Your middle c is not my middle c
The most vital contemporary art reflects the ever-shifting state of who we are, where we have come from, and what we want to talk about. The National 4: Australian Art Now is an exhibition of kaleidoscopic perspectives across four major Sydney institutions that addresses this moment in time. The National was initiated in 2017 as a series of biennial exhibitions presenting work made from and for an Australian context. (1) Since the third iteration in 2021, Australia crawled through two years of pandemic life. As much as we may want uncomfortable memories of COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns to dissolve into recent history, the reality is that for many artists the last two years have been an isolating and difficult experience – not an ideal opportunity to disappear into the studio and make new work. In many cases, the other work artists relied upon (to pay for being an artist) all but disappeared. Exhibitions were cancelled, postponed, or closed upon opening. Borders were shut. While borders and doors are thankfully open again, the intense dislocation of the pandemic continues to reverberate in ways that we are only starting to talk about.
The National 4 in the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ (AGNSW) historic building, and for the first time at the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills, presents several site-specific commissions and responses by artists that encourage new conversations about the architecture, history, and collections of our cultural institutions. The Art Gallery also presents works by artists that have been made over the last two years, or others belonging to series that may have been developed over several years. There is a strong element of self-identity explored through storytelling in the works selected: a multitude of voices and landscapes that unpick history as well as art history to encourage alternative viewpoints. There is a concentration of artists whose work refers to the role of women as practitioners, teachers, warriors, subjects, mothers, matriarchs, collaborators, and holders of knowledge. There are also moments of activism, transgression, and rupture, deliberate contraventions of message and materials in artistic practice.
In 1890, New South Wales Government Architect Walter Liberty Vernon was briefed to make his design for the new Art Gallery building ‘as strictly classical as possible,’ (2) and the vestibule space at the entrance to the Art Gallery reflects this brief. Consisting of two central bays with Ionic columns made from polished Kempsey marble, semi-glazed domes, niches for sculpture, and ornate tiled floors, the natural materials, symmetry, and craftsmanship of the vestibule command a quietening of the mind. In response to this space, Nabilah Nordin’s site-specific sculptural installation Corinthian Clump (2023) presents as the punk-rock cousin of classicism. The work draws from Nordin’s existing sculptural inventory and approach to making, which embraces a no-holds-barred takedown of the authority of formalism. The result is brightly coloured forms that appear precariously structured, a layered mix of elaborate rubble and parody, and a fitting transition from the gloom of lockdown and social isolation.
The expansive Kaldor Hall on the ground level of the original south building is a natural meeting place, and the entrance point for the Art Gallery’s collection in the historic Grand Courts and 20th century galleries. Occupying the southern wall of this Hall, interrupted only by the arched entrances to the Grand Courts, are 45 large-scale photographic prints from the Gurindji/Malngin/Mudpurra artist Brenda L. Croft’s series Naabami (thou shall/will see): Barangaroo (army of me) (2019–22). These are the faces of First Nations girls and women from New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, photographed by Croft using an historic wet plate collodion process previously employed by colonial ethnographic photographers documenting the First Nations people of this country. Croft’s army of contemporary female warriors cannot be avoided, their gaze extending over the Hall and commanding an enduring presence.
Works by Abdul Abdullah, Pierre Mukeba and Glen Mackie are also located in the Kaldor Hall and collectively propose a diversity of histories and peoples inherent to the makeup of this country. Five new paintings from Abdullah’s ongoing landscape and seascape series are shown outside the 20th century galleries. These painstakingly painted landscapes present rocks anthropomorphised with emoji-style faces or punchy lines of text, an act of branding with simple emotional cues that transmits tensions between traditional and contemporary, analog and digital, representation and reality. Abdullah’s works are informed by his firsthand experience of the racial prejudice and Islamophobia that infected our public discourse post-9/11, deeming him an outsider within his own country. He pushes us to address our own moral compass. As one painting clearly states, ‘HAVE A THINK ABOUT IT.’
Mukeba has created a large-scale, intensely drawn and hand-sewn work on calico that has been suspended like a bedsheet from a clothesline. Mukeba’s art is diaristic, confessional, and urgent. Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he moved through refugee camps in Zambia and Zimbabwe with his mother and sisters before they were granted asylum to Australia and settled in Adelaide in 2006. Spirituality is an important element of his practice – his mother is a pastor in a Christian church – and Mukeba’s faith integrates Congolese mystical beliefs and Christianity. For The National 4, he has taken inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (c.1495–98), a High Renaissance masterpiece where Christ reveals to his apostles his knowledge of imminent betrayal. Having existed in perilous circumstances for a substantial period of his own life, Mukeba’s contemporary African take on this New Testament story sits firmly within his court, a raucous reflection on life in the face of an inevitable end.
The seafaring peoples of the Zenadth Kes/Torres Strait Islands have for millennia passed on their knowledge through song and story. In more recent decades, a new generation of artists including Mackie have taken to printmaking to depict the history and contemporary stories of the region. Birds, plants, and animals, the introduction of Christianity and the hazardous industry of pearl shelling, are mixed with personal accounts of ancestral totems and storylines. Mackie’s installation for The National 4 is a fascinating unfurling of his familial story. The protagonist is Edward ‘Yankee Ned’ Mosby, a Jewish–American sailor who deserted the American Civil War and settled in Zenadth Kes after marrying a local woman, Kudin. Together they raised four sons and a daughter, and Mosby became a prosperous owner of lugging ships used to gather pearl shell, trochus shell, and bêche-de-mer from the local waters. Mackie shares the rich layers of this story through intricate prints and sculptures that represent Yankee Ned’s seven pearl-shelling luggers and his family. Mackie is represented in the work by his totem, the hammerhead shark, and his own daughter is named after her Ancestral grandmother, a continuation of Kudin’s honour through art and life.
As we progress into the interior of the exhibition, works by Esther Stewart and Gerry Wedd encourage a closer reading of our local environments. The vernacular of Australian architecture and domestic interiors has been central to the work of Stewart for over a decade. For The National 4, Stewart has created one monumental painting, built from 12 separate panels, referencing a 1970s canary yellow and dark brown kitchen that the artist found and purchased through Facebook Marketplace. The paintings are hard-edged and modular, composed from a restricted palette and lexicon of forms, and they slide into a space once dominated by male painters including Frank Stella and Richard Diebenkorn. Stella’s painting in the collection of the Art Gallery, Khurasan Gate variation II (1970), an abstracted homage to Islamic art and architecture, was previously hung on the bulkhead where Stewart’s work is currently shown. Lyrical and tender, Stewart’s hand-rendered tiles, splashbacks, and cupboards affirm the validity of the interior as high art.
Ceramicist Wedd was taught to make pots by his mother in the family kitchen. A surfer who makes ceramics – or a ceramicist who likes to surf – Wedd’s blue-and-white wares are a personal homage to a life dedicated to the temperament of the natural world, and an obsession with the history of art and his chosen medium. Working from small-scale domestic ware to VR and public art, Wedd champions the role of ceramics as a tool for mass communication. Handmade in his Port Elliot studio, the 600-plus ceramics that form Where Are We Now? (Where are we now?) (2020-23) are a journey through popular culture and current events, incorporating lyrics from songs, poems, and references to images bookended by art history and Instagram. Wedd’s domestic objects inscribe this ephemeral information with an enduring life, creating contemporary relics for our uncertain future.
Through two years of pandemic living, many of us paid more attention than ever to our own lived environments. Wollongong-based Madeleine Kelly adapts a microscopic approach to her art, examining the complex exchange between nature and culture, bringing elements as disparate as her garden, the history of art, and the subconscious together. Her exquisite, sensory compositions suggest a web that supports a world we cannot see, a mysterious portal into a place where art is the explanation of science, and nature is the home of geometry, chemistry, and physics. Ever-present in Kelly’s art is the rumbling of modernity and the mechanical disruption of natural order and balance elicited by our extraction and depletion of the environment.
Alongside Kelly’s works is David Sequeira’s Song Cycle (2020–21), a partial installation of an ongoing project begun in 2015 that exemplifies the labour of making art as a meditation on time, ritual, and discipline. Over 300 gouache paintings on A4 sheets of music paper map the room, each of them an individual dedication by the artist to a specific feeling, person, place or experience. The works draw from the languages of Indian miniature painting, tantric painting, and geometric abstraction. Sequeira’s infinite variations are achieved through endless repetition, speaking to the poetry inherent in daily existence, and to the dignity of our individual experience.
As a resident of the remote community of Mimili, located in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in South Australia, Robert Fielding described the experience of the COVID-19 restrictions as a microcosm reflecting the nation at large. As in much of the country, the separation of families and communities heightened anxieties, with an inability to plan into the future shadowing daily life. Over this period in Mimili, Fielding embarked on a project that would produce an extraordinarily rich and resonant archive, a collection of women’s knowledge presented through milpatjunanyi, the practice of drawing in sand or on bodies to articulate Tjukurpa (Ancestral beliefs), or indeed the stories of today.
The video installation Milpatjunanyi (2022) presents these stories and voices simultaneously. This work is the heartbeat of the exhibition at the Art Gallery, projecting 180 pairs of hands from floor to ceiling across three of the gallery walls. These hands belong to the Aboriginal women of Mimili, matriarchs and keepers of information who pass on what can be shared. With choreographic poise, a length of wire is used to draw into the red sand. We do not see the faces of these women, but we hear their voices, speaking or singing in language, and we see the drawings they make in the sand with the wire. This wire is a length of galvanised steel once used to demark territory, collected from places in the vicinity of Mimili such as Antara, Sandy Bore, Everand Park, and Granite Downs – places that most Australians will never see with their own eyes.
The concept of seeing, of bearing witness, or being seen is paramount in Heather B. Swann’s sculptural installation Leda and the Swan (2018–23). Nature, history, philosophy, and literature are the conduits feeding much of Swann’s art, a practice that probes the physical and mental extremes of the human condition. Leda and the Swan is a contemporary wrestle with this ancient story’s aspects of sexual violence that have often been suppressed or ignored by artists in favour of a sensuous-erotic reading. The last two years have seen advocates inspire mass action in the fight against sexual abuse, including depictions in historical art. (3) This is a new wave in a long history of protest and resistance and here, Swann deals directly with the ongoing effort for women to stand our ground.
Picking up this idea for a new generation of artists is Natasha Walsh, whose body of work Hysteria (2023) goes beyond the call to stand one’s ground by demanding a renegotiation of the terms. At the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills, Walsh has set up her own studio for the duration of The National 4, and over this time will recreate iconic paintings by male artists where the emphasis of the new work is the agency of the sitter. Walsh’s dive into art history is an expansion of her research-based practice and illuminates her ability to probe the nuance and complexity inherent in all aspects of representation.
The power of representation through activism underlies the final sequence of works in this exhibition by Arrernte and Kalkadoon woman Thea Anamara Perkins and Kamilaroi man Reko Rennie. Perkins’ family history is synonymous with the pursuit of civil rights for the First Nations people of this country. The granddaughter of activist Charlie Perkins, daughter of former Art Gallery Senior Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Hetti Perkins, and niece of filmmaker Rachel Perkins, as a child Thea spent hours attending rallies and demonstrations in the public spaces of Sydney and beyond. As an artist, Thea trawls the family archive of photographs and ephemera seeking images that resonate strength, cultural determination, and the intimate bonds of family. For The National 4, she has brought together an important group of paintings from the last two years as well as several newly commissioned works. Like a family reunion of people and places, Perkins’ installation is a personal distillation of her family’s public story.
Rennie’s three-channel video installation What Do We Want? (2022) acknowledges his youth spent learning the disciplines of martial arts in suburban Melbourne. Tongue-in-cheek with a nod to 1970s Blaxploitation films, and searingly sober in its direct messaging, What Do We Want? is part conversation starter, part call to action for the constituents of this country. It is also a natural extension of Rennie’s longstanding artistic practice driven by political activism, with the acronym ‘OA’ (Original Aboriginal) embroidered on each student’s keikogi. Rennie has created a potent cross-cultural symbol that is very much at the core of what The National 4 addresses: an Australia that is culturally syncretic, with history that is ancient and a present that is constantly being made and remade. As we emerge from two difficult years of isolation and dislocation, these works help make sense of this place that is not as we left it – Australia we need to talk, and The National 4 is ready for a conversation.
(1) Blair French, Lisa Havilah, Anneke Jaspers, Nina Miall, and Wayne Tunnicliffe, ‘Curatorial Introduction’, The National, 2017, retrieved 5 November 2022, https://www.the-national.com.au/essays/curatorial-introduction/
(2) Art Gallery of New South Wales, ‘A temple to art, 1896–1909’, retrieved 20 August 2022, https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/about-us/ history/our-gallery-history/history-of-the- building/a-temple-to-art-1896-1909/
(3) Macushla Robinson, Every Rape in the Met Museum, in.ter.sti.tial press, Sydney and New York, 2022.