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dis/possession: exploring identity and sense of place through State Art Collection works

[by Tanya Sticca]


Mervyn Street Bull ride 2015-2016 (detail). Acrylic paint on canvas, 120 x 90 cm each. The State Art Collection, The Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased through The Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation: TomorrowFund, 2016. © Mervyn Street, 2015-2016.

At The Art Gallery of Western Australia, dis/possession displays works drawn entirely from the State Art Collection, centring on the juxtaposition of two significant works by Australian artists: Hans Heysen’s Droving into the light and Mervyn Street’s Bull ride.

Painted approximately 100 years apart, each offers a view of rural Australia that reflects the preoccupations of the artist at the time of the work's production. Street, a Gooniyandi artist from Fitzroy Crossing, worked as a stockman at a time when the impact of the pastoral movement was being fully felt by Western Australian Kimberley Indigenous communities. German-born Heysen lived and worked in the Adelaide Hills during an era in which Australia as a young nation continued to be positioned as a locale of opportunity for colonisation.

AGWA Curator Historical Art and Manager Curatorial Affairs, Melissa Harpley said, "By bringing these artists’ work together we can use an understanding of the past to start conversations about issues with shared importance for today’s audiences. These include questions around national identity, land ownership and use, and our relationship to the natural world."

Heysen's and Street's paintings are accompanied by other works from the Collection to give context to the historical narratives of the time. For the first time, the Gallery is displaying all of its work by Heysen to illustrate this artist’s remarkable career. Heysen’s work is also accompanied by examples of the work of his contemporaries, and the historical tradition which influenced his practice. Including works by George Clausen, Elioth Gruner, Jean-Francois Millet, J M W Turner and Henri van Raalte. Frederick McCubbin's Down on his luck also returns to display after touring to the National Gallery of Victoria and Geelong Gallery.

Street’s work is located in the context of the extraordinary output of Kimberley-based artists from the 1980s onwards. Many of these senior artists were former station workers and their subject matter includes records of station life, including the dark side of European and First Nations encounters, together with the painting of Country. Artists include Ian Abdullah, Nyaparu (William) Gardiner, Queenie (Garagarag) McKenzie, Albert Namatjira, Axel Poignant, Wakartu Cory Surprise and Rover Thomas.

AGWA Director, Colin Walker said, "dis/possession represents the Gallery’s thinking about how we engage with the State Art Collection, one of WA’s greatest visual assets, and find ways to display it that remain responsive and relevant to the contemporary moment.

"As art museums globally re-think the display of their collections, as well as question the art historical canon and practices around collecting, display and interpretation, we are also looking to the Collection to explore nuances in themes and drive conversations." 

dis/possession opens at The Art Gallery of Western Australia on Wednesday, 31 August and runs until 26 March 2023. 




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