By Jenny Potts Barr & Daniela Palitos
Over this last summer, a group show of Southwest WA artists was held at the Holmes à Court Gallery at Vasse Felix. Titled ‘Emergences’, this was the second last show for what is called the ‘Open Borders Project’ – a state-wide WA Regional Arts initiative with the Creative Grid under the direction of Southern Forest Arts (SFA’s).
Open Borders is challenging the narratives of the city/country divide and aims to shift some ingrained attention habits. What attention does contemporary art from the regions get nowadays? Where is its place in the dialogue of contemporary art in Western Australia? Where can it physically be shown and seen?
In her 2021 review of ‘The Alternative Archive a survey of regional arts practice in WA’ Dr Laetitia Wilson observed “if the city of Perth is perceived as the ‘world’s’ largest country town’ the contemporary art scene in the regions suffers even more from narratives of parochialism and isolation”. (The Artists Chronicle)
These narratives about the state of contemporary art in the regions have been set by the city about the country and not vice versa. To counter this “Open Borders presents a significant promotional platform for contemporary regional art practice… Taking art from the regions to the city reverses the dominant art touring paradigm” SFA’s.
Artist exposure and professional development is a core component of the Open Borders Project, which comes with a predicated structure – each exhibition was to have a curator and a curatorial mentee. Each exhibition asked for a selected number of artists to submit EOI’s responding to the Open Borders prompt. Artists were to be emerging, mid-career and professional. Each exhibition was to be seen by a visiting senior curator from the metro area. As Christopher Young says it is “An attempt to breach perceived bastions of creative practice”. Nothing was to occur in a vacuum.
The Alternative Archive 2021 referred to above was the first of its kind in 20 years, a showcase of contemporary regional art at a metropolitan location, the John Curtin Gallery.
The lead-up to the ‘Emergences’ exhibition began with the formation of the Regional Arts Partnerships/network in 2017. “WA is a big place” (Regional Arts WA). The Regional Arts Network emerged from a collective of regional arts organizations already in existence around WA.
Then came 3 years of regional exhibitions from 2019-2021, culminating in 40 regional artists being selected for the John Curtin Gallery show of 2021- The Alternative Archive. The next round of regional shows began again in 2021 and aimed, again, at another showcase exhibition at John Curtin Gallery in Late 2023.
The real long-term objective of this cycle is not to be just a metropolitan show at John Curtin Gallery every three years. But to, hopefully, create a Regional Arts Triennial held throughout regional Western Australia. The potential for which is being tested through The Creative Grid initiative from Southern Forest Arts and its support partnerships.
So going back to the Open Borders Project- “To prompt State-wide reflection upon the role of borders and their impact upon our lives in Covid lockdowns and our post covid world of now…Inclusion priority was given to organisations within RAWA’s Regional Arts Network” Southern Forest Arts.
There are two Regional Arts Network Hubs in Southwest WA– Southern Forest Arts and (Now) Arts Margaret River. But back in 2022, the SW Creative Corner held the title of SW Regional Coast Hub and it fell to them to organise their exhibition for Open Borders with no gallery space or curator within their organisation at the time. Christopher Young – Zebra Factory/Arts Margaret River/Perth Centre for Photography- stepped in to be Curator and mentor Anita Pettit of SW Creative Corner. And Creative Corners’ past relationship with Vasse Felix for the Emergence Creative Conference helped secure the gallery space.
From the start of the project, there was too short a turnaround to secure a spot at Bunbury Regional Art Gallery and ‘local’ was recognised as important. There was initial seed funding through Southern Forest Arts that only went so far, intentionally, as each Hub is to apply for funding for their exhibitions. The Curators for ‘Emergences’ were knocked back twice for DLSGC grants so in the end, much of this exhibition happened with in-kind and individual financial support from Gallery HAC (Holmes à Court Gallery), Zebra Factory, and SW Creative Corner contributions.
The Open Borders Project ethos and project structure culminated in this being the first time an outside curator was given access to the Holmes à Court Gallery space at Vasse Felix (under the guidance of Curator Dr Laetitia Wilson). The Southwest West Coastal region has also not seen a curated exhibition of contemporary local artists, outside of the Bunbury Regional Art Gallery and the Painted Tree Gallery, in Northcliffe. And Arts Funding in the SW region is usually ‘event’ based, for example, a dance performance, a film festival, an open studio trail. And this exhibition created an opportunity for LAP to review and tie it all together. Early in the Stages of the Creative Grid LAP wrote a piece for ‘Mycelium’- the online phase of the project.
And so ‘Emergences’ was a group show of contrasts across and within the mediums of sculpture, installation, fine art photography, video projection, printmaking and textile arts. Soft/ floaty, solid /weighty, suspended/grounded, organic, unfinished rawness, delicate machine-made and hand touched. All pulled together through tone and tactility. With Words and language re-occurring and redefining – perception, bastions, demarcation, narratives, barricades, falling, breaching, borders both physical and psychological.
The selected ‘Emergences’ artists were from everywhere and here. Artists with different childhoods and adulthoods, who could articulate their vastly disparate experiences of borders and walls and imaginary lines across landscapes with the art they choose to submit to ‘Open Borders’.
A singular thread was the fact that half these artists are from overseas. How these borders influence their life and artistic practice? Not only physical but, especially, the mental barriers of leaving behind their family and cultural roots and building new ones from the start in a totally different environment. Accepting what the new venture will bring, adapting to new surroundings, owning them, and keeping their identity in a safe place. Is this possible? Is this a conflict-free transition? Why stay? The acceptance of living in a regional area with limited venues to exhibit non-commercial work, to create and be part of a network of “local” artists, to not compromise their vision and creative process by giving in to the common narratives. It is a lot to ask. Their answer is clear, and still leaves space for debate and more questioning.
The environment and its conservation. The indigenous heritage and its preservation. Connecting to land, ocean, rivers and to their people. Working singularly and in a collective effort to break creative borders and come together to best express this legacy. Raising up flags to bound identities, mapping exercises to rediscover the country and reveal its stories. Ideas of refuge, to keep it safe, to keep the distance. A reflection of the physical seclusion and its consequences – emotional isolation. Where do we go from here?
It took more than one visit for us to interpret and understand the artists intentions. We understand a work of art often has an objective, concept, or story behind it and that is what we saw within these works. Some works talk for themselves, and others needed a bit more information to guide us in the right direction. Is this restricting our interpretation? Not at all. There will be always room for questions. For example, Yu-Hua Lan’s interrupted ceramic circle suggests a break in its attempt of circumscription. Amanda Bell’s Flag proposes identity and geographical delimitations. Katharina Meister’s Water Boarders reveals sea coordinates and mapping. Other works are more intriguing in their suggestions. This is the case of Elisa Markes- Young’s Blue Almonds and Kate Alida Mullen’s Snake Way Home.
What we found here was a collection of art works that shared the same starting point expressing their individuality through different aesthetics and techniques. As Christopher Young mentioned in his introduction, “these are regional artists well known within their own region and some internationally recognized but not so well recognized and connected within the state where they work and live.” It is important to close the gap, to break down the regional vs state artistic borders. More than visibility they want and need to be heard, to have their work seen, interpreted, discussed, have an outside look into their role in the arts scene in their region and how they can connect with the rest of the state and country.
‘Emergences’ opened 29th January 2023. The crowd on opening day was a large one and a mix of local artists and their friends plus Vasse Felix Gallery supporters. Reports over the show’s duration are that the sales have been good, and the artists had meetups with artists and arts peeps from Perth and surrounding areas. Members from the Art Collective WA ventured down to see the show.
The exhibition has been a kick starter to conversations by the sounds of things, and despite initial misconceptions of the exhibition stemming from its choice of title ‘Emergences’ – a good title is everything. In all the conversations we had, everyone was very pleased with the show and the outcomes for the group as a whole and as individual artists.
There is a selection process for the Survey show at John Curtin Gallery, so inclusion is not given for all the artists.
In the meantime, each of the exhibitions through the Creative Grid “Open Borders” project is enough in and of themselves, the ‘approval’ of curatorial eyes from the North or the South, wherever your region may be relative to Perth, isn’t necessary to deem works worthy of artistic rigour and dedication to a practice. Congratulations are due.
Open Borders Survey Exhibition at John Curtin Gallery opens 12th August to 8th October 2023.
See also ‘Art Breaks down borders at the John Curtin Gallery’ press release.
Regional Arts WA Regional Art Network- http://www.regionalartswa.org.au
Creative Grid (Facebook)
Southern Forest Arts @SouthernForestArts – http://www.southernforestarts.org.au
Zebra Factory @ZebraFactory
Gallery HAC http://www.holmesacourtgallery.com.au
SW Creative Corner @SWCreativeCorner
Art Collective WA @ArtCollectiveWA
John Curtin Gallery @johncurtingallery
Christopher Young @pleasantlyabsent
Anita Pettit @swcreativecorner
Dr Laetitia Wilson @gallery.hac
Amanda Bell @moorditj_manda
Shannon Clohessy @shannonclohessy
Francesco Geronazzo @francescogeronazz
Shayne Hadley @shaynehadley
Yu-Hua Lan @seeds_casting_maker
Elisa Markes-Young @zebrafactory
Katharina Meister @katharinameisterartist
Kate Alida Mullen @katealida
Martine Perret @martineperret
Helen Seiver @helenseiver
Jenny Potts Barr & Daniela Palitos