Journeys North

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By Oliver Wykeham

Journeys North is an exhibit at the Queensland Art Gallery, 13 FEB – 3 JUL 2016.

The history of a place can be difficult without the ability to visualise the place as it was. Even modern history can seem unattainable. Journeys North, a retrospective exhibit by the Queensland Art Gallery, is a cross section of Queensland life in 1988. A turning point in the Northern most states history. This exhibit shows the Queensland that was, the Queensland that in many places has disappeared and in some places that has remained.

Commissioned by the Queensland Art Gallery and financed by the Australian Bicentennial Authority, photographers were briefed to produce a folio on community life in Queensland. The photographers included were Graham Burstow, Lin Martin, Robert Mercer, Glen O’Malley, Charles Page and Max Pam. Each photographer has a long association with Queensland as either a resident or as a regular long-term visitor.

Part documentation of the state as it was and part projection by the artists and the series commissioner of the ideals of Queensland, this exhibit is what Queensland is to the photographers involved. Each photographer took a different part of the state and approached the brief with their own interests and style.

Graham Burstow focuses on the outdoors lifestyle of Queensland, on the activities and pastimes Queenslanders fill their leisure times with. His work covers the South East of the state and shows the variety of life experience framed by the varied experience of outdoor leisure.

Lin Martin followed the coast and took an intimate series of portraits of people in their environments where they are most comfortable. There is a sensitivity in Martin’s work as she frames each subject with either their home, their room or as with an Indigenous man, his country.

Robert Mercer went to the Far North of the state for his series, with photos from Cairns, Cape Yorke and the Torres Strait. He went to Aboriginal missions like Yarrabah Mantaka, Laura and Knwonyama intending to document the Aboriginal culture of the region, but he found it hard as “the remnants of a rich and vital foundation kept alive by the elders [was] spoilt by European/Western intrusion and manipulation. Consequently the images reflect something of this predicament.”

The predicament is evident in his work with contrasts between traditional culture and the introduced or enforced Christianity. His photos show the dichotomy of modern influences and life juxtaposed with traditions unchanged for forty thousand years.

Glenn O’Malley’s approach and photos are similar in their intimacy to Lin Martin, they are of photos of the subject living in their homes and backyards. His technique was to live with the people for a couple of days and photograph their day to day life. From backyard washing hanging on a Hills Hoist in Red Hill to watering the garden in Yowah Opal Fields. O’Malley’s work covers the most ground physically and shows a diversity in the people and their experiences.

Max Pam’s method was to document Queensland from the perspective of a holidaying family. “When I was young, Queensland was [the] promised land. I would be taken on the long journey north every year in the family Holden… My pictures do not describe a family on the move, what they describe is the Australian tent house in Queensland and just what happens when you unzip your front door and walk into the landscape.”

Pam’s photos at equal measure evoke a child’s holiday snaps, replete with natural landscape shots and posed photos of family and friends.

Charles Page focused on the mining sector in Queensland. As mining makes up a large part of the state’s economy and so many families are supported by the industry it is a fitting subject. The issues surrounding mining then have not gone away, if anything they have intensified, making Page’s work more important for us to view to gain a sense of history and perspective. From his artist statement “the demands of the job extend beyond the workplace, regardless of whether open-cut or underground mining is taking place. In Queensland, both types of mining are carried out and each has its intrinsic demands, which it places upon its employees, their families and the environment.”

Page’s photos simultaneously criticise the environmental effects of mining, while creating abstract works of art from the mess. His photos also celebrate the people who make their lives in mining towns and earn a livelihood from the industry.

This record marks much of what has changed in the rapid growth of the past thirty years. While reminding us of what is still the same. It is a shame that the diversity of ethnic and cultural backgrounds across the state were not further explored. The works of Martin and Mercer definitely show the diversity, and their work along with Page’s make some clear political statements about Indigenous issues and the environment. It is also surprising that the unearthing of the police state through the Fitzgerald inquiry was not addressed, as the myth of a safe conservative Christian Queensland was being eroded by the revelations of a violent and deeply corrupted system. The political upheaval and the social movements were missing. The battle for Aboriginal land rights and the black power movements that lead up to the World Expo in 1988 were also not explored.

With the right context this exhibit is an important marker for Queenslanders’ of their state’s history and development, a snapshot in time that can be returned to for perspective and understanding of such a pivotal time.

Journeys North

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