NGV Triennial returns for its second instalment in 2020, with the entire NGV International dedicated to a largescale presentation of global contemporary art, design and architecture. Susan van Wyk, Senior Curator of Photography, explores the 2020 topics of isolation, representation and speculation on the future.
A: Can you explain the decisions behind this year’s themes?
SvW :The NGV Triennial is underpinned by themes isolation, representation and speculation on the future. It brings contemporary art, design and architecture into dialogue, offering a visually arresting and thought-provoking view of the world at this time. Featuring major new commissions and recent works that span geography, perspective and genre, NGV Triennial celebrates the work of some of the world’s most accomplished artists and designers, whilst also giving voice to emerging practitioners.
A: How did you decide on the artists for this year’s Triennial?
SvW:The Triennial is one of the most important exhibitions in the NGV calendar; it is an opportunity for the gallery to collaborate with artists, commissions projects and showcase the most exciting of our acquisitions of contemporary art. We are constantly acquiring works by contemporary photographers, but building collections takes time – it is a long game. The Triennial offers an opportunity to curate selections of works that have not been exhibited here and present them in the broader context of global art and design. In the last few years, for example, the NGV has been building a collection of contemporary photographs by artists from a number of countries in Africa, such as Aïda Muluneh, Girma Berta, Lakin Ogunbanwo and Sarah Waiswa.
A: What connects the projects?
SvW:The photographic works sit under the broad theme of representation and reflection. This theme offers multiple perspectives on the human condition today and allows us to consider identity at both the individual and community level. Through photography, film, sculpture and architecture, these works celebrate the dynamism and beauty of life, whilst also questioning what it means to live in changing times, where preconceived ideas of race, gender, representation and power are increasingly challenged. Within the Triennial, art and design allows for moments of pause to consider how memory, actions and lived experience reflect and affect culture today.
A: Aïda Muluneh’s Memory of Hope series, for example, draws inspiration from traditional Ethiopian body ornamentation and tattoos. The bold colours and graphic patterns that feature on the body painting and clothing of her models are rich with cultural history and meaning. How does Muluneh use these traditional elements of Ethiopian art to create a body of work that addresses the post-colonial experience in Africa and the ongoing ramifications for its local communities and the African diaspora globally?
SvW:Discussing her work, she says: “The media is always consuming images not only about Ethiopia but across all of Africa related to stereotypes. But this place has so much complexity and I’m witness to that complexity. There are so many subcultures, there are so many contemporary things happening here, there are so many cities with interesting people who are trying to change the continent.”
A: Muluneh also offers a reconstruction of the female gaze – with figures looking directly at the viewer. This has also been seen in the portraits of Zanele Muholi, for example, who use the lens as a platform to reclaim black bodies. What do the artist’s images teach us about representation today – who we represent, how and why – and the importance of considering the ‘self’ and the ‘other’?
SvW:There is a long history of the camera being used as a tool of possession. Since the 19thcentury, women of colour have been subjected to a sexualised gaze in which their bodies are used for pleasure and entertainment and their identities are concealed by stereotypes, and photography played a part in this. Contemporary artists such as Muholi and Muluneh challenge such ill-founded preconceptions by telling their own histories and stories.
A: How do you feel that photography, image-making and lens-based media is leading the conversation on representation and inclusivity? What about this particular form lends itself to wider conversations? In essence: why images? What is their power?
SvW:Photography continues to be one of the most exciting and influential areas of creative practice in contemporary art, and consequently features prominently in the NGV Triennial. Recent works by photographers from Australia, China, Ethiopia, France, Nigeria, South Africa, South Korea, and the United States, are presented in suites of images that confront history, challenge preconceptions of identity, celebrate beauty and embrace what it is to be human.
A: Do you hope to achieve a kind of balance between addressing today’s issues whilst instilling hope? The themes of isolation, representation and speculation on the future are rife throughout the Triennial. But you also offer hope for an uncertain future. What do you hope viewers take away from the show?
SvW:This is an interesting question at this time. You are right to suggest that some of the works included in the Triennial confront difficult subjects, but I think the overall experience of seeing the exhibition will be one of hopefulness. So many of the works included in the exhibition boldly explore what is to be human, our strengths, weaknesses and foibles. The proposition that we are living in changing times, where preconceived ideas of race, gender, representation and power are starting to be challenged is incredibly exciting. Artists like Muluneh are leading the way in these areas.
A: How, as curators, can we create a balance between inspiration and education?
SvW:The two go hand-in-hand don’t they?
The NGV Triennial opens 19 December. Find out more here.
1. Aïda Muluneh, The World is 9; The More Loving One/Part One (2016). Photograph© Aïda Muluneh. Used with permission.
2. Aïda Muluneh, Seed of the soul (2017), from the A Memory of Hope series 2017, inkjet print, ed. 4. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Bowness Family Fund for Photography, 2018. © Aida Muluneh.
3. Aïda Muluneh, The World is 9; Dinkesh/Part Two (2016). Photograph© Aïda Muluneh. Used with permission.
4. Aïda Muluneh, Amusement at the Gate (2017), from the A Memory of Hope series 2017inkjet print, ed. 3/780.1 x 80.1 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Bowness Family Fund for Photography, 2018. © Aida Muluneh.
5.Aïda Muluneh, The World is 9; Dinkesh/Part Three (2016). Photograph© Aïda Muluneh. Used with permission.
6. Aïda Muluneh, Compromise (2017). Inkjet print, ed. 3/780.1 x 80.1 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Bowness Family Fund for Photography, 2018. © Aida Muluneh.