In 2018 the Art Gallery of Western Australia chose to opt out of the Perth Festival. This year AGWA has made an impressive comeback with Desert River Sea: Portraits of the Kimberley – the stand-out event in the 2019 visual arts program. It’s an exhibition that has been six years in the making, and the slow build-up has been completely justified. Curators Carly Lane and Emilia Galatis have worked closely with the local communities to bring us a view of the Kimberley that will overturn many preconceived ideas about the region.
Mention Kimberley art to most people and they think of the ochre paintings of Rover Thomas, Queenie McKenzie, and their peers, but the area is large and diverse enough to contain multitudes. The best-known painters are all represented in this selection, but the surprises come from artists such as Mervyn Street, whose Droving cattle in the Summertime (2018) is drawn and painted on a piece of cowhide, artfully shaved so as to leave the actual hair on the cattle.
John Prince Siddon’s My Last Muster (2018), also painted on hide, is as close as indigenous art gets to Surrealism: a bizarre image of the artist, fallen from his horse, in a landscape in which vegetation clambers hungrily over everything in sight. Siddon has painted the decorative border a vivid shade of yellow and even included a map showing where the accident occurred.
Among other amazingly original works there are animated videos created by established painters such as Mabel Juli and Peggy Patrick; glassworks by Helicopter Joey Tjungarrayi; bush clothes made from flour bags by Eva Nargoodah, and a spectacular pearl shell carving of the raindow serpent by Garry Sibosado.
Binyadanga artist, Daniel Walbidi (b.1983) is one of the most celebrated painters of his generation, but for this show he has made a brightly-coloured sand installation on the beach, and a video of the work being eaten away by the sea. In the context of this survey Walbidi’s willingness to innovate seems entirely characteristic of artists from the Kimberley. The same adventurous spirit is present in the works of his predecessors, it just needed a showcase like this to open our eyes.
Of all the arts festivals around Australia, Perth has the strongest commitment to the visual arts. Sydney curators, Felicity Fenner and Anne Loxley are hired as program co-ordinators, and Wesfarmers provides the sponsorship. There is even a giveway booklet filled with introductory essays.
As usual, the exhibitions include a mixture of Australian and international artists, although in the globalised world of culture it’s hard to know where to draw the line. The show, Refuge: Angelica Mesiti & Candice Breitz, at the John Curtin Gallery, features two multi-media artists. Mesiti, from Italian roots, will represent Australia in this year’s Venice Biennale, while South African, Breitz, has become a regular exhibitor on the Biennale circuit. Both artists address one of the seminal issues of our age: the plight of the refugee.
In Breitz’s double channel video, Love Story (2016), actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore mouth the narratives of six refugees from Africa, the Middle East and the subcontinent. Around the back of the installation we find six more screens, on which the refugees tell their own stories. Breitz blurs the lines between fiction and reality, making us realise how ready we are to be moved by a performance in a movie, while remaining resistant to the real dramas unfolding in so many parts of the world.
Mesiti’s Mother Tongue (2017) is a much gentler proposition, being a kind of anthology of communal song and dance in the Danish city of Aarhus. Many of the participants are refugees or immigrants resettled in Scandinavia. They hold on to their own cultural traditions while adapting to new ones. As in many of Mesiti’s works, music is posited as a universal language.
I’ve seen both of these installations before, but they lose nothing by repetition. There are also plenty of familiar components in Love, Displaced at the Lawrence Wilson Gallery. The show-stealer in this collection of seven large-scale projections, is Inverso Mundus (2015) by the Russian group, AES + F. I’ve viewed this piece in several different places, but it’s as bizarre and hypnotic as ever. Don’t ask me for a synopsis!
Of the other artists, including Jacobus Capone, Tracey Moffatt & Gary Hillberg, Christian Thompson, Jeremy Deller & Cecilia Bengolea, and Roee Rosen, the piece that stayed in my mind was Richard Lewer’s Never shall be forgotten (a mother’s story) (2017), a simple hand-drawn animation in black-and-white that tells the story of John Pat, a young indigenous man who died in police custody in 1983. Pat’s killers were acquitted in court and the incident has left a deep scar in race relations in W.A.
The cultural sliding continues at the Fremantle Arts Centre, with A Dark and Quiet Place, by David Noonan, an Australian multi-media artist based in London; and Idols, a ceramic exhibition by Renee So and Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, who both identify as Australian artists, although one was born in Hong Kong and the other in Sri Lanka. Noonan’s work is the most puzzling, being a slow, monochromatic video that brings together a lot of retro interior décor, and a series of equally oblique stills. It’s one of those shows that might seem profound to inveterate dope smokers.
Nithiyendran and So give us two contrasting forms of ‘idol’ – the former being wildly Dionysian and expressive, the latter being Apollonian, almost archaic in inspiration. I felt a twinge of pity for So because it can’t be easy to share a confined space with Nithiyendran’s over-the-top sculptures, but her compact, enigmatic figures and vessels hold their ground. It helps that the works are made of dark stoneware which doesn’t compete with her co-exhibitor’s flamboyant use of colour.
The Festival’s most confronting exhibition, at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, was Alchemic, by Cassils – a transgender performance artist from California who likes to be known as “they” rather than the more mundane ‘he’ or ‘she’. Visitors to Cassils’s performance at the beginning of the show were treated to the sight of the stark-naked, musclebound artist beating up a large lump of clay, while strobe lights flickered furiously. The audience was photographed and is now part of the show in a life-sized image that bends around the walls, revealing a full complement of stares and grimaces, and one well-known arts administrator with a hand clasped across both eyes.
Upstairs, in Lower Power, Marco Fusinato, another Australian artist of Italian origins, has blown up two huge newspaper photos of masked protestors throwing rocks. It’s a simple but effective gesture that leaves us wondering if the stone-throwers are political extremists or disempowered people lashing out against injustice. The point is that we could be sold either story by an ideologically motivated media outlet.
Curator of the Cassils and Fusinato shows, Eugenio Viola, is himself off to a new job in Bogota, which argues a willingness to stretch the boundaries in life as well as art. It puts to shame those artistic types in the West who keep applying for positions in Sydney and Mebourne.
Desert River Sea: Portraits of the Kimberley, Art Gallery of WA, until 27 May; Love Displaced, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, until 11 May; Cassils: Alchemic, (until 14 April) with Marco Fusinato: Lower Power (until 21 April), Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts; Refuge: Angelica Mesiti & Candice Breitz, John Curtin Gallery, until 18 April; Idols: Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran & Renee So, with David Noonan: A Dark and Quiet Place, Fremantle Arts Centre, until 31 March.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 2 March, 2019