From wildflower rooms to bush fire photography, The Botanical: Beauty and Peril at the Art Gallery of WA is an exhibition of duality, highlighting changing attitudes towards botanical life from the late 19th century until now. While early works present a vision of a romantic Arcadia – a life lived in harmony with nature, uncorrupted by civilisation, contemporary works carry a message of protest against lost environs and dwindling species. Drawn from the Janet Holmes à Court Collection and the State Art Collection, the major exhibition explores both the abundant beauty of the botanical world and the contentious threats assailing it.
Panoramic View of Albany (Kinjarling), The Place of Rain, by Sohan Ariel Hayes has been commissioned by the Janet Holmes à Court Collection, especially for the exhibition. The three-channel digital video reimagines Lieutenant Robert Dale’s 1830s watercolour, Panoramic View of King George Sound. Dale also produced a booklet to accompany the painting, documenting his travels in Australia. Holmes à Court Collection Exhibition Manager Laetitia Wilson says there’s a long section in the booklet where Dale justifies the execution and subsequent smoking of the head of Noongar tribesman, Yagan. “Dale took the head back to England and tried unsuccessfully to sell it. He ended up displaying the painting with the head on a number of occasions. The painting is essentially a real estate advertisement for Australia to encourage settlement, picturing harmonious relations with Aboriginal people, and tropical plants which were certainly not there at the time.”
In Hayes’ reimagined version, the sight and sound of flocks of Carnaby Cockatoos and weather elements such as thunder, and trees swayed by wind, bring the historic work to life. Distant fires and ships in the bay appear and disappear as the work moves by sections across Dale’s work. Wilson says Hayes travelled to Albany to meet with Stephen Hopper, a professor of biodiversity at the University of WA, and local Menang Noongar elder Lynette Knapp, as a part of his research in creating the work. “This was crucial consultation, and together they plotted out all the different points of significance for the Menang people in the painting. The result is a reinterpretation based on our current times of climate change, increasing fires and invasive species.”
Collection Registrar at the Janet Holmes à Court Collection Megan Schlipalius says the commission represents a new dialogue with historical works. “It shows they are not stagnant, but living, breathing, dynamic works.”
Elsewhere in the exhibition, a duality of attitude continues. Early wildflower depictions by Annie Dorrington and Margaret Forrest reflect a pure admiration for the botanical. A selection of printed silks, hanging in a circular formation, tell of an Indigenous connection to the natural world far beyond depiction – one imperative for survival and spiritual well-being. AGWA Curator of 19th Century Art and Manager of Collections Melissa Harpley says the silks created by women working in the Utopia community in Northern Territory, are an important part of the show’s conversation. “They represent plant-related dreaming like bush tomato dreaming and Grevillia dreaming, and also the Kurrajong seed. They have been included to remind people of the relationship Indigenous people have with the land and how it is managed, and how different it is to the European way. We have set them against early images of logging in the South West of WA, showing two very different approaches to land management.”
Harpley explains there are many works in the State Collection from the 1930s which focus on the South West. “There’s an interesting dynamic of artists celebrating the beauty of the Karri forest, but the same artists celebrating the logging of the forest in their work. From our perspective in 2019, you wonder how it sits comfortably with these early artists, but clearly, it did.”
Contemporary interpretations of the botanical in the show include Eva Fernandez’s Flora Obscura images paying homage to flora which existed in spaces cleared by early settlers, while Aboriginal artist Danie Mellor’s Paradise Garden (Different Country, Same Story) is a reminder of Australia’s dual and multiple histories.
Additional didactics with some of the works represent comments by students from City Beach Primary School. Janet Holmes à Court says it’s important children get the message our environment is being damaged. “We’re losing it by one means or another and that’s something to get across to everyone, but particularly school children. Young people today are very switched on. You only have to look at the AGWA Pulse exhibition by students to see they are very socially and politically engaged.”
Holmes à Court says the backdrop to her own childhood was the western edge of John Forrest National Park. She remembers her mother being obsessed with wildflowers. “The big rule in our family was you were not allowed to pick them, so if we went to other people’s houses and they had a jam jar full of dying Kangaroo Paws, we’d be horrified. Since then I’ve collected works over many decades which illustrate how dramatically the Arcadian paradise of Australia, often portrayed by artists, is imperilled by the actions of humans. The threat to our natural environment should alarm us all.”
The Botanical: Beauty and Peril continues at AGWA until 4 November. For details of the symposium, climate change discussions and family program visit www.artgallery.wa.gov.au