The 1818 Project

‘The 1818 Project' exhibition at Newcastle Art Gallery is a complex and bold experiment. Curator Sarah Johnson brings together a group of artists as diverse as the individual responses to the theme, which is to address their personal cultural histories and stories of migration in(to) Australia.

 

The proposition is that the eight artists engage with a personal history relating to their journey in time. Newcastle Art Gallery is working to link key works in their collection with contemporary art.

To be able to make decisions to live and work in a place of choice is a luxury that convicts could never afford. 1815 is the year when Joseph Lycett was placed in Newcastle after he was convicted of forgery while in custody in Sydney. He was a highly skilled printmaker, illustrator and painter who was given a number of commissions by Captain James Wallis.

In 1818 Lycett painted a sweeping view of Newcastle Harbour and the early foreshore settlement. To the left hand side of the painting is the church for which Lycett was commissioned to paint the altarpiece. Here we can discern the early stage of complexity in the demands for the artist to conform. The painting is one of only four known to have been made by Lycett, three of which are in the Newcastle Art Gallery Collection. The work has been chosen as a centrepiece because it exemplifies the difficulties that migrants experience in the period during which they find their place and employment in a new country and assimilate into the community. The extreme nature of displacement for convicts, being unable to control their own destiny, only adds to the pressures of finding ways to deal with anxieties and to make the most of limited opportunities. In more ways than one Joseph Lycett proved to be resourceful and intelligent about how to make a new life for himself.

The contemporary artists selected for ‘The 1818 Project’ all work in a range of media in which three-dimensional work is central and documentation through photography essential. The artists who were invited work in painting, sculpture, photomedia and, on occasion, in multimedia/installation. Generally speaking a significant part of their body of work can be considered as being based in research, relating to the archive and to develop language around notions of place and multiculturalism.

Three-dimensional art creates awareness of the intricate balance between the existing gallery space and the works themselves. Installation work often takes place outside the conventional white cube, so the challenge for Johnson is to outline the story of each artist in their search for a sense of place and belonging in a new and foreign land, which is the underlying theme of the exhibition.

Narratives of migration are built around the language of difference and appearances. Johnson wants to reposition the Lycett paintings through the lens of contemporary artists whose modes of practice and respective approaches to their art-making are informed by their identity, familial stories, place and culture. The artists have contributed collaboratively to the development of the exhibition through discussions about the veil and mystery surrounding the ‘archive’ of the paintings as objects and Lycett’s own role as a forger and purveyor of falsehoods. In The Migrant (2018) Jacqui Stockdale confronts the viewer with a partially veiled silent gaze while Yhonnie Scarce combines blown glass with aprons to question the hierarchy of colonial rule. The political questions about identity are clearly spelled out but not answered.

Shan Turner-Carroll and Dale Collier’s works are based in performance, linking with archival material with a focus on thinking through doing, investigating alternative modes of living and the role memory plays in the actions of creating possibilities in new environments.

Karla Dickens and Fernando do Campo both work with text to question the status of belonging. The titles Colonised Criminals (2018) and Yet to live in a place without house sparrows (2016) are simultaneously humorous and deadly serious in their references to colonial histories, materiality of painting and the potentiality of language.

Lindy Lee’s work is conceptually concerned with the ancient universe. The meaning of her actions emerge slowly after a period of sustained meditation. Her practice has focused on five generations of family travel between China and Australia. Similarly, Abdul Rahman Abdullah’s emphasis on installation and craft negotiate the shared understandings of marginalised outlooks in a multicultural context.

‘The 1818 Project’ looks at migration in a global context from a national perspective. The original paintings of Lycett are poignant documents of life during settlement of the colony in the Newcastle region. The historical and contemporary works facilitate debate about how identity evolves, how creative solutions emerge from struggle and exchange.

This preview was originally published in Artist profile, Issue 44, 2018

EXHIBITION
The 1818 Project
8 September – 4 November, 2018
Newcastle Art Gallery

 

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