This year has been one of national and global crises. In Australia, the most catastrophic bushfires ever recorded reached a destructive peak in early 2020, exacerbated by climate change and a rapidly warming planet. George Floyd’s death sparked outrage and international protest as he became the latest African-American victim of police brutality, eliciting renewed calls to purge Western institutions of systemic racism.
Meanwhile, Coronavirus – officially granted pandemic status in March – has radically disrupted the social and economic fabric of life worldwide. But, if anything positive can be said to have emerged as a consequence of these adversities – and the work of the photographers featured here insists that it must – it’s a burgeoning consciousness of collective action and shared responsibility.
The thirteen artists in From all Points of the Southern Sky: Photography from Australia and Oceania incisively explore the Australian continent – its dark colonial history, indigenous cultures and violent repressions – as well as turning their gaze on the neighboring countries of Oceania.
Jane Brown, Peta Clancy, Leah King Smith, and Kurt Sorensen drag Australia’s contentious past into the light of the present, visualizing the ghostly legacy of colonialism – its haunted landscapes and criminal beginnings – while Anne Zahalka, Stephen Dupont, Katrin Koenning, and Sonia Payes bear witness to the devastating impact of human-induced climate change.
Australia’s increasingly extreme bushfires are evidenced by Koenning’s starkly beautiful triptych Lake Mountain (2010-2018), as well as Dupont’s heartrending images of the ‘Black Summer’ of 2019/2020, while Zahalka’s digitally altered archive photos of museological dioramas offer a more truthful representation of nature in an Anthropocene age. In comparison, Silvi Glattauer’s photogravure prints of Bittangabee Bay National Park, beautified with jade-colored pieces of Japanese Gampi paper, evoke a more enchanting time and place.
Employing a range of media and photographic approaches – wet collodion negatives, Polaroid film, archival imagery, video works, and singular soundscapes – From All Points of the Southern Sky repeatedly turns our attention back to the unresolved issues of our time. The disavowed history of colonialism and the marginalization of Indigenous Australians is one such potent theme, tackled productively in community-led work by Tobias Titz and Kate Robertson.
Titz’s photographic output privileges the creative agency of immigrants and Aboriginal Australians, whose subjective expressions are scribed on the negative alongside their portrait. Meanwhile, Robertson’s co-authored project Recording the medicinal plants of the Siwai, Bougainville (2016) sees indigenous communities share their knowledge of local flora and, with Robertson’s guidance, produce vibrant photograms celebrating the plants’ healing properties.
Inextricable from discussions of colonization is the issue of race, explored in two visually divergent but thematically complimentary videos. Torika Bolatagici’s Ecology/Economy (2013) is a plaintive critique of the commodification of the Fijian body that poignantly juxtaposes indigenous bodily practices – an infant’s wellbeing cultivated by parental massage – with the death of Fijians in the military conflicts of other countries.
But where that film is lyrical and languorous, Angela Tiatia’s Interference (2018) compresses a sensuous barrage of imagery into just over a minute. Opening on three performers, who lithely move across a dark screen, dance and distorting visual effects briefly provide transcendence from the significations of the colour of their skin. The process of self-actualization, however, is hopelessly interrupted by a profusion of images culled from art history and popular culture: a psychic bombardment that dramatizes the struggle for personal autonomy.
Conveying a singularly Australian experience but one with innumerable global parallels, From all Points of the Southern Sky asserts that the only way to overcome our current crises is by drawing together: acknowledging the misdeeds of the past and taking united action to rectify them.
Summing up a shared desire for social renewal is the word Makaratta, from the Yolngu language. It’s an incredibly apposite concept for our current moment. It means “the coming together after a struggle.”
From all Points of the Southern Sky: Photography from Australia and Oceania is currently on display at the Southeast Museum of Photography, Daytona State College, Florida (USA) until 16 December 2020.
From all Points of the Southern Sky: Photography from Australia and Oceania
Ashley Lumb, Curator
This article is republished with kind permission of Curator, Ashley Lumb.
Image: Stephen Dupont, Jimmy Bodalla, 2020 (detail) – courtesy of Southeast Museum of Photography