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Gallery shines a light on truth-telling and protest

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Still from the Bow Echo installation

Tucked down at the southern end of campus, is one of the University’s unexpected gems: the John Curtin Gallery. The gallery, which presents four major exhibitions a year, and houses the precious Herbert Mayer Collection of Carrolup Artwork, is one of the state’s leading public art galleries, and one of the largest university galleries in Australia.

Take a stroll through the doors of the gallery – currently wrapped in Jennifer Herd’s arresting work, In defense – and be intrigued, confronted and challenged by the three interconnected projects that comprise its latest exhibition, However vast the darkness… The exhibition marks the gallery’s 25th anniversary and longstanding partnership with the Perth Festival.

However vast the darkness… curated by Director, Chris Malcolm, showcases installations by Afghan artist Aziz Hazara  – Bow Echo – and Aotearoa New Zealand’s Lisa Reihana – In Pursuit of Venus (Infected) – alongside the major exhibition OCCURRENT AFFAIR by Brisbane-based Aboriginal artist collective proppaNOW.

The artworks, disparate in style, are connected by a shared commitment to truth-telling and protest, depicting the stories of dispossessed and marginalised communities around the world.

“This exhibition reinforces the John Curtin Gallery’s commitment to develop exhibitions and associated programs that interrogate important issues of our time – focusing on themes of truth-telling, inclusiveness and social justice, and aligning with our vision of making tomorrow better through the power of art,” says Malcolm.

Bow Echo

Still of the Bow Echo installation
Aziz Hazara, Bow Echo, 2019, 5 channel installation with sound, duration 4:17 mins, installation view, John Curtin Gallery, 2022. Photographer: Brad Coleman.

Hazara’s Bow Echo, first presented at the 2020 Sydney Biennale, is a video work projected on five screens, depicting five children who have grown up against the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan.  The children, balanced precariously atop a windy mountaintop above Kabul, are blowing small, plastic bugles (the replica military instruments are apparently enclosed in packets of potato chips as toys). The sound of the bugles, reminiscent of the sounds of war, is both discordant and haunting, a protest against the children’s oppressive circumstances and a rallying cry for change.

Malcolm first experienced Hazara’s work at leading international art event, the 2020 Sydney Biennale, which is recognised for presenting innovative art from around the globe, and was determined to exhibit it at the gallery.

“Hazara’s Bow Echo was one of the most striking works presented at the Biennale. Very few artworks combine such immediate impact with memories that linger so intensely that one is literally haunted by them for years to come,” says Malcolm.

“I was so fortunate to meet with the artist Aziz Hazara in Sydney at the work’s World Premiere just before the onset of COVID in early 2020. At that meeting I conveyed my desire to bring Bow Echo to the John Curtin Gallery to allow Perth audiences to be moved, like I was when viewing this work in Sydney.”


The ProppaNOW crew
ProppaNOW L-R: Tony Albert, Jennifer Herd, Gordon Hookey, Megan Cope, Richard Bell, Vernon Ah Kee. Photographer: Rhett Hammerton.

In keeping with a longstanding commitment to supporting and promoting the work of Aboriginal artists, the gallery is the first of seven Australian venues to present proppaNOW’s OCCURRENT AFFAIR.

proppaNOW is a Queensland-based arts collective that aims to counter cultural stereotypes and give voice to urban artists. It was founded in 2003 by artists Richard Bell, Jennifer Herd and Vernon Ah Kee, and formalised in 2004.

Martin explains that proppaNOW’s focus has always been to serve as a model of what can be achieved by artist-collectives, rather than expand to encompass more artists from different areas.

“proppaNOW is a very interesting cultural collective from urban Aboriginal artists based in Brisbane that never wished to attract additional membership from others outside of the originating and invited group. Instead, it wanted to serve as an effective exemplar, from which other interested groups of like-minded First Nations artists may feel inspired to develop their own artist-collectives within their own communities across Australia.” Chris Malcolm says.

OCCURRENT AFFAIR is politically charged and brash – exploding with energy, colour and confronting images – and it challenges us to consider Australia’s historical and current treatment of First Nations people, while celebrating the strength, resilience and continuity of Aboriginal culture. OCCURRENT AFFAIR features work by renowned artists Vernon Ah Kee, Tony Albert, Richard Bell, Megan Cope, Jennifer Herd, Gordon Hookey, and the late Laurie Nilsen.

In Pursuit of Venus (Infected)

Lisa Reihana, Banks Transit of Venus, Mourning, Stars, Sex Trade, 2017
Lisa Reihana, Banks Transit of Venus, Mourning, Stars, Sex Trade, 2017, Diasec® print on Canson Archival Rag, 76 x 162cm. Curtin University Art Collection.

The third project in the exhibition, In Pursuit of Venus (Infected) is an engrossing panoramic video work that seemingly depicts idyllic, almost utopian, scenes of Captain Cook’s voyages in the Pacific, but in fact interrogates the impact of Empire-building on the peoples of the Pacific from a First Nations perspective.

In Pursuit of Venus (Infected) is a reimagining of a French wallpaper by French scenic artist Gabriel Charvet – Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (Natives of the Pacific Ocean) from 1805 – that ‘casts’ Pacific people as ‘noble savages’ replete with lighter skin tones and Greek-style attire, which was fashionably exotic in the late 18th Century. Reihana’s title refers to the diseases that Cook and his crew transmitted to the Indigenous people they encountered on their travels, as well as the differences in values and behaviours between the two groups.

The video is a series of 79 vignettes that capture a range of Pacific First Nations people faithfully portraying their own ancestors from island communities, including Hawaii, Tonga and Tahiti. The video moves inexorably from right-to-left, and the viewer can never see the work in its entirety, but must instead watch discrete scenes as they unfold from their specific ‘point of view’.

It’s the second time the gallery has exhibited the striking work.

In recognition of our 25-year partnership with the Perth Festival and the Gallery’s 25th Anniversary, we are honoured to reprise Lisa Reihan’s outstanding cinematic masterpiece, In Pursuit of Venus (Infected), which was first shown here at the John Curtin Gallery during the 2018 Perth Festival,” Malcolm says.

“The work redresses historical inaccuracies and cultural misrepresentation arising from imagery popularised in the decades following Captain Cook’s Pacific voyages in the late 18th Century. The exhibition attracted huge audiences at the time, and this magnificent work in particular embraces the Festival’s 2023 theme of Djinda (Stars).”

Exterior of the John Curtin Gallery
John Curtin Gallery

Plan your visit

However vast the darkness… runs from 10 February to 16 April 2023. The Gallery is open Monday to Friday 11am to 5pm and Sundays 12pm to 4pm. Entry is free. There are a number of upcoming gallery events that all are welcome to attend.

Plan your visit Upcoming gallery events
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