Half Light Retrospective

The exhibition of Art + Soul, Hetti Perkins’ dramatic new survey of Indigenous art and artists opened this weekend at the Art Gallery of New South Wales; the tripartite ABC documentary premiers Thursday night.  Intriguing reviews have already appeared in The Age (“Fluid face of art and soul,” October 2), The Australian (“Joining the dots,” October 2) and the Sydney Morning Herald (“Curator unveils a triple treat,” September 29), while even the Voice of America has reported on a re-enactment of the Gurrir Gurrir ceremony at the Art Gallery (“Rare dance showcases Indigenous art festival in Australia,” October 2).  I’ve begun to work my way through the extraordinary and extravagant catalog of the exhibition (MUP/Miegunyah Press, 2010), a hefty wonder full of glorious photography, expert essays, and substantive interviews with the artists themselves.

While I’m not yet ready to add my commentary to those listed above, I did spend the last week immersed in an earlier tour-de-force by Perkins.  It’s been almost two years since she mounted a very different retrospective at AGSNW, the stunning survey of contemporary Indigenous photography, Half Light: portraits from black Australia, which was on show from November 2008 through February 2009.  For that exhibition Perkins selected fifteen artists whose work spanned half a century.

Half Light catalog coverIn contrast to the wide-ranging scope of Art + Soul, Half Light was very intensely focused (no pun intended) not simply on photography but on portraiture.  Several of the artists in the roster (Vernon Ah Kee, Tony Albert, Brook Andrew, Richard Bell, Brenda Croft, Destiny Deacon, Christian Thompson) work in other media as well as photography.  In other cases, most notably Michael Riley, Perkins excluded famous examples like the cloud series.  In other cases, such as with documentarians Mervyn Bishop and Peter McKenzie, the line between reportage and portraiture may blur, but in the context of Half Light, the viewer is drawn to experience the people as much if not more than the event captured.

The excellent catalog for the show, in addition to reproducing over 150 photographs, includes interviews with each of the 15 artists, most conducted by Perkins herself in a gently unobtrusive manner.  Each interview opens, not with a question, but with a bit of exposition by the artist that sets the tone and direction for Perkins to follow.  Thus each artist is given the chance to set forth an individual agenda, to address personal concerns of style and subject, and to discuss what the medium offers to him or her.  What is remarkable is not only the breadth of vision that is so introduced, but the common themes that arise repeatedly in the course of the catalog’s pages.

One major theme that emerges from a reading of these remarks lays bare a linguistic relationship that I am rarely conscious of between the words portrait and portrayal.  The former, especially in an artistic context, tends to call to mind a visage or a likeness; the latter often connotes behavioral rather than figural concerns.  Yet it is clear that for the artists, these two words are inextricably linked, that for them to create a portrait in light is to capture much more than the visual aspect of an individual.  These portraits are meant to be revelations.  To explore another linguistic intuition, they are epiphanies, from the literal Greek etymology meaning to show forth, offering us a burst of insight.

A second leitmotif running through these artists’ commentary is that of the gaze.  This is a theme that was thoroughly examined in an academic investigation by Corinne A. Kratz, Eye Contact: photographing Indigenous Australians (Duke University Press, 2005), an extensive survey of photographic portraits of the inhabitants of Coranderrk Mission in the late nineteenth century.  In the works presented in Half Light, the response of the photographers is much more visceral that intellectual, and is perhaps best represented by Michael Riley’s series from 1985/86, one of which, his portrait of Tracey Moffett, adorns the cover of the catalog.  Direct and challenging, Moffett, like many others represented in the exhibition, appears to be the person in charge of the photographic event, even more so that the photographer.  After a century and more of being subjected to the gaze of invaders and explorers, missionaries and anthropologists, the Indigenous “subjects” of these Indigenous photographers turn their gazes back on the viewer.  In doing so, they assert an identity and an independence from the colonizing stare.  (There is much delightful irony in this cover portrait of the “blue-eyed” Moffett, whose work is conspicuously absent from Half Light, perhaps because she refuses to be constrained to an Indigenous identity as an artist.)

Closely allied to the motif of the gaze is the need to reclaim the past.  This is most obvious in the works of Genevieve Grieves, in whose reconstructions and reinterpretations of nineteenth-century tableaux the gaze is what separates the defeated from the defiant.  For Brook Andrew, making art out of early photographs of Indigenous people is a way of restoring personality and individuality–of making portraits from what had been intended merely as representations of a type, exemplars of a vanishing race.  For Andrew, these 19th century Aborigines are among “the disappeared” and resonate with other documentary projects the artist has undertaken with dispersed minorities around the world.

For many of us the word “photograph” will be instantly, even unconsciously, paired with “family.”  And so it is with many of the artists in this show.  Family members are celebrated in the works of Riley and Croft, Tony Albert, and Ricky Maynard.  They are actors in the dramas staged by Destiny Deacon and Dianne Jones.  For Vernon Ah Kee, photos of his ancestors are the source and reference material for works in other media.

As much as Half Light brings forth these areas of common cause, it also reveals the individuality and personality of the artists themselves.  Vernon Ah Kee’s discourse is, as always, articulate and eloquent, the voice of an intellectual.  Tony Albert comes across as enthusiastic and awed, a young man who can’t quite believe the luck that has brought him to proppaNOW!’s mentorship.  Richard Bell is a serious comedian who has the best single line in the catalog when he expresses his contempt for the appropriation of Aboriginal art by Jacques Chirac and his Parisian “Musée du Crème Brulée.”  For the artist r e a the act of photography is a practice of self-discovery; for Darren Siwes it is a technical and aesthetic challenge tempered by intuition.

The work of a number of these artists (Richard Bell, Mervyn Bishop, Brenda Croft, Ricky Maynard, and Michael Riley) re-appears in Art + Soul.  It will be fascinating to see them amidst more traditional practitioners as well as alongside other urban-educated contemporary artists in other media.

The AGNSW website devoted to Half Light offers a quartet of interviews (also available on YouTube) from a panel discussion held at the gallery on November 22, 2008.  In addition to Vernon Ah Kee (below), panelists arrayed in front of a selection from Darren Siwes’s 2001 series Mis/Perceptions include Richard Bell, Destiny Deacon, and Dianne Jones.

I’ve long been fascinated by these photographers; indeed, one of my first posts on the blog five years ago was a rumination on two works from Siwes’s Mis/Perceptions.  Other posts over the years have looked at the work of Destiny Deacon, Christian Thompson (“Games in the Hood,”  March 29, 2008), along with Fiona Foley and later series by Siwes (“Living Stories,” May 17, 2008).  Taking this retrospective look at Half Light has been both a refreshing glance backward at Perkins’ accomplishments as a curator and a tantalizing promise of the delights to come in Art + Soul.

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