Reviews/Perth Festival/Visual Art

Cultures converge on our shores

23 February 2022

‘Strangers on the Shore’ is a sensitive reflection on WA’s history of ocean arrivals, says Miranda Johnson… but who is missing?

Western Australia’s massive coastline has a long history of encounters, ranging from amicable to violent, mutually beneficial to exploitative.

In “Strangers on the Shore”, curator Laetitia Wilson brings together 11 artists to consider these encounters. Taking as a starting point the WA Maritime Museum Archive of the same name, “Strangers on the Shore” also responds to the 2022 Perth Festival theme of wardan, or ocean, as a place of liminality – between land and water, self and other, familiar and strange, friend or foe. 

The ocean is a significant site for First Nations people as well, culturally as well as historically, as it was, of course, from the ocean that the ships – Dutch, French and English – first appeared. 

However, the exhibition’s focus is not simply on this point of colonial invasion and ongoing displacement, massacre and land theft. Other visitors feature, such as the Macassans (Sulawesi, Indonesia) who also travelled to this continent, creating important cross-cultural connections as well as trading relationships with the local First Nations people.

These cross-cultural links resonate through the exhibition, with many works made collaboratively. The title piece, a commission by Nyungar artist (and cultural consultant for the exhibition) Sandra Harben and Kelsey Ashe, is a large scale, multi-part screenprinted canvas with photoluminescent pigment, bringing together imagery of the ocean with waves crashing on rocks (pictured top). Its extended title Wam Wardanup doyntj doyntj koorliny (Strangers on the shore going along together) references the power of sharing stories, listening and truth telling. 

Artwork from the Strangers on the Shore exhibition, picture is a kangaroo skin decorated with an image of a person, dolphin and ship.
One of Lea Taylor’s decorated booka (kangaroo skins). Photo: Laetitia Wilson

Other new commissions include Bibbulmun artist Lea Taylor’s booka (kangaroo skin) adorned with illustrations that draw on traditional First Nations imagery as well as images of ships and dolphins which speak to the influences of other cultures that came to these shores. 

Meanwhile, works such as Cherish Marrington’s digital collage and installation remind viewers of different waves of immigration and experience, in this case the Chinese workers in the pearling industry and the exploitation of their labour for profit. 

The commissioned pieces sit alongside works from the Janet Holmes a Court Collection, including an incredible selection of paintings using ochre pigments on stringybark from artist Johnny Bulun Bulun, which mark the arrival of Macassan people to Arnhem Land. Bulun Bulun’s works show the journey of the Macassans and the information and materials they brought with them, including guns and tobacco. This series references the Murrukundja song cycle to celebrate this arrival and the important relationships it created. 

Artwork from the Strangers on the Shore exhibition, pictured is a structure of an abandoned boat.
Exhibition view, with part of Jo Darbyshire’s installation ‘Waterline’ in foreground. The structure is a remnant of an abandoned boat, ‘Tenacity’, courtesy Department of Transport, Marine, Fremantle. Photo: Laetitia Wilson

Sandra Hill and Laurel Nannup’s works both underline the trauma of British invasion of these lands, an uncomfortable reminder that these visits also brought loss of sovereignty – an ongoing injustice.

With the research the artists undertook into the archives, it’s perhaps no surprise that the exhibition feels very much like a considered and sensitive response to this history. 

However, it also makes me reflect on the contemporary attitudes towards the “strangers” who have arrived on this shore more recently – or at least tried to arrive; the refugees in leaking boats, the crews of the cargo ships showing symptoms of COVID and unable to dock, or Western Australians trapped overseas unable to return due to border closures.

This is all part of our response to the threat or promise of people arriving from over the ocean, and I would have liked to see the exhibition expanded to encompass other contemporary views of oceanic travel. 

However, “Strangers on the Shore” presents a nuanced view of the ongoing relationships between this continent and the rest of the world, and the sense of threat, celebration and deeply held cultural identity that the ocean evokes, in different ways, in all of us. 

“Strangers on the Shore” continues until 12 March 2022.

Pictured top: ‘Wam Wardanup doyntj doyntj koorliny (Strangers on the shore going along together)’ by Sandra Harben and Kelsey Ashe (screenprint/audio). Photo by Laetitia Wilson

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Author —
Miranda Johnson

Miranda Johnson is a curator and writer who has worked for various contemporary arts institutions, co-founded Cool Change Contemporary and co-hosts Fem Book Club at the Centre for Stories. Miranda’s favourite aspect of the playground is getting the chance to meet as many dogs as possible.

Past Articles

  • A spiralling journey into the magical universe

    Jess Tan’s new exhibition ‘inner ear’ invites the viewer to focus on the process rather than the product, and Miranda Johnson embraces it.

  • Ocean casts its spell

    Moments of personal connection and culture are showcased through experiences of the ocean and life at its shore, as Miranda Johnson writes.

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