The Australian national identity is complex and conflicted, where anxieties of a colonial past and tensions between the dominant culture and indigenous people are still present. The land is a continent of vast wildernesses and stunning landscapes which, with a unique quality of light, are steeped in different histories and mythologies. As such, it presents a range of compelling subjects to be explored through a thriving photographic culture. Curated by the Michael Reid Gallery in Berlin, the Australian Embassy in Paris showcases 22 leading figures in contemporary photography, covering a broad spectrum of practical and conceptual approaches, and presenting a compelling argument for the immediacy and power of the medium, especially in today’s globalised world.
The line-up features work from the last two decades or so, by a generation of practitioners who were born between the 1950s and 1980s. Represented are Bill Henson, Brook Andrew, Catherine Nelson, Christian Thompson, Deborah Paauwe, Destiny Deacon, Fabian Muir, Joan Ross, Joseph McGlennon, Luke Shadbolt, Marian Drew, Michael Riley, Narelle Autio, Nici Cumpston, Petrina Hicks, Polixeni Papapetrou, Rosemary Laing, Shaun Gladwell, Tamara Dean, Tony Albert, Tracey Moffatt and Trent Parke. As a collective, these figures demonstrate a range of potential approaches, which can be taken towards understanding the country’s history and the ways in which past injustice is still felt in the present.
Ross, for example, is driven by a preoccupation with the legacy of colonialism and its treatment of populations. Further to this, her practice is led by a sense of materiality, creating an overall aesthetic rather than a didactic, conceptual experience, reflecting the ambiguity felt by those who enjoy the economic fruits of the past whilst being aware of the real price that’s still being paid. Meanwhile, Deacon (b. 1957) creates sharp, satirical work, making use of dolls and other kitsch objects to illustrate how the dominant culture works to represent native people as being less than human.
Miur’s Blue Burqa in a Sunburnt Country series considers similar subjects. Poised amongst various brilliant blue landscapes, a shrouded figure is intended as a reminder of Australia’s continued debate on the burqa, alongside troubling anti-immigration policies. Miur notes, in a self-written feature in LensCulture: “The burqa’s journey in this series – whose title is borrowed from Australia’s best-known poem, Dorothea Mackellar’s My Country – surely offers more questions than answers, but ultimately it is intended as a series of hope.”
Reflective on what identity means in 21st century society, these works ruminate on nation and geography. Considering the photographs on view, Gael Newton, former Senior Curator of the National Gallery of Australia, comments: “Even when most provocative, they still seem ‘Australian’ to me in their offbeat subtlety and their wry puns and references.”
Wall Power: CONTEMPORARY AUSTRALIAN PHOTOGRAPHY runs at the Australian Embassy, Paris Until 12 November. www.france.embassy.gov.au
1. Blue Burqa #4, © Fabian Muir 2014.
2 & 3. Images courtesy of Fabian Muir.