Reviews/Visual Art

Unearthing the state’s storytellers

28 May 2021

As the name suggests ‘The Alternative Archive’ is an exhibition that breathes life into the concept of archives, discovers Jaimi Wright.

‘The Alternative Archive’, various artists ·
John Curtin Gallery ·

There is something truly fascinating about the idea of a cultural archive.

So often we understand the archive as coded boxes of quantified data, out of the public interest and locked away in stuffy basements.

But when the idea of it is applied as it is in John Curtin Gallery’s “The Alternative Archive” it becomes dynamic; a fascinating examination of artistic identities, communities, histories and practices.

Co-curated by John Curtin Gallery Director Chris Malcolm and independent West Australian curator and artist Anna Louise Richardson, “The Alternative Archive” is a survey exhibition of work by 40 artists from regional communities across Western Australia. The works are drawn from the overarching Alternative Archive project, a series of 13 exhibitions held at WA regional art centres during 2019, which involved 26 curators and over 200 artists.

Developed by Richardson, the curatorial ideology of the Alternative Archive project focuses on the idea that artists are often a community’s storytellers, socio-historical archaeologists and keepers of alternative histories.

A picture of bushland that almost looks like a photograph has a faintness as though it is about to fade away.
An ethereal presence: Chan Dalgarno, ‘The Truth of the Mokine Gully Ghost’, 2019. Ink on cotton paper. 56 x 76cm (image), 76 x 96cm (framed). Photo: Brad Coleman

As such, this exhibition is a reflection on the role that artists play as creators of this archive, and the kinds of information, stories and insights that they contribute.

What works to the great advantage of “The Alternative Archive” is the breadth of interpretations of what an artist means to their community and what their role as an alternative archivist is. With each artist comes a different context, a different medium, different local mythologies, and different facets of the idea of the “archive”.

The visual result is fascinating, and the spirit of each community stays with you long after you leave the gallery.

Unravelling Archives 1 and Unravelling Archives 2 (2019) by Yamaji artist Charmaine Green and Yamaji/Maori artist Mark Smith, are encountered early in the exhibition and provide a taste of what’s to come. As detailed in the exhibition catalogue, their works reclaim iconography from the churches in the Mid-West region of WA through Yamaji symbols, creating a captivating collage of words, photographs and the aforementioned symbols in the style of stained glass windows.

Nyungar/Anangu artist Tina Carmody states that she “[draws] inspiration from country, culture and family”. In Wiru Kapi (2017), she uses bold and colourful symbolism in acrylic and resin over a photograph of Australian wetland to give us a personal glimpse into the way she experiences her country’s culture.

Three small collections of old medicine bottles sit on squares of dark soil-like material. Some bottles are encrusted with sand or discoloured. Some have lids, others do not.
Eerie new life: Michelle Slarke, ‘Ampoules – Artefacts after Burning series’, 2019. Glass ampoule parts recovered from old hospital tip/burned sites, soil, ash, charcoal, lake salt, aluminium, PVA, stainless steel support. 5 x 30 x 90cm. Photo: Brad Coleman

Karratha-based artist Chan Dalgarno’s work The Truth of the Mokine Gully Ghost (2019) is truly haunting and one of my personal favourites. The image looks like a photograph when viewed from a distance, but has actually been pixelated using different layers of black and white text. As well as telling the horrifying story of the Mokine Valley Ghost, the work itself has an ethereal presence, an image only half there.

Made up of objects from Lake Grace Australian Inland Mission Hospital, found around the lake near where she lives, Michelle Slarke’s series of works Ampoules – Artefacts After Burning series (2019) takes an almost archaeological approach to the archive. These objects find eerie new life as sets of hospital equipment that appear to be emerging from the muck of the lake and comment on the changing value we find in old items and their stories.

But perhaps the most remarkable artwork is Mary-Lou Divilli’s Roadtrain, Yab-yabbe-geni-nim, Jalin, Milkwater and Bilbijy (2019). In this photographic series, Nyikina/Ngarinyin artist Divilli portrays the senior artists of Waringarri Aboriginal Arts by projecting their artworks onto their bodies, creating character through colour and shadow. The series is particularly poignant as the works of three of Divilli’s subjects, Ben Galmirrl Ward, Peggy Madij Griffiths and Agnes Yamboong Armstrong are in the room with the photographs. Together the series and the artworks whisper to each other, telling of rich heritages and cultural practice.

An ambitious project, “The Alternative Archive” exhibition succeeds in exploring artists as documenters of our untold local histories and provides plenty of food for thought.

“The Alternative Archive” continues at John Curtin Gallery until 30 July 2021.

Pictured top: Mary-Lou Divilli, ‘Bilbijy’, 2019. Photographic print. 76 x 108cm. Courtesy of Waringarri Aboriginal Arts.

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Author —
Jaimi Wright

Jaimi Wright is your friendly neighbourhood art historian. She has just completed a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) at UWA and dabbles in curating, local arts writing, and 19th century French history. Her favourite piece of play equipment is the roundabout even though her stomach should know better.

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