Helen Johnson & Megan Cope
PREVIEW: FRIDAY 30 JUNE, 6-8PM
EXHIBITION: 1 July – 24 September, 2017
Helen Johnson and Megan Cope interrogate notions of identity, power and social history to explore the complex colonial relationship between Australia and Britain.
Using the medium of painting, Helen Johnson weaves and overlays historical and contemporary signifiers to establish points of tension and reflection. Using large-scale paintings mounted to a structure that zigzags through the gallery, she creates an economy of images within and between paintings; some are given precedence, others made barely legible. The paintings are the size of theatre backdrops, in excess of the body, becoming sets before which to act.
In one painting, a man masturbates as the lyrics to the Australian national anthem are whispered into his ear: ‘for those who come across the seas we’ve boundless plains to share,’ a far cry from some of Australia’s current strict immigration policies. He stands before an image of Queen Victoria overlaid with handcuffs, whips and shackles used to punish colonial convicts. Hands reach from inside this image to smear the paintwork.
This body of work re-situates 19th century images of the White man as an imperialist brute, a sycophant and a greedy solipsist, scaling them up and reasserting them – they are the founding historical legacy for non-Indigenous Australians. The works repurpose and re-examine images of rituals used by colonists in an attempt to legitimise their occupation of Australia, ‘civilised’ procedures that thinly masked widespread massacres, dispossessions and attempted destructions of sophisticated, ancient cultures.
Prompted by the artist’s experience obtaining her ‘Certificate of Aboriginality’, Megan Cope’s video work ‘The Blaktism’ is a high-energy performance and ritual that sees a young female ‘fair-skinned Aborigine’ undertake a sacred ceremony in which she receives the rite of authenticity validated by authorities ever present in the Australian cultural landscape. The sacred ceremony itself results in a satirical cultural assimilation dance party whereby all Australians are liberated, celebrated equally and transgressively renewed through physical and gestural adjustments.
‘The Blaktism’ seeks to challenge audience members by showing the absurd nature of racial classification and disdain for cultural self-determination in the 21st century.
About the artists
Helen Johnson is an artist based in Melbourne. Recent solo exhibitions include Barron Field as part of the 2016 Glasgow International, Slow Learners at Château Shatto, Los Angeles, 2015 and Cafe Fatigue at Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, 2015. She has recently exhibited work as part of Painting. More Painting at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art; In my absence at Jocelyn Wolff, Paris; and Pleasure and Reality at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. In 2015 she published a book titled Painting is a Critical Form, developed from a PhD in Fine Art completed at Monash University where she is also a lecturer. Johnson is represented by Sutton Gallery in Melbourne, Château Shatto in Los Angeles and Pilar Corrias in London.
Megan Cope works with painting, video, sculptural installation and site-specific commissions. A Quandamooka woman from North Stradbroke Island, Queensland, her work explores the intricate relationship between environment, geography and identity. Maps feature prominently in Cope’s work; she draws on toponymy (the study of place names) to probe myths and methodologies around colonisation.
Cope’s work has been exhibited in Australia and internationally including at Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art; Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts; Gold Coast City Art Gallery; MONA FOMA, Hobart; ARC Biennial, Brisbane; Cairns Regional Art Gallery; Koori Heritage Trust, Melbourne; City Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand; Para Site Contemporary Art Space, Hong Kong; Careof Art Space, Milan; the Australian Embassy, Washington and Next Wave Festival, 2014. In 2015 Cope won the 2015 Western Australian Indigenous Art Award, and her work was curated into an exhibition currently on show at Musées de la Civilisation in Québec, Canada.
Cope was commissioned to create major site-specific commissions for both the Melbourne Museum and the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne in 2015, and for the exhibition ‘My Country, I still call Australia Home’ at Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, 2013.
In 2017 Cope has been commissioned to create works for The National: New Australian Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Indigenous Art Triennial, National Gallery of Australia.
About the exhibition and the partners
Helen Johnson’s work was originally co-comissioned by ICA, London and Artspace, Sydney. Entitled ‘Warm Ties’, it was presented at ICA 1 February – 2 April 2017, and following its exhibition at Chapter it will be shown at Artspace Sydney.
This exhibition is presented in collaboration with the ICA, as part of ICA Touring, funded by Arts Council England.
This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.
Image: Helen Johnson, Great Depression, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, synthetic fabric, 370 x 220cm