Whisper in my mask
TarraWarra Biennial, TarraWarra Museum of Art
16 August – 16 November 2014
TarraWarra Museum of Art has been mounting biennial’s for eight years. The exhibitions are designed to chart new developments in contemporary art. From the outset the museum has engaged external curators to conceive exhibitions that explore an idea, theme or tendency in contemporary art practice. Whisper in My Mask, the fifth in this line is a collaboration between curators Natalie King and Djon Mundine. King, who amongst other shows, curated Up Close: Carol Jerems with Nan Goldin, Larry Clark and William Yang at Heide in 2010 is interested in edgy subcultures and relationships - between artists, milieus, individuals; Mundine’s writing and curatorial practice has focused on Aboriginal art, including the remarkable Aboriginal Memorial (1987-1988), 200 hollow log coffin poles from Ramingining, a project similarly geared towards the collective.
While King and Mundine have gravitated towards different curatorial subjects, in their joint catalogue essay King and Mundine offer an insight into their shared methodology: “ The relationality of curating individual artists, community, society, inside and outside the gallery, and creating a conversation between objects and community through a number of devices and on a number of levels, is something we unconsciously just thought was our normal practice.” King and Mundine’s practice foregrounds relationships, collaboration and conversation and this is evident in the assembled artists and works. This methodology underpins the biennial in a myriad of ways, and, in fact, forms the most cogent framework for thinking about the exhibition itself.
The exhibition features 16 individuals and groups, including a number of collectives; boat people, a Sydney based collective of 10 who contributed a video-based work, The Tjanpi Desert Weavers, a dynamic social enterprise that were commissioned by the biennial to make sculptures, as well as artistic collaborations: Destiny Deakin and Virginia Fraser, Veronica Kent and Sean Peoples, and Karla Dikens’ who took photographs in partnership with Lismore Soup Kitchen and Southern Cross University, and sisters Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano.
Whisper in My Mask explicitly draws on the trope of the mask. The accompanying exhibition catalogue essays elaborate an understanding of the origins, meaning, symbolism and use of masks in Western and indigenous cultures. Masks allude, we know, to human disguise, to camoflage, to erasure, secrets and hidden meanings. How then is this theme articulated across the exhibition? The curators have taken a broad perspective selecting artworks that either formally or by way of subject probe this idea. Walking through the gallery space there was a palpable sense of intensity. Between Polinexi Papepetrou’s photographs of clowns, some wearing costumes made of the Union Jack, boat-people’s video instillation Muffled Protest depicting the collective artists sitting on the steps of the Sydney Opera House with their faces covered by the Australian flag, Tony Garifalakis’ photographic camouflage portraits, and Nasim Nasr’s video installation of a weeping woman wearing a chandor, I felt the full impact of so many potent symbols in close proximity. Fiona Foley’s sculptural installation of towering serif letters spelling out Black Velvet rendered in wood and metal (referring to the racial slur and not simply fabric) ratcheted it up a notch. Foley’s words loomed like a provocative headline in an exhibition that read like a newspaper; a cacophony of people, stories, recent events demanding action.
An edited version of this review appears in the forthcoming issue of Artlink 34 #4 Sustainable? out in December.
image: Tony Garifilakis, The Hills Have Eyes, 2012