Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA)
02 Jun 2016 to 09 Oct 2016
Safdar Ahmed, Kate Daw, Emily Floyd, Mabel Juli, Jumaadi, Jitish Kallat, Bouchra Khalili, Lee Mingwei, Angelica Mesiti, Peggy Patrick, Shirley Purdie, Refugee Art Project, Phyllis Thomas, Kerry Tribe
Telling Tales: Excursions in Narrative Form explored the varied, inventive approaches taken by 14 leading Australian and international artists and groups to narrative form. Encompassing painting, sculpture, photography and film, their works unpicked conventional storytelling approaches, reconsidering ideas around structure, duration, repetition and fragmentation. Individual works broke away from a traditional linear format, instead presenting cyclical and open-ended stories; narration through non-verbal communication or silence; and mysterious, incomplete narratives constructed through fragments and clues.
Questions around truth and fiction emerged through some artists’ works. Others embraced oral histories and live durational events, including shadow puppetry and live opera in the gallery. Another focus in Telling Tales was stories that don’t get told – those unspoken narratives that raise important questions around authorship. Who has the right to speak? Who is silent, or silenced? The exhibition provided a platform for stories that are not often told, including stories of extraordinary personal agency and risk. Among them were eight narratives by immigrants travelling outwards from northern Africa and the Middle East in Moroccan artist Bouchra Khalili’s video installation The Mapping Journey Project (2008-11); and multiple stories told through drawings and watercolours by participants in the Sydney-based initiative, Refugee Art Project.
Some works in Telling Tales explored ideas around looping and repetition. Others broke narrative down into fragments or clues, which visitors could reassemble into their own unique interpretation of events. Californian artist Kerry Tribe’s film work re-imagined a famous Hollywood murder mystery in three versions. Each was compelling but none conclusive. Kate Daw and Emily Floyd took a different approach: breaking literary texts down into fragments; or representing grand narratives visually, through signs and symbols. The former did though visualisation of a female voice in 20th century literature, art and design; and the latter explored themes of crime, punishment, and the gulag or labour camp in relation to current world politics. A different take on world history and war was presented in Jitish Kallat’s immersive mist installation, onto which a significant letter was projected from the great Indian leader and pacifist Mahatma Gandhi, to Adolf Hitler.
Ceremonial stories, conveyed through song and dance, were the focus of paintings by Peggy Patrick and Phyllis Thomas, two senior Gija women from the East Kimberley region of Western Australia. Their austere ochre panels represent markings on the body in preparation for ceremony or joonba; they were not about one specific story but the act of story telling itself. Gija elder Shirley Purdie documented edible and medicinal plants of the East Kimberley, while Mabel Juli’s black ochre paintings depicted an epic narrative of forbidden love, embodied by the moon and star.
Silence as a means of communication, and gestures of the hand and body, were explored through Angelica Mesiti’s video work that featured a noiseless choir, percussion ensemble, and ballet performed with movements of the hand. In contrast Lee Mingwei presented a ‘living sculpture’ in the galleries, four afternoons a week: a classically trained singer who offered visitors the ‘gift’ of a song. Extending themes of performance and duration, Jumaadi reinvented the East Javanese tradition of wayang kulit or shadow puppetry in his gallery display of drawings, concertina books and buffalo-hide puppets. His work was expanded through multiple live performances and children workshops over the course of the exhibition.
Telling Tales: Safdar Ahmed & Refugee Art Project
My name is Safdar Ahmed i’m one of the founders of the refugee Art project. Our project was started in late 2010 for the purpose of providing art workshops for asylum seekers and refugees in the villawood detention centre.