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History, its exposure, reinvention, and the availability of contemporary commentary has long provided inspiration for artists. In recent decades, the archive has been a source of often hidden histories that detail the treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders, including evidence of atrocities and deep-seated abuse of Australia’s original inhabitants. The efforts of researchers and writers, made available more widely through art has, I believe, developed the understanding and beliefs of many Australians.
However, in taking art into Brisbane’s historic houses, themselves bastions of colonialism and relics of settler culture, Natasha Lewis Honeyman curated a new form of interaction for the city, and noted the precedents for disrupting historic spaces with contemporary art, which are many and international. French palaces commonly host exhibitions of contemporary art, with names from Jeff Koons (Versailles, 2008-09), Anselm Kiefer (The Louvre, 2007-08), and Zao Wou-Ki (Chateau de Nemours, 2007-08), being recent examples.
Five contemporary artists—Mandana Mapar, Sally Molloy, Sara Irannejad, Camille Serisier and Lewis Honeyman herself—responded to the historic venues of Old Government House, Newstead House and Miegunyah House Museum, all in Brisbane. The brief suggested that work be created to speak to the historic narratives within the building, but also acknowledge the ‘emotive reverberations of history on the present’.1 The project drew attention to the personal stories and experiences of Brisbane settler personalities, particularly women whose lives are little discussed in the official histories, bringing these narratives into a broad cultural conversation.
Sally Molloy researched the endeavours of James Clark, resident in Newstead House from 1894-1897. She suggested they provided ‘a golden thread’ for which painting provided ‘a partial historical storyboard’.2 Clark was known as ‘The Pearl King’, owner of a fleet of pearling vessels that worked in the Torres Strait, Western Australia and the Dutch East Indies. Molloy developed a ‘visual anthology that takes the viewer on a metaphorical voyage’. Artist Tom Roberts acted as first mate on a Clark voyage to Thursday Island, and articles about the experience, read by Molloy, add another artistic intermediary to the interface with contemporary audiences. The paintings offered a subtle rupture to the historic house’s furnishings, quietly undermining the historical narrative to create links to previously uncharted territory.
Downstairs at the same venue, Sara Irannejad focussed on two sisters, Catherine Macarthur, whose husband Patrick Leslie commissioned the building of Newstead House, and Anna Macarthur, who married Captain Wickham, who bought and extended the house. Using video imagery of the iconic fig tree that still stands in the grounds of the house, and material from family diaries and photographs, Irannejad’s multi-media work brings these women, whom she suggests were silenced (in patriarchal times) yet powerful, into slightly spooky under-the-house spaces.
Also potent is Mandana Mapar’s intervention, Through Her Eyes, at Old Government House. Her work uses embroidery and photography, and material from the archive to bring us the lives and relationships of an early governor of Queensland, Lord Lamington and his wife Mary (known as May). Their letters to each other, embroidered into an artist’s book located in May’s bedroom, are extended with letters into contemporary times (contributed by Mapar’s friends and colleagues). The Lamington’s letters, suspended and extended by Mapar’s intervention, express their displacement from England, human frailties, and trace the five years they spent in Brisbane at an early stage in the colony’s history (1896-1901).
Camille Serisier’s focus at Miegunyah House at Newstead is A Portrait of Leila Perry, who lived in the house from 1885-1920. Serisier’s staged photographs imaginatively reenact Perry’s life, drawing together what Serisier could glean about Perry and the times in which she lived, with the perspective of the artist’s own (drastically different) reality. The dearth of information means space for fictional conjecture, a void into which Serisier’s work breathes life.
Showing her work in the back room of Miegunyah House, Lewis Honeyman had delved into the archive to draw out Tablecloth, cashmere, in brilliant colours, donated by Marjorie Johnstone (nee Mant), whose family enriched Brisbane with a contemporary gallery (1950-1972) and the Twelfth Night Theatre. Around it Lewis Honeyman built a cabinet of curiosities to draw attention to the journey of objects across continents, philanthropy, trade and happenstance.
This exhibition draws on little heard voices across the centuries and rejoins historical intersections with different seams, reflections on contemporary lives and the power and influence of the past. Attention paid to women who occupied these houses has allowed their voices and contribution to infiltrate current consciousness. What seems most challenging in the current political environment (which tends to polarise) is the layering of histories, the pause these interventions may generate, the crisscross of lives and lines, white and black, male and female, contemporary and historic, and many places in between. This is where Resonance developed significant traction and created connections which continue to generate ripples across the centuries.
Mandana Mapar, Through her eyes, 2016. Courtesy the artist.
Sara Irannejad, Seamless Transition, 2016. Video with sound, 16:9, Colour, 4:07mins. Photograph Sara Irannejad. Courtesy the artist.
Natasha Lewis Honeyman, Trade relations, 2016. Detail. Digital print on 100% cotton, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.
Sally Molloy, Portrait of a Pearl Diver (Anonymous), 2016. Oil on board, 59 x 59cm. Courtesy the artist.
1. Natasha Lewis Honeyman, ‘Introduction’, catalogue for Resonance, 2016, p.2.
2. Sally Molloy, ‘The Pearl King’, ibid., p.23.