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Reviews/Perth Festival/Visual Art

Undertow: ocean casts its spell

15 February 2022

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

‘Undertow’, various artists, curated by Glenn Iseger-Pilkington ·
Fremantle Arts Centre ·

“Undertow” takes as a starting point the ocean; not simply as inspiration and metaphor but as a physical force that has daily impacts on the lives and culture of those who live alongside and within it. 

The exhibition explores how the ocean generates and sustains culture, threatens and haunts us, and provides refuge and comfort. From storyteller, companion and sustainer of life to an agent of border control and ethno-nationalism, the ocean controls the way we experience our lives in a multitude of ways. 

Most importantly, the ocean is an agent of flux, embodying the deep sense of radical change and instability, environmental, social and political, that has echoed throughout history and within which we once again find ourselves at the centre. 

Works from the Undertow exhibition, pictured is a shell with a some sort of resin in it. On it sits orange flower petals.
Pearl shell works by Ron Bradfield Jr

Featuring Australian artists Amanda Bell, Sam Bloor, Ron Bradfield Jr, Elisa-Jane Carmichael, Sonja Carmichael, Garry Sibosado, Soul Alphabet and Angela Tiatia, Glenn Iseger-Pilkington’s curation of “Undertow” lets each artist’s individual connection and understanding of the theme ring out without overpowering the diversity of their individual practices. The exhibition resonates most strongly when moments of personal connection and culture are showcased through experiences of the ocean and life at its shore. 

This is particularly evident in the works of Quandamooka women Elisa-Jane and Sonja Carmichael, a mother and daughter duo. Their large-scale series of fabric cyanotypes, Dabiyil Bajara, uses materials found in or from the ocean, creating a vast landscape of patterns, shapes and textures across the fabric. 

The works embody the mutability and inherent instability of the ocean, exploring both natural shapes from the ocean’s dwellers alongside the dredges of human materials dumped overboard or swept into the sea by waves and currents. What could be a jellyfish is in fact a discarded fishing net, while woven shapes such as gulayi, or women’s baskets, drift alongside dolphins.

Here, the relationship between humanity and the ocean is shown as symbiotic – for better or for worse.

Human impact and relationship to oceans is explored in other works in the exhibition, including Ron Bradfield Jr’s body of work that reflects on his dual relationship to the sea, as a Bard man from the Kimberley and as a member of the Royal Australian Navy. In his work, featuring unmarked pearl shells and naval uniforms, the conflict of these two radically different approaches to the ocean is explored to complicate any singular understanding of identity. 

Collaborative photographic project At the ridges of our hands adds to this complicated understanding of identity by considering the ocean as a method of passage and migration. Presented by Soul Alphabet, an organisation committed to amplifying the voices of People of Colour, At the ridges of our hands features movingly intimate portraits of African hair braiders working in Boorloo (Perth). These works demonstrate that with the movement and migration of people across the seas, culture also travels, and that when communities continue their cultural practices, connections between generations and continents are maintained.

Two photographs of portraits of black African women from the Undertow exhibition.
Works from Soul Alphabet’s ‘At the ridges of our hands’ series

Badimia and Yued artist Amanda Bell’s powerful work Balak (Naked), reminds us that with oceanic migration, particularly to this continent, also came invasion, pain and mourning. Her stunning installation of neon, tea, sugar, sand, salt and kangaroo bones invites us to reflect on the silences that came after the arrival of European ships on these shores. Against the soft sound of waves breaking on the shores, her neon words seem to pulse through the darkened gallery space – “Our silence is full of rage”. 

“Undertow” brings together the work of artists whose relationships to the ocean are personal, complicated and symbiotic. Through their works, it feels clear that the ocean isn’t just a metaphor for something, nor is it simply a physical location. It is more. 

It is a responsibility and a place of mourning, a source of joy and a threat of invasion. 

Through “Undertow” we have been given a chance to consider the role the ocean plays in our lives, environment and culture, and the terrifying ease with which it threatens to wash these things away. 

“Undertow” continues until 25 April 2022

Pictured top: Detail of work by Sonja and Elisa-Jane Carmichael, ‘Balgagu gara come celebrate (cyanotype on cotton)

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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.

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