“For thousands of years, rituals have helped us define our place in the world. Yet my experience of ritual is my earliest memory of feeling exposed as an outsider,” states Shanti Des Fours in the exhibition Stories I’ve Been Told. The artist’s memories of growing up on the fringes of an alternative religious community in rural NSW are re-enacted in multiple-exposure photographs.
Her veiled body ultimately exploring her place as an “edge dweller” as she unravels this past and its impact upon her identity. Self-portraiture presents the logical vehicle for this multi-disciplinary emerging artist.
In a series of soft edged self-portraits Des Fours recreates the rituals which led to this sense of exclusion as a child. The viewer is none-the-wiser about the exact nature of these, but their movements lead to beautiful shapes captured in the photographic process.
A central focus is the female body in the context of a faith community that ‘viewed sexuality as antithetical to spirituality, and women as embodiments of sex’ (exhibition catalogue). The almost ethereal yet fevered movements of Des Fours’ body respond to the religious pressure she felt to cover it lest the male worshippers be tempted from their all-important spiritual path. This body of work is evocative and moving in its attention to the female form, while being intimate in scale and presentation within a dark-walled exhibition space.
In Devotion (2022) I can discern a gesture of submission and kneeling caught half completed, but the movement of Des Fours’ garments, which so often look like veils or time-lapse recordings as they wheel in arcs, appearing almost winglike before dissolving into the dark.
The titles of her photographic prints signal a complex past and a grappling with its ongoing impact. The focus in You’re making me nervous (2022) is on visible feet and obscured head, as an arc of fabric veils the rest of the body. In What is it you need me to be? (2022) the artist is more visible but a section of her dress fades into the black background, as though she’s separated from her feet. The expectations of the faith community, and its guru, are recalled as fading forms reverberating in the present and the conclusions she reaches remain partial and as unfixed as her form in these prints.
Des Fours was the inaugural recipient of the Tweed Regional Gallery - Byron School of Arts 3rd Year Graduate Award. She works across photography, painting, video, printmaking and installation. I find in her work a contemplative tone and a determination to examine personal questions which will surely result in more interesting works to come.
Shanti Des Fours Stories I’ve Been Told
Tweed Regional Gallery and Margaret Olly Art Centre, Murwillumbah
2 December 2022 - 26 February 2023
In what I would describe as the ‘hero image’ of the exhibition, two canoes paddled by a group of young men strike out across a relatively calm bay on Australia’s Gold Coast. At the prow of the closest canoe is a shirtless young man, looking away from the camera to his left. His gaze is concentrated, unaware of the photographer, taking in his surroundings as if the cityscape isn’t there. Perhaps he watches for threats like sharks, or perhaps he sees something far more intangible. His fellow rowers smile or stare at the photographer, distracted by the lens. In the background the sky scrapers of tourist paradise rise in sharp textured shards.
The photographs in this exhibition are black and white and hang along a hallway of the gallery, an exhibition space that is usually enlivened with views of Wollumbin/Mount Warning through the windows. I visit on a cloudy morning. The exhibition fittingly takes place on Bundjalung land on the outer rim on an ancient caldera in view of the famous mountain named by Lt James Cook. The history these paddlers have uncovered on their voyage is Bundjalung history, as well as that of the neighbouring Quandamooka and Yugambeh nations. They’ve written their history in the waves – the saltwater story – reclaiming and preserving cultural knowledge.
It is fitting, too, that they paddle a gundal, or canoe, on a traditional route that hadn’t (until their 2018 journey) been travelled for 100 years. I can’t help drawing parallels between vessels and history writing, as though it was the ships themselves, not a human hand, that marked the maps with new names, new classifications and overwrote the existing story. The boat is a metaphor for ink travelling on paper, but the gundal is a much older form of history writing.
Perhaps none of this matters to the young men paddling. And perhaps it shouldn’t.
What matters is making the vessels. The project was initiated by author Benjamin Allmon who collaborated with canoe maker Kyle Slabb and photographer David Kelly to learn the art of gundal making and document the process. Local Indigenous communities were central to the process which was documented in a feature length doco by award-winning director Jeff Licence.
Allmon, who is non-Indigenous, had read about Bundjalung seafaring and wanted to educate himself about the history of the area. What started out as a whitefella looking to learn turned into a much larger project only possible through collaboration with Kyle Slabb, a Bundjalung canoe maker. The larger and more significant outcome was cultural continuity.
I haven’t seen the documentary which screens on specific days throughout the exhibition, however included in the exhibition are images of the gundal making process beautifully captured by David Kelly. They show young men using hand tools to cut the wood needed for the canoe as well as proudly carrying the finished vessel along the beach.
The voyage they then undertook was a three-day paddle from central Gold Coast (also known as Kombumerri country) to Minjerribah/North Stradbroke Island, a distance of 70 km. It was once a well-worn trade route for Bunya nut and eugarie (common Pipi shell fish), this knowledge adding further to the complex history being re-written by the bodies of the young men and the gundal as they re-trace the voyages of their ancestors.
In the Grey: The Saltwater Story Benjamin Allmon and David Kelly
2 December – 26 February 2023
Tweed Regional Gallery
Another reason to visit the Tweed Regional Gallery is of course, Margaret Olly’s studio. Painstakingly transported from her home in Paddington, it was reassembled in a purpose-built gallery space. Most strikingly, you can still smell the paints and mustiness of all the the years she spent there, painting still lifes and and flowers.
Currently on view are a selection of her flower paintings in oil from several public and private collections. They hang just outside the re-built studio space sort of like a larger than life thought bubble.
Sometimes called a hoarder, Olly amassed a historic collection of objects and gave $1m to the project of preserving them before her death. The below video describes the process of transporting her home studio from Sydney to Murwillumbah. I still find the whole thing astonishing.
Activists draw attention to the disparity between our valuing of different art forms
Two short reviews from my recent travels on Australia's east coast
She painted one swollen stamen and the male critics had a field day...
This month I visited the inland city of Broken Hill to see some decolonial museum practices in action