnacle of my 10 years of work, really.”

Blood Money Currency Exchange Terminal by Ryan Presley runs until 28 January at the Circular Quay entrance to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. The performance is presented in association with Sydney Festival. Primavera runs at MCA until 3 February


Stephanie Convery

The GuardianTramp

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