Reviews

The Roots That Clutch

Photomedia Review
Lara Chamas, Caroline Garcia, Jess Miley, James Tylor, Derek Sargent

The Roots That Clutch
Photo Access | Until 12 December 2020

The Roots that Clutch is a quality group exhibition curated by Saskia Scott, a curator, artist and arts writer, currently at the ANU School of Art & Design Gallery. It presents works from five photo artists and explores the role of the artist as storyteller. It highlights how our values, beliefs, and sense of identity are shaped by the stories we tell.

An exhibition catalogue tells us that, drawing on history, these artists explore their own identities and how they understand the modern world. Their works challenge grand narratives, fill in gaps and silences, and reinsert intimacy and nuance into our understanding of both the past and the present.

Lara Chamas reveals her strong memory of a saying by a mother – ‘do you know how hard it is to mash a banana with a plastic fork?’ Her digital video with sound uses narrative and experience documentation to tell the story as viewers see various people finding out just how hard it is.

Whilst that at first might seem trite, the real-life backstory reveals so much more. During an interview with a torture and trauma councillor who worked on Nauru, Chamas learned many things, including that metal utensils were not permitted to refugees there seeking asylum. Basic human rights were taken away from them, even when feeding young children.

Lara Chamas, do you know how hard it is to mash a banana with a plastic fork?
(video still), 2017, digital video, sound, duration: 00:07:57

James Tylor exhibits a selection of his works highlighting the contemporary absence of Aboriginal culture within the Australian landscape. There was a much larger display of these works in his excellent solo exhibition From an untouched landscape at the East Space Gallery (until 29 November). In earlier work that I have seen, Tylor had superimposed black geometric shapes over his landscapes. Here the geometric shapes are holes removed from the prints ‘revealing’ black velvet voids. Once again, he is drawing attention to the erasure of past Aboriginal care for our environment, along with their artifacts and identity.

As well as his fine and thought-provoking imagery, Tylor is displaying black painted timber objects, such as a Wadnawirri Battle Axe and a Midla Spearthrower. Together, the images and objects present a bold graphic display.

James Tylor, (Deleted scenes) From an untouched landscape#4, 2013, Inkjet print on hahnemuhle paper with hole removed to a black velvet void, 50 x 50 cm.

Derek Sargent and Jess Miley are exhibiting ten strong prints from their The Grave Project. They have researched historic individuals who have had an impact on ‘queer and non-normative culture’, and then visited their burial sites and used photography, film and text to document and create an alternative historical archive.

Each print features Sargent and Miley displaying the name and image of a researched individual at their burial site. So, for example we see Vaslav Nijinsky at Montmartre Cemetery in Paris. A brochure at the exhibition tells us a little more about each portrayed individual. Susan Sontag took refuge in books to escape absent parents. Gertrude Stein escaped the rigid ways of the medical patriarchy and penetrated the Paris art scene. This is a tantalising series of artworks.

Derek Sargent and Jess Miley, RIP Vaslav Nijinsky (Queer Expats of Paris Series),
2019, Giclée print, 50 x 50 cm.

A ‘culturally promiscuous, interdisciplinary artist’, Caroline Garcia contributes a mesmerising digital video, just over 10 minutes duration. Aficionados of Westernised mainstream cinematic musicals and portrayals of dance from other cultures will recognise various pieces of the sampled footage into which Garcia has edited herself. In doing so she has attempted to reclaim the imagery and so to rewrite history. It is most cleverly done and quite mesmerising.

Caroline Garcia, Imperial Reminiscence (video still), 2018, digital video, colour, sound, duration: 00:10:15.

All parts of this exhibition contribute successfully to its purpose of inviting us to interrogate our own beliefs and clarify what our own histories tell us. We all should use the various skills we have to document and share our personal stories with others, in ways that reveal them accurately.

This review was published in the Canberra Times here and also on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.

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