Introducing the permanent collection at the AGSA is a series of wearable sculptures by Canberra-based artist Heather B Swann. Banksia Men (2015) embody everything that I love about textiles as a medium for art making.
Taking up half a room on the way to the colonial furniture, jewellery and paintings, these tall hairy figures watch you enter from shiny black eyes. Stitched into thick crinkly-textured jacket shapes using over 400 meters of black silk, the Banksia men have arms and hooded heads, but no discernible faces. They are covered in over 100,000 knotted threads which hang from this detailed surface like monochrome cobwebs. It’s the many eyes, though, that really create the unsettling feeling. There are over 450 of them, each with silk lids, positioned over the Banksia bodies at angles looking all directions.
Associations abound with this work, like many textile pieces and I love it. The name Banksia is courtesy of botanist Joseph Banks who voyaged with Lt James Cook, which almost says it all really, about the erasure and bad vibes emanating from these surveilling sentinels. Banks is immortalised by this particular native Australian seedpod, so iconic it is literally covered in eyes (pun intended). Not only did Banks survey many hitherto unnamed-by-an-Englishman species of remarkable flora, but his particular form of vision was also responsible for rendering the knowledge of the First Nations people, who used them on a daily basis, invisible.
The eyes look out from every angle and remind me of the myopia of colonial explorers who brought back to the centre of empire a specific form of knowledge. Ah but they didn’t know any better, they couldn’t see what they’d missed. We’re paying for this now, ecologically and in other ways, as we try to unravel colonialism and think about what it means to live outside this ideological system. (You might have seen this recent concise summary of decolonisation doing the rounds on Instagram.)
Swann has deliberately created unsettling figures which also reference the villainous creatures from the classic Australian children’s books by May Gibbs: Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. Music has been composed by Thomas Green to accompany the artworks in performance and in installation. It wasn’t playing in the gallery while I was there, however, listening to the YouTube video and seeing the footage of the artworks being performed I was reminded of the opening scenes from The Fifth Element. Like Mondoshawan lumbering awkwardly but with purpose, these many-eyed men must commit to a direction while looking everywhere. To me it’s a phrenetic and discerning proposition, like Thomas’s score. Originally composed for the artwork in 2015, you can watch here:
The focused and time-consuming labour needed to create these creatures also speaks to textiles as a potent medium. All of the stitching and gathering, knotting and then more knotting, was an endurance performance in itself as the artist spent over a year of her time with these Banksia dudes.
Being in their presence was a surprise, I had come to see what was on at the Art Gallery of South Australia, having enjoyed the new hang of the permanent collection so much on my last visit.
I didn’t find the tall black humanoids ominous. I thought they were kind of bemusing and lost in the sense that they are transfixed by the very thing that defines their threat: their ability to see so much all at once. What must that be like? I thought their hairiness made them tactile and the hard shininess of their eyes hinted at mysteries and a very real anthropomorphism that shouldn’t be messed with. But I was never read Snugglepot and Cuddlepie as a child, so I don’t have an intense fear of the Banksia Men. Instead, I marvelled at how evocatively Swann has created these beings from silk and glass.
Do the Banksia Men creep you out?
On display in the other half of this gateway to the permanent collection is a work by Stanislava Pinchuk, a Ukrainian artist who last year immigrated to Sarajevo from locked-down Melbourne. The installation is called The Wine Dark Sea and it remixes phrases from Homer’s Odyssey with near identical phrases from leaked cables and notes from journalists originating at Australia’s offshore detention centres Nauru and Manus Island. The phrases are carved onto marble forms and while they speak to the universal struggle for safety shelter and freedom, it is impossible to know which source they come from.
The artist spoke with curator Sebastien Goldspink about the process of creating the artworks during Melbourne’s fifth lockdown for the Adelaide Biennale. Their discussion of the war in Ukraine is 16 minutes worth listening to.
Where the Banksia Men grabbed my attention because of their medium and humanoid forms, Pinchuk’s marble shards were more conceptual and it was only after reading the explanation that I could see what she was doing. I mention them because the curator Tracey Lock has chosen both artworks to lead into the permanent collection, the Banksia Men act as ‘spirit guides’ (according to the wall text) and to me Pinchuk’s sculptures set the tone for the re-hang of the Australian art collection where old and new voices are remixed and recontextualised.
One simple example is the inclusion of Indigenous basketry alongside portraiture from the 18th and 19th century, alongside furniture, engraving and cameos which feature Indigenous women. Lock has described how time, or chronology, was removed as a structuring methodology for the Elder Wing section of the gallery, and instead she and her team decided on seven ‘anthologies’ to bring human experience and emotion to the fore. Pinchuk’s and Swann’s artworks certainly do this. Homer’s words, as Pinchuk points out, are like Herodotus’s words too - applicable to situations today in ways which connect us across time.
Walking into a gallery we can expect to be moved and coming face to face with the injustices of Australia’s treatment of refugees through Homeric poetry certainly links to many narratives of journeys, displacements, and borders which define much of Australian history as similar narratives manifest in political upheavals across the world. The universality, often a mainstay artistic theme, was made tangible through these global links as I stood in the gallery space, somewhat abruptly confronting the proposition of the artist returning to a home that wasn’t the same one she left.
Have you come across an artwork exploring huge themes that made you stop and think?
If, like me, you’re keen on the textile arts and want to see more, check out Janet De Boer’s Fibre Forum e-bulletin, recent issue linked here. Sign up by emailing Janet and you’ll receive a very comprehensive mostly-monthly digest of textile news from around Australia.
One highlight from this issue include PARACOSM, an exhibition of wearable art by Svenja, current TAFE QLD artist in residence. Here’s further proof that seeing the artworks worn or performed is so necessary to appreciating their conceptual power.
In Western Australia Ngalia Elders are creating a woven artwork to cover a mining pit. From Reclaiming the Void website:
The vision is to cover a mining pit with a large-scale ‘dot’ artwork made up of thousands of handmade circular rag-rugs woven from discarded fabric. Woven by people from all walks of life and backgrounds, the rugs will be joined together into a giant textile artwork which shows an overall pattern that carries the story of the Tjukurrpa of the country on which the pit is situated.
We can support them by weaving a rug.
Thanks to Janet for bringing these (and many more) compelling works to my attention.
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