Telling Tales: Excursions in Narrative Form explored the varied, inventive approaches taken by 14 leading Australian and international artists and groups to narrative form. Encompassing painting, sculpture, photography and film, their works unpicked conventional storytelling approaches, reconsidering ideas around structure, duration, repetition and fragmentation. Individual works broke away from a traditional linear format, instead presenting cyclical and open-ended stories; narration through non-verbal communication or silence; and mysterious, incomplete narratives constructed through fragments and clues.
Questions around truth and fiction emerged through some artists’ works. Others embraced oral histories and live durational events, including shadow puppetry and live opera in the gallery. Another focus in Telling Tales was stories that don’t get told – those unspoken narratives that raise important questions around authorship. Who has the right to speak? Who is silent, or silenced? The exhibition provided a platform for stories that are not often told, including stories of extraordinary personal agency and risk. Among them were eight narratives by immigrants travelling outwards from northern Africa and the Middle East in Moroccan artist Bouchra Khalili’s video installation The Mapping Journey Project (2008-11); and multiple stories told through drawings and watercolours by participants in the Sydney-based initiative, Refugee Art Project.
Some works in Telling Tales explored ideas around looping and repetition. Others broke narrative down into fragments or clues, which visitors could reassemble into their own unique interpretation of events. Californian artist Kerry Tribe’s film work re-imagined a famous Hollywood murder mystery in three versions. Each was compelling but none conclusive.
Kate Daw and Emily Floyd took a different approach: breaking literary texts down into fragments; or representing grand narratives visually, through signs and symbols. The former did though visualisation of a female voice in 20th century literature, art and design; and the latter explored themes of crime, punishment, and the gulag or labour camp in relation to current world politics. A different take on world history and war was presented in Jitish Kallat’s immersive mist installation, onto which a significant letter was projected from the great Indian leader and pacifist Mahatma Gandhi, to Adolf Hitler.
Ceremonial stories, conveyed through song and dance, were the focus of paintings by Peggy Patrick and Phyllis Thomas, two senior Gija women from the East Kimberley region of Western Australia. Their austere ochre panels represent markings on the body in preparation for ceremony or joonba; they were not about one specific story but the act of story telling itself. Gija elder Shirley Purdie documented edible and medicinal plants of the East Kimberley, while Mabel Juli’s black ochre paintings depicted an epic narrative of forbidden love, embodied by the moon and star.
Silence as a means of communication, and gestures of the hand and body, were explored through Angelica Mesiti’s video work that featured a noiseless choir, percussion ensemble, and ballet performed with movements of the hand. In contrast Lee Mingwei presented a ‘living sculpture’ in the galleries, four afternoons a week: a classically trained singer who offered visitors the ‘gift’ of a song. Extending themes of performance and duration, Jumaadi reinvented the East Javanese tradition of wayang kulit or shadow puppetry in his gallery display of drawings, concertina books and buffalo-hide puppets. His work was expanded through multiple live performances and children workshops over the course of the exhibition.
- Rachel Kent, MCA Chief Curator
In this body of work senior Gija artist Peggy Patrick uses the traditional technique of Marlam, meaning to paint with the finger. She explores the ornamentation of the body in preparation for joonba or ceremony, in the East Kimberley, Western Australia.View More
Kerry Tribe’s work is a playful examination of truth in cinema. Tribe’s photomedia works serve to undermine the perceived infallibility of the medium of photography or film, creating narratives that have been cut apart, glued back together, repeated and re-made.View More
The Life and Death of a Shadow is an ambitious new installation by Jumaadi, comprised of puppets made of buffalo hide; traditional Javanese shadow puppet theatre; and works on paper. This work tells the story of a deaf musician teaching his blind son the art of shadow play.View More
Gemerre and Purnululu was created for Telling Tales and represents both the Gija tradition of scarification and the landscape of the Bungle Bungle Range in Purnululu National Park. This marriage of culture and Country investigates the idea of story-telling rather than one single tale.View More
In 2010 Safdar Ahmed co-founded Refugee Art Project. In this role Safdar has helped empower asylum seekers, allowing stories to be told which are often unheard or silenced altogether. Ahmed’s own art reflects his experiences at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre.View More
Kate Daw’s body of work in Telling Tales expresses and preserves a unique female voice. Drawing on 20th and 21st century popular culture, literature, cookbooks and catalogues, Daw has produced a series of work which synchronises the personal, political and popular.View More
Angelica Mesiti’s immersive installation The Colour of Saying addresses modes of communication which are considered non-traditional, proving that stories are told in many different forms: dancers who can no longer dance; a choir whose members use sign language; and a silent percussion performance.View More
Covering Letter is a projection of Gandhi’s 1939 letter to Hitler, where he addresses the Nazi leader as 'Dear friend’. Projected onto water vapour, audience members are invited to walk through the mist as the words separate and swirl around them, only to re-form.View More
The Letter Writing Project and Sonic Blossom are representative of Lee Mingwei’s long standing interest in creating moments of connection between strangers. Interactive and immersive these two works produce the story as a gift, one for giving and receiving.View More
Goowoolem Gijam – Gija Plants is a botanical encyclopedia of the edible and medicinal plants of Shirley Purdie’s Country in the East Kimberley, Western Australia. These 72 panels are a means of recording the land and preserving traditions for future generations.View More
Emily Floyd’s sculptural installations are geographic in their scale. Referencing some of the most powerful literature of the 20th century, Camus, Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, Floyd ties contemporary Australia to a darker, more dangerous time.View More
This suite of three paintings tell the tale of forbidden love. A young man rejects his betrothed bride and is cast out by his community. Undeterred he comes back month after month looking for his lost love, eventually becoming the moon, Garnkiny.View More
The Mapping Journey Project and The Constellations are intrinsically linked works. Eight screens, eight prints and eight extraordinary stories of extreme personal risk and courage. Bouchra Kahlili’s work follows the routes of eight immigrants, leaving their homes for a brighter future.View More