Beyond the Opening

-- Demystifying Contemporary Art --

Peter Waples Crowe and Megan Evans | Savages and Squatters

I realise the colonial prints I’ve been looking at are a part of this exhibition. They are the primary subject these two contemporary artists have been asked to respond to, and the response of each is from their relative cultural position, from both the past and present. Peter Waples-Crowe, Ngarigo, is a man of the Alpine country bordering Victoria and New South Wales, and Megan Evans, a descendant of Scottish, Irish, and Welsh heritage. Her great-grandfather occupied land next to Ngarigo territory and they have collaborated for 2 years on this project. The result is a rigorous and courageous exhibition that is both truthful and perverse. Each artist balances, embellishes and augments the other’s practice making this a truly potent look at Australian history through a very personal lens.


The exhibition commenced at a row of 13 etchings hung at head height. I followed the line, amused and dismayed at the depiction of Australian First Nation peoples by our European counterparts. The scenes depict early contact: Aboriginal man swinging a snake with European man shrinking behind a boulder, Aboriginal men walking European women in a boat across a river, Aboriginal family interrupted glancing out from their humpy, Aboriginal people mourning, fishing, rehearsing, and amongst towering trees and boulders in corroboree. These images are detailed, fine and dated from around the 1790’s to the 1880’s. Beautiful and romantic, the people are healthy and strong, but there is something profoundly wrong: many are depicted as dark skinned Europeans.

Gallery 1 [Peter]

My attention swings forward to the contemporary work ahead. I enter a large rectangular gallery. Peter’s work dominates the wall and Megan’s the room. At a distance Peter’s work provides a regular and familiar pattern, whilst Megan’s subverts typically cherished Victorian furniture. But the regular frames of Peter’s work are deceptive of the potent content within as he investigates Australian cultural, sexual and identity taboos and assumptions. On entering the space there is a grid of small black frames to my left (5 columns and 4 rows). On a block colour background, Peter uses a combination of cut out images from the colonial etchings, contemporary typeface and imagery to create his characteristic montages. The images and text are sparsely arranged, leaving the bright underpainting exposed. Within the grid, for example, is a work with berry-purple background, cut out portrait of a first Australian with cloak, beaded necklace, piercing eyes, and the Apple icon over his lower face with, ‘native of the ‘i’ tribe’, below; another example, a work with custard-yellow background, cut out of two men making camp at the foot of a gigantic boulder with, ‘CAMP’, neatly below – there are twenty and I find them shocking, amusing, truthful and extremely relevant.

On the right hand wall, is a tight row of 17 works, they are a little larger and framed in white. The same making principle applies – but these works are more complex. There are more images, less exposed underpainting and they insight more of a narrative on colonisation, industrialisation, compliance to western cultural norms and the un-writing of Aboriginal sexuality through the eyes of Christen missionaries. The work I find most potent uses a Banksy image of two English policeman embraced in a passionate kiss. They are in the foreground to the right, below them is a grave stone with crucifix, a seabird glides overhead, to the left Ned Kelly watches on and behind, in the shadow of towering boulders is a group in corrobboree.

On the left hand wall are five large white unframed works about the size of a poster. Each has a central figure with structures adorning or integrated into it, for example, early mining and factory buildings have become a part of one figures body; street maps detailing ‘Camp Street’, and ‘Burke and Wills Fountain’ are a part of another.

Gallery 1 [Megan]

Megan’s work on the other hand is a collection of Victorian furniture: a chez lounge, candelabra, dining chairs, and carving utensils. On entering the gallery, the chez lounge is central, reupholstered with luxurious white rabbit fur, elevated by the extension of its legs that are now shotguns. Curious, I circle around and see stitched into its back the outline of the state of Victoria in deep crimson. Within the state are embroidered crimson circular marks from which shimmering beads droop in lengths with each bead representing a life taken in a massacre.

Towards the back of this space a chandelier roped with crimson beads that hang to a neat pile below. The back wall is lined with three chairs, two upholstered with crimson leather. In the first, a low set bedroom chair, a collection of carving forks has been carefully, thoughtfully, and deeply inserted into the cushion piercing the exquisite leather and effectively displaying each intricate fork handle as they protrude up. In the second, the leather has been cleanly cut and bludging outwards exposes glistening crimson beading.

Gallery 2

I turn around the corner and enter a space similar in shape and dimension. On two walls spanning the length of the room are works that mirror each other: one is a series of small embroidered tablecloths with a letter stitched to each spelling the word ‘SQUATTERS’, the other is a series of blanket portions made of course wool with a letter stitched to each spelling the word ‘SAVAGES’. Each letter is made of dark coloured fabric. The letters on the tablecloths detail Victorian utensils, white gloves and an anamorphic skull. On the blankets are figurative images sourced from the Colonial prints, isolated from their original context they depict isolation, brutality and internal violence.

Gallery 3

The following two rooms are dominated by video works. The first is a work by Megan. She wears a replica of her great grandmother’s Victorian dress. The scene cuts between her amidst burnt bush adjacent to an early toilet-chair, crafted and highly polished with an embroidered pelvis decorating the chairs back. She leans over the toilet bowl frantically rolling and unrolling a sheet or manuscript or possibly the pelvis embroidery pattern. Her body repeats the rolling and unrolling, slowed down, sped up. Mesmerising, the scene cuts to an interior, perhaps a bedroom. She stands at the dresser in front of a mirror with the top draw open and draws up a light white fabric, perhaps a scarf, slowed down, sped up. The screen flicks between the two scenes, the repeated manic movements and contrasting environments. The score is by Biddy Connor and is exquisite, and the string instruments emphasise each movement to a crescendo.

Gallery 4

The second video work is a collaboration. It is a reproduction of a story Peter’s Uncle told of a cave painting found on Ngarigo land that was scrubbed off with a wire brush in the early 20th century. Peter wears a possum skin cloak, Megan the Victorian dress. They meet on the narrow veranda of a crude wooden Colonial cottage, sit at chair and table, and play a game of ‘Squatter’. The screen fades and an image appears of a dusty steering wheel viewed through the open door of an old vehicle, perhaps a Dodge. A portrait of an Indigenous woman appears in the bottom corner, ceremonial scarring down her chest, her woven headdress is replaced by a factory structure. The screen fades again and Peter in possum cloak walks to a large boulder, draws a circle upon it and leaves, Megan then in Victorian dress comes past and scratches it off with a wire brush and the sequence continues.

This is an Art Gallery of Ballarat exhibition.

This is Megan Evans website and this is an article about Peter Waples Crow's art practice.


Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Photo: Matthew Stanton

Photo: Matthew Stanton