It’d been over a year since I visited the National Gallery of Australia. It’s only a mere 4 kilometres from where I live, with regular public transport to and from there, every day of the week. And still, it took me so long to go back.
Kudos to their marketing team, for scratching my ignorant love for art. The latest exhibition is called Know my Name, and as soon as I saw that pop up on my Facebook feed, I connected, resonated in a way I never expected to. Sure, my rational mind instantly picked up the cleverness of the title, and how it appeals to a mass part of the Australians, who either feel left out from mainstream representation or feel guilty for leaving out the aforementioned sect from mainstream representation.
After all, in an immigrant country like Australia, it’s only common for minority groups and groups within the majority—who’re ashamed of the majority’s toxic tendencies—to feel that way.
As if to affirm what I’d inferred, the subtitle and description specified that it is, indeed, an exhibition featuring women artists. Well played, NGA. Now I had to see the exhibition.
You can always rely on the NGA for an experience worthy of a jaw drop. Expect the unexpected, prepare to be surprised, yada yada. It’s nothing like anyone expects from a place like Canberra—a young city with a meticulously planned architecture, and has no history leading back a century ago like Melbourne and Sydney.
Canberra isn’t known for its art. Come to think of it, Canberra isn’t known for anything at all—aside from suited and booted politicians strutting into the Parliament House. The favourite stereotype. Guess what, though, it’s also the place where prospective MPs greet you outside high-functioning coffee shops and the chief minister runs into you, pushing a week’s worth of groceries, at the local Coles on a Sunday afternoon.
That’s Canberra for you. It gives you some of the best experiences in the world, when it’s the last thing you expect.
And so as I walked into the NGA, knowing I’ll be spellbound, a familiar face walked out. This happens all the time in Canberra—you’ve likely seen every person at least once… somewhere. But it wasn’t her appearance that I cared about. It’s what she said to the security on her way out: “What an exhibition. Unreal!”
The first few exhibits were a testament to the exhibition’s title and its Facebook description: typical and feminist, portrayed in quirky, unapologetic art. Portraits of women in everyday life stances, for example.
A particular pair grabbed my eye, in sharp contrast to one another, and yet encompassing the spectrum of womanhood in its simple beauty. A picture of a knitter placed along side a woman wielding an ax. My amateur mobile photography can never do justice to those works. On face value, it was a series of portraits, featuring females. The longer you look at it, however, the more you realise. That is the ultimate goal of any piece of art: the audience must see what the artist saw, but also be able to see their own self.
Moving on, a line of mannequins caught my eye. Bright red with bold print, they wore dresses (that seemed rather uncomfortably frilly, I must say) that magnified women’s voices in complete absence of it. Every woman I know, from teenagers to my friends in their later years, to my mother and her sisters in various socio-economic statuses, will resonate with that work.
It’s one of the rare occasions I silenced my rational and minimalist brain that piped up complaining about the landfill the dresses will soon contribute to. I didn’t mind—they might some day become trash, but they are living representations of how the world often treats women as trash. It felt strangely circulatory.
It wasn’t all raging feminist, though. As I waded deeper into the exhibition, I saw more art that reflected the philosophical grasp of life. Art that made me wonder: roots enmeshed in gentle cloth in what’s only a feeble attempt at protecting their integrity, silently affirmed my understanding of the disaster we’ve inflicted on our environment. Then there was another set of empty bird nests—designed and constructed with American dollar bills. Couldn’t help but muse at how realistically it depicts the hollowness that comes with an abundance of money.
Stumped at what lay in front of me, I had to tear myself away to look at the other exhibits. Sure enough, facing me as I turned a few corners was a panoramic canvas, illuminated by the promise land–a work by a Philippine artist, fusing contemporary issues in the Philippines with traditional myths. Vibrant, detailed, and almost 3rd dimensional, to call it enthralling is an understatement.
With this exhibition, the NGA has outdone itself, as always. I’m glad I went. It took me longer than it should have—biking in Canberra is fun but a bit challenging if you’re adamantly on the first gear and need to go over bridges and navigate other riders. But it was well worth the almost 10 kilometres. For an experience like that, I’d be more than happy to do it all over again.