Review: Here/EverPresent by Nici Cumpston
This month I visited the inland city of Broken Hill to see some decolonial museum practices in action
When something is described as ‘dreamlike’ it might be short hand for otherworldly, uncanny or strange. It’s often an over used adjective, and yet this is the immediate response I have to the quality of light and spatial depth in Nici Cumpston’s photogravure print Fossil Waterhole (2016).
There is a stillness and mystery captured in Cumpston’s photograph turned print that invites longer contemplation. In the foreground on the right, my attention is initially caught by a large white striped tree trunk. Moving across the horizontal scene to the left is a creek of crystal-clear water, perfectly reflecting another white gum tree and the rock face behind it. These rocks look out at the viewer, some overhanging shapes forming eyes and lips among the grassy vegetation. They are shaggy and ancient.
Because the image is only small, and understandably so given the difficult process used to make it (more on this below), my eye is drawn inwards along the creek, to the horizon where more trees and the water’s edge disappear off the page. I found myself wishing it was bigger, wishing for more detail in those shadows where the water meets the rock face.
Fossil Waterhole was taken on a station in far western New South Wales, the land of the Malyangapa people. She is a Barkandji woman with Afghan, Irish and English ancestors and for her current exhibition at the Broken Hill City Art Gallery she has brought a series of photographs home to Country. While undertaking a residency at the Fowler’s Gap Arid Zone Research Station in 2011, Cumpston spent days photographing the evidence of Aboriginal occupation still visible in spite of past heavy agricultural use.
Fossil Waterhole is so named for the millennia of lifeforms once residing there. I can see the evidence of more recent intruders, cattle, whose hoofs have compacted the ground at the water’s edge. But a stillness and watchfulness remain. The power of a deeply significant location and the mystery it holds about the past and what happened here are conveyed in this image. These are the associations I get looking at it slowly.
I have to mention the colours and the process used to make the image because it isn’t in fact a simple black and white print, as it might first appear. The colours include greens and blues among the black and greys and soft white tree trunks. While participating in a print workshop at Cicada Press, Sydney, in 2016 Cumpston chose a series photographs created both on and off her own Country to be transformed into prints using photopolymer/photogravure plates. The process involves a photosensitive plate that has been exposed to UV light and developed using tap water, no chemicals required. The awe I feel looking at Fossil Waterhole comes from the reproduction of detailed continuous tones that are the hallmark of the intaglio process.
Cumpston sent her black and white negative to specialists in New York who created the UV sensitive plate, before it was printed in Sydney using archival inks and fine art paper. There are ten images in the series, and each is an edition of 15. Though this image is beautifully framed behind glass, I can tell the paper is special. It’s the type of paper that artists gush over and speak about in hushed tones, as though a harsh word uttered too loudly would indelibly mark it.
In contrast to Fossil Waterhole the rest of the exhibition features large scale hand-coloured photographs, some over a meter long. In Fossil Waterhole II (2022) we see the same image in new colours, the still creek curving into the horizon and meeting the overhanging rock face with the eyes and lips and face parts looking in the direction of the photographer (who was standing where we now stand in front of the work, face to face with–I am convinced–some kind of being). The hand colouring process, another time consuming and precise undertaking, grants my wish of a bigger view of the waterhole. Using PanPastels, Stabilo crayons and pencils on an archival inkjet print, Cumpston has rendered strange this now familiar scene, so much so that I almost don’t connect the two artworks until I visit the exhibition a second time.
The hand colouring process isn’t designed to replicate the colours of nature, though at first these do look like regular photographs. The colours are subtle and again the overused term: dreamlike. There is an indescribable quality they possess, and this is the only word I can find that is suitable.
Using a range of different pigments, Cumpston’s hand colouring of large format landscapes manifests a connection with her Country and allows the viewer to see these landscapes differently. She described the process as meditative and almost procedural, not necessarily about the outcome but the time spent playing. She thinks about the light and the time of day and recalls her memory of the place. The process must transport her through time, as these works were made in 2022 from photographs taken in 2011. It’s the atmospheric effects that I find striking, some of the colours Cumpston has used are just that little unexpected. The skies feature the softest sunset pinks, which again suggest an in-between time, not fully day, not fully night.
‘Here/EverPresent’ is the first exhibition you’ll see when entering the gallery, an effective choice by the curator because the themes of connecting with Country leads seamlessly to the other exhibitions, packed within the very colonial-looking (on the outside at least) building. ‘Returning to a subject through a lifetime: part two’ features artworks from the gallery’s permanent collection, including a serpentine display of lino prints by Wilcannia-based artists. Uncle Badger Bates’ work is featured here and is always a joy to see. Ruby Davies’ photograph of the town of Wilcannia standing in the empty Barka/Darling river in 2007, Water is Life, is an important historical document accompanied by arresting audio of the making of the photograph.
These communities are now experiencing the consequences of La Nina and a prolonged wet winter, the unpredictability of the weather patterns now creating a new uncertainty.
These themes continue upstairs in the exhibition of Pro Hart Outback Art Prize finalists. More local artists have been chosen in a range of media, showcasing more local talent than is generally appreciated for the region.
Censorship and controversy in the desert
When you encounter art in a place like Broken Hill, the significance of place is inescapable. So when the new director of the Broken Hill City Art Gallery chooses to champion local voices two things will happen. Broken Hill is a mining town located far inland on the lands of the Wilyakali peoples, 1143 km west of Sydney. It has been called the ‘home of Australian Unionism’. The saying goes that they had a hill, and they broke it. It’s now a heritage listed place, the heritage in question being overwhelmingly white and tied to resource extraction, or at least that is the impression the local city councillors would like you to believe.
The first thing that can happen when local voices are championed is the local mayor and newspaper will decry the removal of the visible colonial roots, and this controversy will play out in the local paper. This happened recently when director Blake Griffiths and his team began a rebrand, commissioning a $35,000 evaluation of the gallery’s identity and seeking to move the gallery beyond its colonial origins. The word regional was to be dropped from the title, and a new logo and materials proposed. The backlash from (white male) sections of the council was immediate, from I witnessed in the local paper. (Long time readers of Slow Looking will know newspapers are a historian’s go-to source to contextualise events, and I couldn’t help myself).
In March 2022 the Barrier Truth quoted councillor Bob Algate: “I would like to see a logo that represents the mining and pastoral industries that built this town.” And deputy mayor Jim Hickey thought the design was too “arty farty”. (I wish I could have seen it.) He went on to say: “I am not a teeny bopper, and my views are a little staid in some respects, but as far as I am concerned, we need to get back to having a logo that represents the heritage of the town, it’s a simple thing and it’s not open for debate.” The Mayor himself thought the new logo “looked like something a five-year-old could do on a computer.”
Other councillors opposed these overwhelmingly conservative positions and noted that personal taste shouldn’t decide the image of the gallery after a significant amount of money had already been spent and experts’ time invested. Councillor Darriea Turley AM said: “The style guide presented is a marketing tool, it’s about branding and opportunities and how we capitalise on our art gallery. It’s about how we actually engage with the whole community and not just one section of it.”
And back and forth it went. The title became Broken Hill City Art Gallery and we never saw the creative logo and branding designed to welcome new audiences in.
How an organisation looks and feels to the general public is vital to whether they feel comfortable coming in. As a white person visiting galleries and museums all over the country I am made to feel welcome, as the default audience category there is no question and no barrier to my accessing the hallowed spaces beyond the sliding glass doors. This isn’t always the case for audiences with different abilities or backgrounds. The Broken Hill City Council’s position looks all the more backward when compared to movements towards social inclusion happening at all levels across the gallery, library and museum sector. From small historical societies to state galleries, funding is often tied to how many visitors come through the doors and to what extent the organisation is supporting access for culturally and linguistically diverse people. I know this because my work on the Royal Historical Society of Victoria’s council is all about this.
But I digress. The second thing that can happen when a gallery attempts to modernise is the local voices do shine. On 30th September director Griffiths spoke at the launch of Nici Cumpston’s exhibition which was also the announcement of the Pro Hart Outback Art Prize and the launch of Joshua de Gruchy’s ‘Truth in the Trees’ exhibition and ‘The Past is Our Future; The Future is our Past’ by artist in residence Nigel Helyer. Griffiths emphasised repeatedly that local voices and perspectives were the mainstay of a gallery like the BHCAG.
Listening to the speech I could sense a subtext but at that moment didn’t know any of the ongoing controversy surrounding Griffith’s approach to decolonising the gallery. He spoke memorably about the artists whose work was on show that night and the number of local artists whose works were featured in the Pro Hart Prize, a national award. I cannot remember the Mayor’s words, but hearing ‘local’ repeated in Griffith’s soft but determined voice piqued my interest. Looking at the newspapers online afterwards, it was clear that the push back was due to the gallery’s new vision. The works from the permanent collection, no doubt heroic heritage pieces to the male councillors, were removed from display and after a major multi-million-dollar refurbishment (after the notorious 2016 hail storm), the gallery seems intent on prioritising work by local artists closer in time and subject matter to the people of Broken Hill today.
I should say, the voices of the conservative councillors appeared in the minority in the time I spent in the Hill. The opening night crowd was a mix of young and old, and as many snappily dressed millennials as you would see at a Melbourne artist run space, Blundstones and vocal fry packed the room.
I often hear that BH gets under your skin. Huge crowds visit for the Broken Heel festival, honouring the iconic Australian film Priscilla Queen of the Desert. I am yet to see the festival, but visiting in its wake and staying at the Palace Hotel (featured in the film) gave me a taste of the openness with which the locals celebrate LGBTIQA+ communities. Young artists are also prepared to move here or travel the long distance from Sydney to exhibit at the Desert Equinox (a three-night illuminated art exhibition presented by the Broken Hill Art Exchange). It’s an exciting place due to its size and the many strange and unique facets of its character. Its hard to pin down, and there certainly are not many trees (if that’s your sort of thing), but I find myself wanting to return.
And the winner is…
Announced on the same night was the Pro Hart Outback Art Prize. In keeping with the challenge to Broken Hill’s identity, Verity Nunan a local artist won the $20,000 prize with An Akubra Story. Second prize went to another local artist, Jim Paterson for a painting of Broken Hill. Nunan told the ABC “I think it’s just a reflection of the art scene at the moment, it’s really got it going on, there's a real vibe.”
Visit for the art and stay for the vibe.
The founding pieces in the Gallery’s collection warrant a separate analysis, especially as this is NSW’s oldest regional gallery. I wonder what insights the earliest pieces in the collection can provide about place and identity in the minds of the “founders”. Judging by this snippet about one of the paintings in question, the words white innocence and fragility come to mind.