Exhibition Review, Reviews

CITY COMMISSIONS – PORTRAITS

Photography Exhibition Review

CITY COMMISSIONS – PORTRAITS | SAMMY HAWKER

Tuggeranong Town Centre (on windows of Lakeview House & under the Soward Way Bridge) | Until 4 July 2022

Installation shot – Under Soward Way bridge (supplied)

Sammy Hawker is a visual artist working predominantly on Ngunawal Country. She works predominantly with analogue photography techniques and often works closely with Traditional Custodians, scientists and ecologists.

In 2021 Hawker had two highly successful solo shows as part of a PhotoAccess darkroom residency. She is currently an artist-in-residence with the CORRIDOR project and is also preparing for another solo show before year end.

Over the last six months Hawker worked closely with nine young people from Headspace Tuggeranong exploring ways they could co-create photographic portraits. This was part of a City Commissions project delivered by Contour 556, one of seven artsACT initiatives in the Creative Recovery and Resilience Program.

Headspace is a safe space that welcomes and supports young people aged 12–25, their families, friends and carers, helping them to find the right services. Learning the Headspace motto “clear is kind”, Hawker realised her project was also about finding clarity as a form of self-compassion – shining light on what for many was a particularly dark and confusing time.


Hawker challenges the notion that a photograph constitutes the moment that a shutter is released. She explores ways of making, rather than taking, images. She wanted the project to be empowering – with no right or wrong and where the final photographs celebrated identity and experience beyond just the way her subjects looked in the frame. It was an opportunity to realise we always have some choice whether we repress difficult experiences.

The portraits of the young people were captured on a large format film camera. Commonly, in photographic practice, touch and marks on negatives are to be avoided. But Hawker invited her subjects to handle, manipulate, scratch or even bury negatives in order to introduce something of themselves. The young folk wrangled puppies, dived into rivers, got dressed up, sprinkled bushfire ash on negatives and processed film in the Headspace carpark.

Each participant was invited to use the project to reflect on their experiences of difficult times. Their statements relating to the images reveal resilience and hope.

Chanelle reflected about living in the moment. The negative of her portrait, showing her immersed in the Murrumbidgee River, was processed with water from that river, ocean water and permanent marker.

Chanelle ©Sammy Hawker

Sophie spoke of learning to embrace everything in life. Her portrait’s negative was processed with bushfire ash and the word Embrace scratched into it. The ash creates a frame that embraces her.

Sanjeta really likes her photo with jellyfish manipulations as metaphors for how she now goes with the flow of her life journey. Her expression conveys a “so be it” attitude. The negative was processed with Murrumbidgee water, rainwater, seaweed and chemical stains.

Sanjeta © Sammy Hawker

Ray wanted to keep connected and bring some joy into the lives of others. The portrait’s beaming smile conveys joy. The idea of processing the negative with Whiz Pop Bang bubble mixture and wattle pollen adds to the joy.

Ray’s Statement

Jazzy is photographed with her much loved dog Milo. So, of course, the processing of the negative utilised Milo’s pawprints.

Jazzy Jazzy © Sammy Hawker
Devante © Sammy Hawker
Installation shot – Under Soward Way bridge (supplied)

When I reviewed her Acts of Co-Creation show (for which she received a Canberra Critics Circle Award) in this publication, I wrote of Hawker’s then newly formed relationship with Ngunawal custodian Tyronne Bell who helped her to learn about sites she was working with. For this project, Hawker arranged for Bell to escort her subjects walking Ngunawal Country, providing a healing experience for them.

I strongly recommended readers to visit City Commissions – Portraits – and reflect on your own difficult times.

An edited version of this review was published in The Canberra Times of 28/6/22 on the Capital Life page, and the full version online here. It is also on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.

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Exhibition Review, Reviews

Voices of Veterans

Photography Exhibition Review

VOICES OF VETERANS | MICHAEL ARMSTRONG

National Press Club Building, | Until 19 June 2022 – by appointment only – bookings to view the exhibition or to experience insights with the artist can be made at https://voicesofveterans.com.au/events

Molasses! A viscous substance primarily used to sweeten and flavour foods. A major constituent of fine commercial brown sugar. And a primary ingredient used to distil rum.

I’ve eaten food containing molasses, seen photographs of it, even found a photography business with the word molasses in its name. Never before have I seen portraits of people covered with molasses with its thick, sticky consistency. Glue-like, tacky, treacly, and slimy might also be used to describe this substance.

Voices of Veterans, created by artist and veteran Michael Armstrong, is a collection of photographic works that visually represent individual experiences of living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). So is this an exhibition of artworks or is it simply about supporting a Veterans’ cause?

The exhibits are most definitely photo artworks and very fine ones indeed. But the exhibition is also part of an important project. Every sale contributes to the Voices of Veterans Fund, supporting veteran health and directly funding grassroots arts programs in Australian veteran communities. And it is always great to see art being used to highlight important issues.

So why use molasses, covering large expanses of the subjects’ bodies with it? Armstrong says “Molasses behaves in a manner that mirrors many of the symptoms of PTSD. Its weight and dark enveloping form, it’s staining and sticky qualities mark everything it touches. The manner in which it mirrors qualities of light and dark around it. My models naturally resonated with the experience of working with molasses and found the medium profoundly evocative”.

There are both monochrome and colour images – dark and brooding portraits, some where facial expressions are not easy to interpret, others where the molasses reminded me of bleeding wounds.

Mike Armstrong #3, 2022
Mike Armstrong #1, 2022

A very powerful one features a hand hanging down alongside part of a torso, richly coloured molasses clinging to it yet also dripping. Indeed all the images featuring hands stand out.

Mike Armstrong #5, 2022

A PTSD survivor himself, Armstrong was motivated by personal experience. Each veteran subject in the exhibition has a story, and their stories are told, expressed, felt and heard through his use of a challenging and rewarding creative process with molasses as a metaphor. The works show both sides of lived experience – the dark emotions of challenging moments and the light feelings of healing, release and hope.

Subjects’ own words are shared alongside artworks. One speaks of “the feeling of being dragged down into the thick, welcoming abyss until you are choking and drowning. Being able to barely keep your head up enough to catch a breath.”

So, the choice of molasses is enormously successful. The resultant images almost force you to study them. They are at once poignant and haunting, dark and evocative, graphic and expressive. They will bring strong memories or feelings to the minds of people who have family or friends who have suffered the effects of PTSD. They will remind others of different, yet also traumatic, experiences.

Mike Armstrong #2, 2022
Mike Armstrong #6, 2022
Mike Armstrong #4, 2022

Indeed, the created artworks have resonated with veterans deeply. When posted on Armstrong’s social media they reached a broad audience, creating high levels of engagement and many conversations. This sparked the need to create widespread awareness – and the project was born.

The exhibition will tour Australia raising awareness of the individual experiences of veterans living with PTSD, and veteran art-based workshops will support the creation and growth of healthy communities. Community events will be offered during the Canberra exhibition, including trauma-informed movement classes with health practitioners and veteran art workshops with Armstrong.

There is a gallery of the artworks online at https://voicesofveterans.com.au/art-gallery.

This review is also on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.

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Reviews

Mixed Signals

Review of Visual Art Exhibition | Mixed Signals | Jess Cochrane | aMBUSH Gallery | Until 20 March 2022

Jess Cochrane is an Australian contemporary visual artist. Canberra is her hometown. She has been based in London for a few years now but has recently returned to Canberra for a brief time. She created new large-scale multidisciplinary pieces specifically for this solo exhibition, Mixed Signals. A well-known Canberra dairy product even features in one of the pieces.

Canberra Milk © Jess Cochrane (2022)

Cochrane’s work questions the relationship between society, consumerism and pop culture. Her focus is on feminine beauty, illustrated through the application of paint over photographic images. She paints highly gestural and expressive marks over the surface of glossy photographic portraits. This approach seeks to reflect our relationship to imagery and, particularly, to our own self-image.

The artist reflects upon insecurity and perfectionism in the modern age. Connecting the history of art, design and advertising, she plays on the idea of pop culture and its roots that are planted in both displaying and disguising parts of ourselves.

It is a body of work that explores themes around desire and semiotics through digital photography, which Cochrane styles in an editorial manner then embellishes with rough, gestural mark-making using acrylic paint to provide the element of subversion she has become known for. These are portraits featuring her friends, acquaintances and people she admires. By including recognisable elements and iconography that reference popular culture and identity, Cochrane reveals the reflective creative spirit that pervades her work.

Two artworks titled Carbs, and Guilt and Pleasure, feature the model cradling and holding substantial quantities of sweet pastries. Another with the title Gluten Free had me thinking “something for everyone” until I realised it includes even more of the same baker’s confectionery. Whether the goodies were gluten free or not, I’d be sure they were not sugar free.

Guilt And Pleasure © Jess Cochrane (2021-2022)
Gluten Free © Jess Cochrane (2021-2022)

Another work has cherries on a model’s ear, in her hands, against a breast obscuring the nipple, in the crotch area and on the fabric where she is seated. The boots she is wearing are painted over in red. The model has a dreamy, wistful look. What was she thinking whilst her photographic portrait was being taken?

Boots feature in various images. Indeed one work is titled Gucci Boots. They appear to be from that company’s latest collection, designed by Alessandro Michele, the Italian fashion designer who is its creative director.

Fresh figs feature in more than one work, opened to reveal the pink/red flesh inside – some held by the model, others scattered around her feet. And there are shucked oysters. Again, some being held by – and others scattered around – the model.

In one work, I’m the Pearl, a dark-skinned beauty wearing a beautiful necklace holds an opened oyster “containing” a pearl. A heart shape has been painted around the oyster. The model’s eyes, her full lips – indeed everything about her – shout to us that she is a pearl.

This use of cherries, figs and oysters is all very sensual. And the seductiveness is added to by Cochrane’s use of her paints – for example, by drawing attention to a breast and nipple by painting an enlarged outline of the same around them.

Of course, sensuality is also the condition of being pleasing or fulfilling to the senses. And that is very much what the artist is seeking to do – and achieving – with all her works. They dazzle with their sensuality, their colours.

Open © Jess Cochrane (2021-2022)

This exhibition is a powerful interrogation of our aspirational and perfection-seeking modern-day culture. It’s a collection of artworks unafraid to probe the historical conditioning of society, especially in the context of femininity, and ask the question ‘What do we perceive as beautiful and what is grotesque?’

This review was published in The Canberra Times on 5/3/22 here. It is also available on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.

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Autobiography, My Photography, Personal Story

1959 – My first year in Canberra

I arrived in Canberra on 2 March 1959, along with others in the first ever group of Statistics Cadets selected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The Cadetship program was the first large-scale graduate recruitment scheme to run within the Australian Public Service. All participants signed up out of high school and sought to complete an economics degree with honours over four years. In 1959, we studied at the Canberra University College (CUC).

CUC was a tertiary education institution established in by the Australian government and the University of Melbourne in 1930. It operated until 1960 when it was incorporated into the Australian National University as the School of General Studies. Over the course of its operation it had two directors, including Bertram Thomas Dickson whilst I was a student there. It was staffed by many notable academics including economist Heinz Wolfgang Arndt whose lectures I attended. Other staff I recall included Professor Fin Crisp (Political Science) and Patrick Pentony (Psychology).

The salary and allowances paid to Cadets (Statistics) at the time is interesting. My income was a drop from what I had earned at Australian Iron and Steel over the 1958-59 Summer period.

The first group of Cadet (Statistics) March 1959, I’m standing on the far left. Official photo, photographer unknown to me

Names of 9 of the 11 Cadets: Douglas Paton Drummond, Anthony George Faunt, Edith Mary Guard, Derrick Grahame Low
Choy, Joan Helen Morgan, Stephen John Newman, Francis Bernard Riley, Kenneth Neal Robinson, Brian Charles Rope

We were there for orientation week at CUC, prior to commencing our studies the following week. We were unable to move into our rooms at the Narellan House hostel as they were in its new wing, which was not quite ready, so we were placed temporarily in the Hotel Kurrajong on the opposite side of the Molonglo River which flowed through the sheep paddocks between the northern and southern suburbs of Canberra.

Unfortunately, it chose that very time for the heavens to open and dump an enormous amount of rain, which soon flooded the paddocks, rising so close to the deck of the original Commonwealth Avenue bridge that it was closed for safety reasons. The only route from our new digs to the Canberra University College was via Queanbeyan. But none of us had cars or even bikes, so we could go no further than the swollen river and look across to the northern side.

Fortunately, the weather changed and our new rooms at Narellan House became available in time for us to attend our first tertiary education lectures as we embarked on our quest to gain Bachelor of Commerce degrees from the University of Melbourne.

One of the formalities I had to complete was to sign the matriculation roll. I provided evidence of my matriculation to the university college and received a letter inviting me to sign the roll.

Back on 11 March 1947, Federal Cabinet had approved a program to construct 3500 homes in Canberra over the next five to seven years, with an annual allocation of £1 million. Nevertheless, between 1946 and 1950 only 1147 houses were built. In the meantime, the government resorted to other measures. It built a series of guest houses and hotels to accommodate public servants and enlarged some existing facilities.

The government also recycled former defence facilities. Narellan House, located on Coranderrk Street in Reid and opened in 1949, was built using defence materials relocated from Narellan, south-west of Sydney. The Chifley Federal Government brought the huts, asbestos and all, on five semi-trailers for storage in Canberra. It became one of the Government Hostels in Canberra, housing forty-nine guests and a staff of eight. At Narellan it was ladies in the north wing and gents in the south. It survived all the other hostels and, with the addition of the new wing in 1959, became a residence for tertiary students, including me. The new wing housed both men and women students.

Front entrance of Narellan House showing the part of the original buildings, March 1959 © Brian Rope

One of the people I became closest to during my year at Narellan was another Cadet (Statistics), Derrick Low Choy. His room was directly opposite mine.

Derrick Low Choy in the grounds of Narellan House, March 1959 – © Brian Rope

Derrick and I spent much time in my room listening to my newly acquired pink mantel radio and devouring massive quantities of delicious potato crisps that his mother made and sent to him on a regular basis from her home in Queensland. We listened to the 2SM Sydney Top 30 hit parade broadcast weekly by 2XL Cooma trying to win a prize for accurately predicting which songs would fill which positions the next week.

My pink radio in my room at Narellan House, March 1959 – © Brian Rope

Another Cadet I became friends with was Ken, who was a member of the reorganised Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints – a spinoff from the Mormons. Ken worshipped at Reid Methodist Church just up the road from Narellan, because there was no branch of his church in Canberra.

Ken – original Canberra High School in background, March 1959 – © Brian Rope

Having stood in its tranquil setting in Reid, just across from Glebe Park, since 1949, Narellan was demolished in May 1992. The last historic link with Narellan Military Camp near Sydney was severed. The site was redeveloped as an apartment complex, now Monterey apartments.

In a communal lounge room at Narellan House, large groups of residents (as many as 30) regularly played Rickety Kate, a trick-taking card game – but only in reverse because the object is to avoid taking tricks. Some tricks are okay to take. They are safe, but you must be careful. If you take hearts, you get points. Points are no good. You do not want points. Most of all, you need to avoid old Rickety Kate, the Queen of Spades. She’s worth a lot of points. You do not want a lot of points. The first player to exceed one hundred points will end the game, but that only means she or he has come in last place. Our version of it involved using as many decks of cards as were necessary depending on the number of participants – but only using one Rickety Kate. Usually we played with so many decks that the number of cards each player was dealt was almost too many to hold in your hands.

There was some conflict between older residents (such as the future Solicitor General, Tony Blunn) and those of us who were new and younger arrivals. We tended to be noisy and having an enjoyable time, whilst the older residents were more focussed on their studies.

A Methodist Youth Group (MYF) happened to start up at the nearby Reid Methodist Church just when I moved into Narellan, so I was a founding member of what became a great social group. The Minister at the church at the time was Rev Harold Cox. There was a pool table inside the halls complex and two tennis courts were built out the back of the church and halls during 1959. The church was Canberra’s first urban church and had been opened on 8 October 1927 (as the South Ainslie church). A Sunday School Hall came a little later, opening on 24 July 1929 with future extensions in mind. They were not opened until 21 September 1957, with the complex being given the name Reid Methodist War Memorial Youth Centre. Badminton, table tennis, indoor bowls, darts and quoits were all amongst the games played there. Sadly, the MYF is not mentioned in The Red Bricks of Reid by R. T. Winch, a history of the church published on its fiftieth anniversary in 1977.

During 1959 there, I made many good friends, who included young women Lee, Angel, Judy, Margaret Bird, Meg Wicks, Margaret Bales, Bev, Edith Guard and Sue. Young men involved with the church included Bob Gray (whom I had met at Wollongong) and Kevin Veness. They all feature often in my photos from that year, including when most of us attended a Crusaders church camp at Gunning over Easter and later took a trip to the snow in Perisher Valley.

Reid Methodist Church, March 1959 – © Brian Rope
Lee, March 1959 – © Brian Rope
Angel & Judy at Canberra Show, March 1959 – © Brian Rope
Kevin (in white singlet) at Easter Camp in Gunning, March 1959 – © Brian Rope
Angel at Easter Camp in Gunning, March 1959 – © Brian Rope
Judy, Meg and another girl at Easter Camp in Gunning, March 1959 – © Brian Rope
Edith and Sue, architects and builders, construct a miniature igloo at Perisher Valley, 1959 – © Brian Rope

There were also trips home to Goulburn on some weekends. My dad’s work brought him to Canberra often, so I was able to get a lift one or both ways with him. When in Goulburn I would attend youth group gatherings there with Alan.

At CUC I explored things that I might get involved with on campus, I decided to get involved with the group that put on annual Revues at the Childers Street Hall/theatre. I’m not sure when it was but I recall being made up for a skit in which I wore little. The make-up involved applying something to all my bare skin areas. The dressing room where this happened was mixed genders and the people applying my make-up were females. This was an eye-opening experience for a young male who previously had lived a sheltered life.

I also visited the Woroni (student newspaper) office and expressed interest, but never really did much for it. The 13 May 1959 issue of Woroni ran stories about both Narellan House and the Revue.

At the Australian Bureau of Statistics, we Cadets were initially required to work part-time whilst undertaking a full-time study load. After a time, the authorities realised this was a mistake and allowed us to be full-time students.

So, what about actual study? Lectures and tutorials were held in various ageing weatherboard buildings with inferior quality heating in Winter. Most of my lectures were held late afternoon or early evenings, so were easy to get to even when working during the day.

The National Library of Australia, then located on Kings Avenue, was my preferred place to study and obtain study material, so I spent some time there.

Original National Library, 1959 – © Brian Rope

One of the four subjects we had to study was Pure Mathematics 1. The syllabus was effectively a duplicate of the Maths Honours I had studied, and done so well in, the previous year for Matriculation. I achieved a basic pass for it – and failed all three other subjects! My cadetship was suspended with a requirement that I repeat all failed subjects the following year, whilst working full time and being a part-time student. Clearly, my school studies had not prepared me for university studies. And being only seventeen also meant I was not mature enough to undertake university.

But, hey, I learned to play 500 and billiards. I made friends and enjoyed myself!

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My Photography, Personal Story, Photography Story

The Book Launch

I’d helped him move his stock of books in boxes to Canberra’s The Street Theatre earlier in the week, then we transported a final box of pre-sold copies ready signed for each purchaser arriving at his request around 2.30pm on the day of the book launch. He was already there set up at a small table underneath the permanent installation on the wall commemorating the man who the book is about. Nearby, a theatre staff member was ready to start selling copies for him to sign as purchasers brought them to his table.

Joel Swadling at the book signing table © Brian Rope

The book If This Is The Highway, I’ll Take The Dirt Road – the Formidable Encounters of David Branson Esq. was written by my stepson Joel Swadling, hence my involvement – although I also knew the late David Branson, and all his family are also my friends. I’ve written about Branson and Swadling on this blog previously here. My concluding sentence then was “I’m looking forward to the attending both the 20th Anniversary Concert and the book launch, reading/hearing the interviews, reading the reviews – and completing my own reading of the book.”

By the time the launch date arrived I had attended the Concert and read almost to the end of Act One in the book. Both had added to my “looking forward to” mood. My wife and I had been on tenterhooks after having been deemed casual contacts of a grandson who contracted the Covid virus earlier in the launch week’ forcing us to have tests – thankfully negative. A positive result would have prevented us attending both the concert and the launch.

A publicity shot I prepared was displayed on monitors in the foyer/bar area of The Canberra Theatre before, during and after the 20th Anniversary Concert by Mikelangelo & the Black Sea Gentlemen, plus their guest Fred Smith.

My publicity shot on display © Brian Rope

Also displayed were numerous photos of David Branson taken by ‘pling.

From video of ‘pling’s images of David – as used in my publicity shot and on cover of the book © Brian Rope

But here we were at the appointed time on the appointed day, with many people gradually joining the crowd in the theatre foyer, purchasing drinks from the bar, purchasing books, getting them signed by the author and greeting numerous friends – some from other places than Canberra, and some not seen for years. What to do first was the challenge. For me, it was getting my camera out and starting to document the event – book selling, author signing, friends mingling. One of the first images shows Dominic Mico, whom I got to know personally when heading the (ACT) Arts and Recreation Branch way back in 1987. I went to many of Mico’s events at Canberra’s TAU (acronym for Through Arts Unity) Community Theatre. Later, Mico was founding director of the National Multicultural Festival. And here he was getting his copy signed.

Dominic Mico watches Joel sign his copy of the book © Brian Rope

There’s my wife Robyn Swadling speaking with our friend Pauline Everson, who has come along with her neighbour at Goodwin Ainslie Retirement Village.

The sales table – Pauline Everson in green, Robyn Swadling in multiple colours © Brian Rope

And there’s Paul Branson, who will be speaking during the launch – reading his own words about brother David from the book.

Michael Simic (aka Mikelangelo) is here too – ready to perform. He’s talking with Iain Campbell Smith – Australian diplomat, singer/songwriter and comedian. He performs under the stage name Fred Smith in Australia. Smith has been described as ‘Australia’s secret weapon’ in international diplomacy. As a career diplomat, he served for two years in southern Afghanistan. Working alongside Australian soldiers in Uruzgan Province, Fred’s second career as a musician came to the fore, his guitar serving as a bridge not only to the troops, but also to the people and tribal leaders of that war-torn region. His song, ‘Dust of Uruzgan’, captured the hearts of many serving in Afghanistan. And he authored a book with the same title.

Joel Swadling signing a book, Michael Simic, Fred Smith & friend in conversation © Brian Rope

A little after the scheduled time we began moving into the theatre for the launch. I headed in early to get a front row seat where photography would be easy. The woman beside me and I thought we knew each other. It was Kate McNamara – poet, playwright and critical theorist. For almost ten years she worked as a dramaturg with David Branson’s Splinters Theatre of Spectacle. But I probably had met her through her involvement with TAU, alongside Mico.

Seated on stage are David Branson’s sister Liz Bishop and brother Paul Branson, together with Louise Morris (Branson’s partner at the time of his death), and our author Joel Swadling. At one end of the front row are Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, including the other Branson, Pip (aka Rufino), waiting to perform.

Liz Bishop, Paul Branson, Louise Morris & Joel Swadling © Brian Rope

Elsewhere in the theatre are other members of the Swadling and Branson families. Joel’s father Paul and wife Janet Scott, brother Anthony and partner Sarah Powell, and brother Justin with partner Rache(l) Pettit and their children Jasmine and Riley. That damned pandemic has prevented brother Adam from being present. Margaret Hunt (previously Branson) and her husband David, Paul’s wife Jeanette Watts, Pip’s wife Megan and their children Denholm and Holiday. They are all here.

The doors close. Louise approaches the lectern. She speaks lovingly of David and praises Joel for his dedication and persistence in bringing the book to fruition. Joel replaces her at the lectern, welcomes us all, thanks key people and delivers a short speech, starting:

I’m not going to give a long speech, because the readings I’d like to give are self-explanatory. But I really must thank the management of the Street Theatre, particularly Dean and Carolyn, who’ve so graciously organized this event; as well as Cathy Winters, in helping me to plan the running order. I’d also like to thank my friends, Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, for agreeing to play for us. I’ve had several compliments on my book’s title. But I can’t take full credit, as they’re cribbed from Michael’s song, “In Carnival Time”: “If this is the high life, I’ll take the dirt path”.

And concluding:

For this book couldn’t have been produced without the direct involvement and support of our entire community. Of course, I want to thank you all for being here today. But I know equally that there are many who wish they could be but aren’t able. I think in particular of Patrick Troy and Peter Wilkins. Also, some who have passed from our number in the time it’s taken me to finish the book: Phillip Crotty, David Unwin, Renald Navilli, and ’pling (whose photographs so graciously accompany my pages). This, of course, is a celebration of the magnetic force of David Branson. But it’s equally a celebration of the upward spiral of the community which he so richly engendered. As David would have said, “Love you, love your work!”. So please, raise your glasses and toast: “Creative Community!”

Louise Morris speaks © Brian Rope

Those in the audience who happened to have a glass of something in their hands raised them as directed. Joel then invited Mikelangelo and friends to sing us a song. They take the stage and perform below a projected poster for the book featuring the image of David Branson. In their inimitable style they entertain us and speak of David. They then take seats at the rear of the stage.

Mikelangelo introduces the Gentlemen © Brian Rope

Next Joel invites Liz, Paul and Louise, each in turn, to join him. He reads his own words from the book, whilst they read words spoken by them years ago when interviewed for the book. Words that Paul later tells me he didn’t remember saying. All of this is well received by the large audience.

Liz Bishop reads, Joel listens © Brian Rope
Paul Branson reads, Joel listens © Brian Rope
Louise Morris reads, Joel listens © Brian Rope

After that it is Fred Smith’s turn, accompanied by Pip. Fred sings his new song about David whilst a video of ‘pling’s images of David plays on the screen above him. Pip plays his violin beautifully to accompany Fred. This is a truly emotional moment for all who were closest to David, indeed for everyone. Then Pip speaks about David and what he meant to him. More emotion!

Pip Branson plays violin whilst Fred Smith sings © Brian Rope
Pip Branson speaks about David © Brian Rope

To bring the actual launch to a close we are treated to more Black Gentlemen, ending with Mikelangelo being unable to resist removing his jacket and throwing it (landing at my feet), waving his arse at us all, then climbing into, over and onto the audience.

Black Sea Gentlemen finale © Brian Rope
Applause as the Gentlemen depart the stage © Brian Rope

Joel thanked everyone and invited all to return to the foyer for refreshments. Later in the foyer a friend confided to me that he thought Mikelangelo took the focus off Joel. I replied – but it is exactly what David would have done when he had such an opportunity.

Thanks, from Joel © Brian Rope

Back in the foyer Joel signed more books, we ate provided food, drank more, laughed, cried and talked until the staff packed up around us and, eventually, closed the doors. All a bit of a blur really!

More book signings by Joel © Brian Rope

Gemma Clare, who plays cello with The Gadflys amongst other groups, is speaking with Louise Morris – and I do believe that is Marc Mowbray, the Piano Guy, with them. Nearby, there’s a smiling Helen Musa, OAM – art journalist and critic, Canberra City News Arts Editor, founder and Convenor of the Canberra Critics Circle, consultant at the Asia Pacific Journalism Centre.

Louise Morris speaks with Marc Mowbray and Gemma Clare with cello – Helen Musa smiling on right edge of frame © Brian Rope

Rev. Dr. Bruce Stevens – founder of Canberra Clinical and Forensic Psychology, currently providing pastoral care to folk from St Margaret’s Uniting Church in Hackett which the Swadlings, Bransons, and Bishops all have connections with – says he enjoyed it immensely. Sue Wilson – who recognised Bruce Stevens and says he saved her life at a difficult time – also had a great time.

Megan – wife of Pip Branson – and their children are having fun. Simon Clarke – lay preacher at St Margaret’s – is in animated conversation with Margaret Hunt.

All a blur – Margaret Hunt speaks with Simon Clarke © Brian Rope

John Goss – chair of the church council at St Margaret’s and Mark Bishop – husband of Liz – are catching up with her and with Rev Paul Swadling who used to be the Minister at St Margaret’s.

John Goss, Mark & Liz Bishop, Paul Swadling © Brian Rope

There’s Fiona Edge – graphic designer (whom I first met when she did design work for the Deafness Forum of Australia when I was its CEO for 10 years) and with personal links to ‘pling (Kevin Prideaux, 1955-2018) who was deeply respected within the arts community for his continued passion, love and support. His photographic legacy is an immense record of the Canberra theatre/music scene from 1970s – 2010s. It is his photographs that feature in Joel’s book and on Fred Smith’s video of his song about David.

Ben Drysdale – actor, director, drama tutor, musician, events coordinator and Creative Producer at Canberra’s Rebus award-winning, mixed-ability Theatre Company in Canberra, which seeks to stimulate social change and healing and with which Joel performs – is enjoying a beer whilst chatting with Fiona Edge and Fred Smith.

Fiona Edge, Fred Smith and Ben Drysdale © Brian Rope

The book launch was over. Joel had much to be pleased about – not the least the large volume of book sales! His family and friends were proud of him. And the launch was a fine celebration of David in a place where he is permanently remembered.

David Branson memorial plaque © Brian Rope
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My Photography, Personal Story, Photography Story

David Branson (aka Señor Handsome)

David Branson was born in Melbourne in 1963 and moved with his parents to Canberra in 1965. He was a regular churchgoer and a church youth group member at St Margaret’s Uniting Church in Hackett, an inner north suburb of Canberra. From 1970 onwards, I knew him (and his family) through the church. He was a good friend to me and my now wife when our previous marriages to others from the church ended.

David has been described as a dynamic thespian and theatre-worker. He worked with community groups, youth theatres, repertory theatre, and groups of his own devising to create innumerable productions. He played the violin in the Canberra Youth Orchestra and in various local bands.

In 1985 David, together with Ross Cameron, John Utans and Patrick Troy, founded Splinters Theatre of Spectacle. The company staged several large productions, sometimes involving hundreds of people, fire sculptures, giant puppets and large moving metal sculptures. Early performances were at a now-demolished weatherboard cottage in the Canberra suburb of Downer, the Causeway Hall at the suburb of Kingston, and backyards in the inner north. They made good use of crowd manipulation. During his time with Splinters, David was involved in more than twenty productions including Cathedral of Flesh (1992) – winner of Best Promenade Theatre Performance Award in the Adelaide Fringe Festival.

After theatre studies in Melbourne, David worked as an actor with many different companies including La Mama, one of Melbourne‘s oldest and most fondly regarded theatres. As a director he staged The Threepenny Opera and Handel’s Ariodante. His Ribbons of Steel used a mix of archival material, interpretive art, sculpture and photographic exhibits, to mark the closure of Newcastle’s BHP steel works. He remained with Splinters until 1996 when he became the Artistic Director of Culturally Innovative Arts, which he founded with Louise Morris.

David remained a Canberra identity, dividing his time largely between Canberra and Melbourne. In Canberra he hosted the Terrace Sessions at the Terrace Bar and the Salons at the Street at the Street Theatre, where many avant-garde performances were staged. He thumbed his nose at the establishment but won a Canberra Critics’ Circle award in 1998. More than once, he was described as the “Mayor of Canberra’s underbelly”.

On 3 March 2001 (coincidentally, my birthday), David performed at the launch of Canberra’s Multicultural Festival in the city’s Civic Square. I was there and managed to squeeze into the large crowd close enough to take some photos of him from the rear.

An upright David Branson performing at the launch of the 2001 Multicultural Festival © Brian Rope
An inverted David Branson performing at the launch of the 2001 Multicultural Festival © Brian Rope

Tragically, later that year on 11 December, David died in a car accident whilst on his way to a last-minute Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen concert rehearsal. Under the pseudonym Señor Handsome, David was a founding member, and violinist, of the cabaret group.

A few days later I was part of an over-capacity crowd of over 200 people attending his funeral at St Margaret’s, spilling outside. And a large crowd performed and attended memorials at the Street Theatre in Canberra (which I also went to) and the Trades Hall in Melbourne. Branson Street in the Canberra suburb of Dunlop in the Belconnen region of Canberra is named after David. A plaque was placed on the ACT Honour Walk to commemorate David as part of the first group of honourees in 2005. And there is also a plaque in the foyer of the Street Theatre.

The Black Sea Gentlemen comprises five stellar performers whose roots run deep in the Canberra music scene – Michael Simic on guitar, Pip Branson (one of David’s younger brothers – who took his place amongst the Gentlemen) on violin, Phil Moriarty on clarinet, Guy Freer on accordion and Sam Martin on double bass. The group has packed houses from the Sydney Opera House to London’s West End, releasing four albums and building a dedicated following in Canberra and around the world. During the Easter 2015 National Folk Festival in Canberra, I photographed them performing to an enthusiastic full house.

Michael Simic (Mikelangelo) performing at the 2015 NFF © Brian Rope
Some of The Black Sea Gentlemen performing at the 2015 NFF,
Left to right: Guido Libido, Rufino (Pip Branson), Mikelangelo © Brian Rope

On 11 December 2011, the 10th anniversary of David’s death, the Black Sea Gentlemen joined with The Street Theatre to hold a tribute afternoon of performances, stories, music and a barbecue in the forecourt. Now, 20 years after David’s death, the band will again pay tribute to their friend, brother and founding member with a very special one-off David Branson 20th Anniversary Concert at the Canberra Theatre Playhouse on Friday 10 December 2021.

The following day (the exact 20th anniversary of David’s death) the Black Sea Gentlemen will perform again in the foyer of the Street Theatre during the launch of a biographical book about David.

The author, Joel Swadling, holds a Graduate Diploma in Writing from the University of Technology Sydney. He is also one of my stepsons. And he was a close personal friend of David Branson, and part of St Margaret’s church. Joel lived for a time in a flat at the home of David’s mother, a place where David himself had previously lived. Whilst there, Joel sorted through boxes of material about David’s involvements in the arts scene, particularly relating to Splinters Theatre of Spectacle. Joel was the archivist on the arrangement and description of those David Branson Papers at the ACT Heritage Library.

Joel’s book about David is titled If This Is The Highway, I’ll Take The Dirt Road – the Formidable Encounters of David Branson Esq. Soft and hard cover versions of the book will, of course, be available for purchase at the launch; also from “all good bookshops” in Canberra and online. There is also an e-Book option online.

My wife Robyn, Joel’s mother, assisted greatly with the book, transcribing all the author’s interviews. I had a modest involvement – assisting Joel to place wonderful photos by the late Canberra performance photographer, Kevin Prideaux; helping to create the cover design; and taking the image of Joel that he used as his author’s photo.

Author Portrait © Brian Rope

Joel dedicated the book to his “two loving mums”, Robyn and Margaret Hunt. He also both of them and myself in his acknowledgments. And it was very special to read mention of Robyn and myself in Joel’s personal reflections on his friend at the front of the book.

“Around the same time, my parents divorced, and my mother formed a relationship with a man from the church community. Confused and angry, I turned to David for advice. ‘He’s a good man. You’ve got nothing to worry about.’

In the early years of their relationship, they were pretty much ostracised from their friends and former church community, but David always greeted them in public with jubilant affection, and this remains my mother’s overriding memory of him.

I have enjoyed a full and rich relationship with my stepfather for close to twenty-five years. I can’t help feeling that David started us on this path to familial fulfilment.”

With the book complete and an initial stock of copies delivered to him, the next task for Joel (and others) has been to organise the launch and promote both it and the book. Posters and postcards have found their way to bookstores, assorted businesses frequented by folk who would have known David, St Margaret’s church, The Street Theatre, notice boards and more.

Joel Swadling pointing to his book poster that he put up on a Dickson wall © Brian Rope

Interviews with Joel have been, or are being, conducted – including by Barbie Robinson for her Living Arts Canberra podcast, and Arne Sjostedt (aka Fealing) for The Canberra Times. Copies of the book are being reviewed by some Canberra arts scene critics who knew, and greatly admired, David.

I’m looking forward to the attending both the 20th Anniversary Concert and the book launch, reading/hearing the interviews, reading the reviews – and completing my own reading of the book.

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Photography Story

Lyndall Gerlach – Photography & Digital Art

Canberran Lyndall Gerlach studied eight years of Fine Art, Education and Graphic Design. She majored in Ceramics, Printmaking and Design, exhibited her paintings and drawings over many years, and was featured in Artist Palette Magazine in 2003 – described as “deliciously opinionated, clued-in and arty”. She designed the Barrenjoey High School Badge and won an Australian Branding Design Award.

When Gerlach was a graphic design student in the 70s, photography involved chemicals, red lights and black bags, a mysterious and wonderful process. In 2019, after 44 years away from photography, she was lent a camera. She soon decided photography was her media, discovering a love for it and digital art, a niche she is happy with, which fulfils her creative needs. The brushes and pencils were put away.

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Lily Aethiopica arum #2 The Tango Kiss © Lyndall Gerlach

Gerlach says “I like to make the ordinary, extraordinary. Photography for me is capturing what I am thinking or feeling, exploring something interesting, or creating something different that ‘talks’ to someone, and provokes thought or appreciation of the subject …contemporary artists have never been so free to explore the boundaries of fine art, or photography. Photography is at last free to be a creative medium, not just a medium that records a moment in time”. “For me, a good photographic image must always engage the viewer either emotionally or intellectually.”

Desaturating Rhinoceros 2019-2020, from the “Endangered and Desaturating” series © Lyndall Gerlach

Just one year into her new medium, and using the borrowed camera, she was a finalist in the 2020 Mullins Australian Conceptual Photography Prize. This year, she has again been a finalist in the Mullins, been commended for several works in the Australia’s Top Emerging Photographers competition and the Mono Awards, and been featured on the LensCulture website and in FRAMES Magazine’s Digital Companion.

Earlier this year Gerlach revisited previous old park haunts in Sydney that gave her solace amongst environmental chaos. She found herself wrapped in memories, jangled by the pace and close quarter living, but exhilarated by the geometry and design. The city pulled at her sense of design and curiosity. She explored movement in deep, water views – often reflecting splashes of light and drifts of fast-moving patterns on the buildings.

A resultant series of 12 exquisite composite images, City-ness, are all about structure, in architecture, town planning, and society. They can be seen here. Gerlach says “In every image of this body of work there is the same visual element representative that is representative of the city’s underlying and inescapable structure. Composed of two strong vertical lines and several rectangular shapes that represent the city’s windows and building structure, the element binds photographic images across layers of meaning.”

Night City-ness #1, from the City-ness series © Lyndall Gerlach
City Park 1, from the City-ness series © Lyndall Gerlach

FRAMES is an international community created in 2020 by an independent publisher in Switzerland. The publisher’s team produces a quarterly, 112 pages, printed photography magazine; “because excellent photography belongs on paper”. It features work of both established and emerging photographers of different genres and mediums.

They also publish a weekly newsletter. Then they have an App that delivers two carefully selected images every day to smart phone users, with the stories behind the shots and photographers’ advice. And the monthly Digital Companion Gerlach was featured in, plus a Podcast on which they talk to photographers about their images, experiences and personal stories. Now Gerlach has been featured on the Podcast, in a 43-minutes piece, a significant achievement for this reborn photographer.

Kingston Foreshore – Waters Edge, from the “Kingston Foreshore” series © Lyndall Gerlach
Ribbons 10 – Milky © Lyndall Gerlach

Gerlach is adamant “it is not ever the accolade, but the journey that is the reward. What happens along the way is sharing life and growth”. Nevertheless, she deserves these accolades.

This article was first published in The Canberra Times here on 09/10/21.

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Reviews

A Young Black Kangaroo

Photography Exhibition Review

A Young Black Kangaroo | Dean Qiulin Li 

PhotoAccessonline| https://www.gallery.photoaccess.org.au/young-black-start

A Young Black Kangaroo by Dean Qiulin Li is an ongoing photographic project documenting people and stories from the public housing community in Woolloomooloo. Li is an early career artist deeply committed to a humanitarian photographic practice.

Let me deal with the title first. Woolloomooloo is thought to have been derived from a local Aboriginal, possibly Gadigal, word meaning a young black kangaroo. The artist uses this translation to reference the area’s colonial history.

I lived in Potts Point for a short period in the late 60s and walked through Woolloomooloo each day going to and from work. I loved exploring and getting to know it – in a general sense only.

In February 1973, the Builders Labourers Federation placed a two-year long green ban on the area to stop the destruction of low-income housing and trees. It succeeded and 65% of the houses were placed under rent control. Most Australians living at that time would know of the ‘Loo because of the associated media coverage.

Children were often encouraged to commit the difficult to spell name to memory through spelling rhymes, one of which includes:

It’s easy to say, I know very well,

But Woolloomooloo is not easy to spell.

Double U double O double L double O M double O L double O

A catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition suggests that browsing through the entire image series is like visiting your neighbours. The artist “tells stories as if reading a book to you, carrying you along with memories and emotions”. Li himself says his project is “about flipping common perspectives of public housing residents on their head, showing the true side to life. It is an exploration of the underlying stories within the four walls of what one calls home.” Both are excellent descriptions of this exhibition.

In another catalogue essay, Rozee Cutrone shares her personal story of becoming a resident, revealing that she has “been vilified, ridiculed, judged, physically attacked, had my home set on fire, undermined and underestimated.” That one story alone is a great reason for Li’s exploration.

Amongst the sometimes charming, other times confronting, images we see Rayson, with his striped shirt styled with those glasses, revealing something of his teenage years. There are many simple moments on display, giving viewers a sense of déjà vu.

Faith was photographed in her living room. A well-known indigenous activist who fights for the rights of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islanders, as well as the minorities in Australia, she and Li had a few cigarettes together in her backyard whilst she shared some of her bitter past.

Then there is Daniel and some of the pigeons he feeds, Ike and his guitar, as well as Ronny and his collections room. There is Con with his dog, and a view through his window. Tyriesha and Oscar show us how they cuddle. Sabrina poses in front of her boyfriend’s painting of their favourite characters Joker and Harley Quinn. Rayson shows us a photo of himself with Elvis.

Richie, a retired drag queen sitting in his designer couch, says the movie “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” was based on his life.

Richie, 2019 © Dean Qiulin Li

There is a flamingo is inside Richie’s kitchen.

Flamingo, 2019 © Dean Qiulin Li

And Ayesha, a famous transgender dancer in Kings Cross from the 70s to 90s, says there is a documentary online about her life.

Ayesha, 2020  © Dean Qiulin Li

There are so many stories here. They have been woven together wonderfully. There would be many more, but the selection shown certainly successfully portrays these public housing residents of the ‘Loo.

This review was published in the Canberra Times on 25/9/21 here and on the Canberra Critics Circle’s blog here.

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Personal Story, Photography Story

A Child’s First Photos

I took my first photos on my first camera when I was nine years old. I probably had taken a few on my mum’s camera before then, but I don’t know for certain. I’ve recently realised that my son, Darren, took his first photos when he was eight.

In 1978 my then family embarked on a major holiday lasting six and a half months. My then wife, Denise, kept a detailed diary of our adventures. Recently she started another journey to create an illustrated book of the trip. She contacted me seeking photographs she might use in her book. Searching for possibilities I came across a few rolls of film negatives taken by our son, including some taken in 1977.

They are not superb photos, but neither were my first ones. It was great though to rediscover Darren’s early images; a reminder that we all can start our photography journeys early in life. Of course, not everyone really continues on their journey. For some, such as me, it becomes a passion – and we constantly strive to do better. For others, such as Darren, it does not develop into anything particularly special in their lives. Nevertheless, it is interesting to look at some of his early images.

Darren’s sister, Melinda, with their paternal grandparents, Jim and Eileen, outside our then home, Canberra, Christmastime 1977

Denise and me at her parents’ coast cottage, Malua Bay, NSW, Australia, Christmastime 1977

Jim, Jamie, Meg and Wendy (friends traveling with us) and Denise, Royal Circus, Bath, England, April 1978

The old church, Norton St Phillip, England, April 1978

Jamie (top), Melinda (bottom left) and Wendy, Norton St Phillip, England in April 1978

Melinda, me and Denise, Stonehenge, England, April 1978

Melinda, Denise, my cousin Peter with one of his children, me and Peter’s wife Paula with their other child, at home, Plymouth, England, April 1978

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Photography Story, Reviews

Negotiating the Family Portrait

Review of Photography

Marzena Wasikowska | Negotiating the Family Portrait

Canberra-based photo artist Marzena Wasikowska has built a name for herself over the years. Since 2000, when she completed her Master of Visual Arts at the ANU, she has had more than a dozen solo exhibitions (as well as being in numerous group exhibitions). Her works are in several public collections, and she also has been publicly commissioned on a number of occasions. Wasikowksa has been successful in various major competitions, including being a finalist in the National Photographic Portrait Prize (NPPP) five times.

Now, Wasikowska has been selected as one of the winners in the 2021 Lens Culture Street Photography Critics’ Choice Awards. Joanna Milter, Director of Photography at The New Yorker selected the series Negotiating the Family Portrait 2011-2021 for an Award. Experts, such as Milter, explored entries from across the globe to select their top three personal favourites. There’s no jurying as a panel; just choices made individually by each of the expert critics.

Images were submitted by photographers from over 150 countries and twenty-one critics chose individual photos and series that captured their hearts. Explaining her choice of Wasikowska’s series, Milter described the images as lively and noted that the artist “purposely captures those instances before everyone is in place. Yet she understands that the presence of a photographer changes everything; even in seemingly offhand moments, her subjects are performing for her camera.”

The ten images in the series have been captured over a decade – indeed it is five of them that have been finalists in the NPPP. Wasikowska says the series title summarises how she thinks about the act and procedure of making family portraits for public viewing. As we all should be, she is keenly aware of the discussions and negotiations of private and public – what to exhibit and what to keep private. She suggests, and I agree with her, that image makers tread a fine line when contributing to the dialogue of family portraiture while revealing something candid but not uncensored.

We have all experienced difficulties taking photos of getting people to smile, not hold fingers above heads, and not hide behind taller folk. Wasikowska has solved those problems. Whilst saying she longs for them to be the actors in her images, she also expresses her hope that each photograph holds the essence of a genuine, personal event, for herself and each of them. These annual portraits of her immediate family are a highlight of her portrait photography, summarising the previous twelve months.

In one image, every family member has brought their year’s story to the table.

Negotiating the Family Portrait 2015-16 – A study of history, myth and identity family © Marzena Wasikowska

In another, one of two young children appears to be struggling in the arms of the adult holding them, most probably longing to be put down and set free to again explore the camera equipment now being used to capture them.

Negotiating the Family Portrait 2018 – Chaos © Marzena Wasikowska

And then another image is filled with visual symbols for the conflicting extremes associated with this dreadful pandemic affecting each and every one of us in various ways; some the same for us all, others different for particular individuals.

Negotiating the Family Portrait 2020-21-A COVID Kind of Day © Marzena Wasikowska

It is a delight to see these ten images together. They start with a relatively simple, yet exquisite, image of just two of the family.

Negotiating the Family Portrait 2010 – Long Distance Conversation 1 © Marzena Wasikowska

Along the journey we see far more complex groupings of much larger gatherings of family members, in which the theatricality and performance style truly shines through.

Negotiating the Family Portrait 2012 © Marzena Wasikowska

We are members of an audience. Some may wish they were videos rather than just one still image of a moment frozen in time. But these are the precise moments that the artist selected and wants us to see.

This article was first published in the Canberra Times on 4/9/21 here. It is also on the Canberra Critics Circle blog here.

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