WA Art Gallery exhibition tackles the ghosts of colonialism in a time of revival

It has priceless works of art such as Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale, Norman Lindsay, Tom Roberts and even Lucien Freud, as well as one of Australia’s most recognizable masterpieces, Frederick’s Down on His Luck McCubbin.

But if you were hoping to see any of these renowned treasures at the Art Gallery of Western Australia for the better part of the past two years, you would have been disappointed.

Most of them were not exhibited at all.

In the past, AGWA has exhibited its historic gems, encased in their elaborate gilt frames, side by side in a dedicated gallery, where visitors could marvel at the works of the greats of the Heidelberg School and the English Romantics.

The exhibition invites the public to reflect on how colonial art fits into a modern world.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

Now it’s taking a radically different approach, as director Colin Walker attempts to appeal to new audiences while battling the ghosts of colonialism in a new era.

Mr Walker, who took over from AGWA at the start of the pandemic in 2020, said it was time for the gallery to react to world events and reflect on the broader context of its art.

“You have to be political in the sense that you have to respond to the issues of the day in one form or another…and you have to give more space to people, artists, communities and ethnicities that just don’t have it there. had access before,” he said.

colin walker
Colin Walker says the State Art Collection is one of WA’s greatest visual assets.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

Since Mr. Walker took over, the focus has been on the gallery’s extensive collection of Indigenous works, including Blaklight – a month-long celebration of First Nations art and culture plus earlier this year, in which every wall and exhibition space was dedicated to First Nations Art.

The gallery director wants to create a “festival” atmosphere in the gallery, in which the permanent collections are a thing of the past and the focus is on new perspectives to attract new audiences.

This means that historical masterpieces can be on display for much of the time.

“We will have periods when there will be no historical works [on display]. And likewise, we will have periods where there will be very little contemporary work in the 20th century or whatever,” he said.

“We want to do important things. We can’t be parochial, we need to connect to the rest of the world.”

The gallery’s curator of historical collections, Melissa Harpley, said she felt a strong responsibility to examine the gallery’s role in society in the contemporary context of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and climate change.

Melissa Harpley
Melissa Harpley is the Historical Curator of the Art Gallery of WA. (ABC News: Hugh Sando)

“There’s a global movement in art museums, where we’re looking at our collections and looking at what’s not represented or what’s not on display,” she said.

“With the pandemic and all the recent political movements… Personally, I couldn’t continue to do the same with the collection, I felt we needed to work more actively.”

His approach is exemplified in the gallery’s latest exhibition, dis/possessed: identity and sense of place, where some of his best-known paintings are exhibited in a whole new context.

Melissa Harpley studying a painting
Melissa Harpley studies a painting in the dis/possession exhibition which juxtaposes two significant works by Australian artists.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

McCubbin’s iconic Down on His Luck has been given a literal and figurative makeover – not only has the glass covering it been removed, allowing a much clearer view of the 1889 painting, but it is set amongst a room filled with works by Indigenous Western Australians artists whose portrayals of pastoral life are far removed from his own.

Chief among these is Mervyn Street’s Bull Ride, a series of three vivid paintings of an Aboriginal bull rider at a Fitzroy Crossing rodeo.

Backlit portrait of a man in front of Down On His Luck
Colin Walker is pictured in front of Frederick McCubbin’s famous painting Down On His Luck.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

The gallery’s Hans Heysen collection is also on display, including the enormous Droving Into The Light, which is set alongside the striking Texas Country ochres and browns of Warmun community artist Charlene Carrington.

A herdsman transports sheep along a road
Hans Heysen’s oil painting Droving Into the Light is one of the gallery’s most recognized works of art.(State Art Collection / Art Gallery of Western Australia)

Ms Harpley said she wanted the public to think about past attitudes in a different context, instead of looking at the paintings in a chronological way that presupposed the idea of ​​Western progress.

“It’s about thinking about how we engage with the environment, how in the past we’ve kind of dealt with it in terms of clearing land and crossing sheep and cattle, versus what we could do now,” she said of the de/possession exhibit.

A man and a woman discuss in an art gallery
Colin Walker and Melissa Harpley want to build an understanding of the past to start conversations about contemporary Australia.(ABC News: Hugh Sando )

“What also happened in the early 20th century was that artists in the Kimberley began to feel able to talk about and then depict the kind of truly horrific encounters that had occurred between pastoralists and peoples. indigenous.

“So it was really important to include that and that kind of storytelling about the history of that particular landscape… doing some of the aspects of what’s not seen in the Heysons for example.”

Mr. Walker, too, is keen to disrupt the old order and attract a younger audience to the gallery who hadn’t passed through its doors before.

In recent months, 65 DJs have played in the gallery’s new rooftop bar, and an artist talk by Instagram favorite Sarah Bahbah drew 650 people.

The new AGWA roof terrace wraps around the top of the building
AGWA’s new roof terrace wraps around the top of the building.(ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

However, not everyone is happy with the gallery’s new, more contemporary direction.

“The Woke Brigade has gone mad!” read a recent review of the gallery on TripAdvisor, while other reviewers complained of “lots of contemporary trash!!”

Ms Harpley said she understood some people’s concern about not being able to see their favorite works on permanent display.

An old colonial painting of a man and woman tending cattle
Paulus Potter Cattle coin, circa 1645-1654.(State Art Collection / Art Gallery of WA)

“But this [the historical collection] must be relevant and must speak to the public in 2022,” she said.

“It’s not 1992 or anything, we have to…work with it in an irreverent, contemporary way.

“The world is a very, very different place. And I think we need to stay responsive to that and not get bogged down in an old version of pretending everything is rosy because maybe it’s not.”

It’s an approach that seems to be working, judging by the viewing figures.

People chatting in an art gallery displaying indigenous works
The Art Gallery of WA’s dis/possession exhibition is still open until March next year.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

More people passed through the gallery’s doors in July and August than any consecutive month since 2008, Walker said.

“I can tell you now that if I didn’t bring the money and these hearings didn’t go well, I would have been crucified by now,” he said.

Comments are closed.