THE MAKING OF A PEOPLE’S GALLERY
There was nothing between us and the horizon when we moved to the south-west boundary of metropolitan Melbourne in 2006. Not long after, we entered our thirties and welcomed a son. In a way, our transition to Wadawurrung Country ran a parallel track to the City of Wyndham. It has been a time of figuring out new ways of being.
I taught at a local state school in those early days before deciding to write on a freelance basis. I became deskbound, and mostly still am. But every now and then, I feel compelled to step out. More than once, this has meant heading to the gallery on Watton Street.
Jane Jacobs, the late American urban activist, developed a critical framework for cities. It rests on her reflection on how streetscapes function, particularly in terms of their impact on people and how people in turn shape them. She saw a complex order that maintained safety and freedom where others saw chaos:
Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance. 1
Jacobs emphasised the importance of an ‘exuberant diversity’ in urban design, which covers multiple purposes, schedules and opportunities in the common use of space, as well as mingled buildings of different ages.
I am making a point of her central argument to first establish a sense of place. Wyndham Art Gallery, based at Wyndham Culture Centre, lies on the east bank of the serpentine Werribee River. A magnificent river red gum (registered as a ‘significant tree’ by the council) rises on the front court, testament to a much older Indigenous landscape.
Within close radius: a public library, the post office, tyre mechanics, barbershop, bakery, chemist, florist, thrift store. There are eateries for curry, kebabs and noodles in between fast-food chains. The homeground for the local footy club is nearby, across the road from a licensing test centre. The outdoor pool beloved by young families and teenagers is also within walking distance.
In other words, the gallery is about as embedded as it could be in the community, its street-level glass entry reflecting – literally – life on the main street. I wonder whether something of this leads to the ease with which I go there, peeling away from the laptop on a whim to look at (and sometimes listen to) art. What implicit permissions am I taking? What do I expect to encounter?
In my mind’s eye, I can still recall the caustic humour of Gordon Hookey’s repurposed cricket kit; the vivid tones of Michael Adonai’s paintings; the delicately intense pattern in the tapestries made by Mu Naw Poe and Shuklay Tahpo; the defiant elegance of wāni toaishara’s photography; and the delightfully peculiar sculptures of Jonathan Mendez-Baute.
It became clear from my visits that the gallery was pitching a different narrative to what I was used to. I grew up in a country that had been colonised in succession by Spain and the United States. My middle-class upbringing saw art at distance, often in terms of an aesthetics mediated by westernised taste.
The gallery thus feels to me like a decolonised space – or at least a thoughtful attempt at creating one. It is by default on the periphery, away from the political and economic centre of Victoria.
Its outlook is made manifest through local and adjacent artists from backgrounds that are diverse, not just in terms of culture and medium but personal history, spirituality and sense of purpose. It is grounded in telling the truth (or complicating received truths) and offers this as an invitation to a deeper personal authenticity and sense of social responsibility.
The only privilege here is in having something to say, which is to say that Indigenous, Torres Strait Islander and Pacific peoples, refugees, queer and Black artists are privileged. If there is subversive curatorial intent, it can only be read in terms of what is being subverted: the myth of an indifferent, monolithic society. It is an undertaking that is more than worthwhile in a highly diverse municipality.
In this regard, the gallery exudes a lot of faith in people. Or at least that is what I read from the way many visitors respond in turn:
I was glad I came and looked, now I have learned something today I didn’t know. (WAR 2015)
I went on a journey. Thank you. (PASSAGE THROUGH CEREMONY 2014)
Thanks for pricking our consciences regarding the environment and reminding us of the enormity of our thoughtless actions. (CHRISTMAS HEART 2011) 2
People step into the gallery for different reasons. Some are looking for distraction. Others make a deliberate trip to see an artist who they admire or support an artist-friend, or have returned to absorb an exhibition more deeply. There are parents who note how much their young children enjoy the artwork. Often enough, locals just want to see what it is going on.
Beyond the initial motive, what shines throughout the visitors’ book is a human capacity to connect. The comments make for poignant reading:
I had to walk away. It pained me to watch. Have I done anything to warrant being forgiven? Have I shown remorse? Have I repented? Am I still causing pain? (Wyndham Art Prize 2015)
Ataahua, tino kaha te wahine me te kaupapa. (VISUAL ACTIVISM 2015)
Textures that remind me of how rich my own history is. Textures, shades, shadows I hide from. Shadows that want a voice, a story. (REACH 2014)
The Werribee River is fascinating especially after rain. I used to take my little children there but now they are overseas. I stop and watch the river every morning. (RIVER 2013)
Such reactions reveal a powerful call-and-response, flowing from curation that is grounded in the community and funded by a trusting council.
In its first decade, the Wyndham Art Gallery has been able to be consistent in its ethos and output –normalising the breadth of humanity and elevating shared concerns about justice and the environment.
What does it matter? The answer perhaps lies in the beholder. For me, having access to a public institution that lets me step away from work and life, and then returns me to them revived (either delighted or disturbed) can’t be anything else but a gift. I am sure it has unlocked things.
I can only imagine what such an effect has meant on a larger scale, as hundreds of visitors over the years connected with featured artists, recognising something of their names, faces and memories. What of the effect on artists themselves, especially local ones early in their career, whose aspirations are validated in this way?
And what is seeded in the community when people are able to be immersed in other life-worlds, or are afforded the space to safely confront pressing socio-political issues?
Maybe we can never fully know. But an alternative where people have no such opportunity would be a pity and a shame. Fortunately, this is not the case at Wyndham.
1 Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Random House, New York, 1961
2 Extracts from the Wyndham Art Gallery visitors’ book