LYN DI CIERO
♦ Megan Cope, Lily Eather, Gordon Hookey and Vernon Ah Kee, members of proppaNOW at John Curtin Gallery. Photo Lyn DiCiero.
John Curtin Gallery has marked its 25th anniversary, and longstanding partnership with Perth Festival with an exceptional exhibition, However vast the darkness. Comprised of three interconnected projects, the show offers a powerful reflection on inequities wrought by empire building. Works include Bow Echo, a five channel video installation by Afghani artist Aziz Hazara which premiered at the 2020 Sydney Biennale, the cinematic masterpiece in Pursuit of Venus (infected), 2015-2017, by New Zealand’s Lisa Reihana, a stand out at the Venice Biennale in 2017, subsequently shown at John Curtin Gallery in 2018, and returning this year, and OCURRENT AFFAIR by proppaNOW, one of Australia’s leading collectives whose members include Vernon Ah Kee, Tony Albert, Richard Bell, Megan Cope, Jennifer Herd, Gordon Hookey and the late Laurie Nilsen. The Brisbane-based Indigenous group received global recognition for the exhibition last year as recipients of the prestigious 2022-2024 Jane Lombard Prize for Art and Social Justice from The New School Vera List Center for Art and Politics in New York. John Curtin Gallery is the first of a national tour of seven venues for OCURRENT AFFAIR, first shown at the University of Queensland Art Museum in 2021.
John Curtin Gallery Director, Chris Malcolm, says when he first saw Bow Echo at the Sydney Biennale in 2020 he knew he had to bring it to Perth. “It was one of the most striking works at the Biennale,” he says. The poignant work, inspired by personal experience of horrific suicide bombs in Kabul, depicts young Afghan boys perched on a storm swept mountain top in howling winds announcing the urgency of their community’s plight, which includes the murder of children.
Malcolm says in Pursuit of Venus (infected) by Lisa Reihana is one of his all-time favourite exhibitions at John Curtin Gallery over the last 25 years. “It is rare for a work to attract universal praise, so I am very happy Perth audiences will have the opportunity to again experience one of the most stunning artworks produced by any artist the world over in recent years.” Lasting 64 minutes, the work reimagines the French scenic wallpaper Les Sauvages De La Mer Pacifique, 1804-1805, also known as ‘Captain Cook’s voyages,’ and employs 21st century digital technology to reconsider the wallpaper from a Pacific perspective, at the same time redressing inaccuracies and cultural misrepresentation rife through popularised imagery following Cook’s Pacific voyages in the late 18th century.
Several members of proppaNOW, first established in 2004, were in Perth for the exhibition, their activist messages more powerful in numbers and diversity of approaches. Megan Cope said the advantage of exhibiting together is the support network of being able to lean on, and talk to, each other. “And empower each other,” she says. “I think that’s always been the purpose of proppaNOW. We need to get together occasionally to create a discourse and dialogue on particular subjects that need to be addressed by Australia.”
Her work in the show includes Bated Breath, a term first mentioned in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, comprising 1300 chrome plated ceramic fish spiralling downwards towards a mirrored reflection, representing the mass allure of social media streams. Another, Dead wood, imagines First Nations people as landlords of their country, in Cope’s case, North Stradbroke Island. The ‘report,’ on rice paper glued to paperbark with beeswax, is divided into waterways, trees and animals, listing their catastrophic and destructive downfall since white invasion.
Vernon Ah Kee’s Scratch the surface consists of 12 riot shields hung in a group, their clear surfaces scratched and smeared with charcoal. “It’s the same drawing action I use in my portraits,” he says, “so there’s a self-portrait element to all my artwork.” In the group of the police shields I notice one of them is upside down. “In a sense I’m hanging these police by their feet in the most shocking way I can think of,” he says.
Gordon Hookey favours twists in text on banners to literally implant his messages of inequity on audiences. “It’s about telling people where we’re coming from, our perspective of politics and what we feel,” he says.
The newest member of the group is Lily Eather, daughter of the late Laurie Nilsen, who is now studying art history and will take care of admin for the group. “This was the last exhibition he was involved in,” says Ah Kee. “We missed him immediately, but with Lily involved she adds her own thoughts and ideas about her Dad, and we all feel pretty good about that.”
However vast the darkness is on show at John Curtin Gallery until 16 April.
♦ Dead wood, 2021, paperbark, rice paper, bees wax, ink. Installation view, OCCURRENT AFFAIR, UQ Art Museum, 2021. Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Photo Carl Warner.
♦ Bow Echo, 2019, still, by Aziz Hazara. Image courtesy the artist.
♦ in Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015-17, still, ultra HD video, 5.1 sound, 64:00, by Lisa Reihana in However vast the darkness at John Curtin Gallery as part of the Perth Festival.
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