Mothertongue

Re Affiliations 12 June - 13 July 1997 Margaret Sanders, Claudia Lünig, Clare Martin, Hanh Ngo, Maria Stukoff, Lisa Jeong, Paloma Ramos, Madelaine Neveu Nexus Gallery, Adelaide

The relationship between mother and daughter is examined in Re Affiliations by artists from eight different nationalities, eight different cultural backgrounds. Each artist is a migrant or the daughter or granddaughter of a migrant and thus recognises a space between the homeland/motherland where their mothers were brought up and the country, Australia, where they attempt to make meanings in a multicultural context.

Re Affiliations was first shown at Susannah Place in The Rocks in Sydney, a domestic space redolent of the experience of early settlers in Australia. Then it moved to 24 Boronia Drive, O'Connor, another domestic space only this time in Canberra, the bush capital that of all Australian cities is closest to the light and space of the country as it was before any cities existed in it. People from all nationalities have lived in Canberra and undergone that awkward and strange transition from foreigner to resident. A transition which some of the work in Re Affiliations reflect as the significance of cultural backgrounds in different languages, foods and customs are confirmed as primary factors that constitute the ways we learn to perceive the world. We learn, as the saying goes, at our mother's knee (and later on in other joints).

The exhibition was also shown at West Space in Melbourne, then Nexus in Adelaide and finally will be seen in the Blue Mountains, though it may yet travel to Berlin with Claudia Lunig. Nexus is the first non-domestic space that the work has been shown in and is a space linked to the Nexus Multicultural Arts Centre, a place where ethnicity is celebrated in all artforms. At the opening of the exhibition at Nexus the writer Lolo Houbein spoke about how when you write letters to your mother you always paint a cheerful picture and thus evoked the mixed emotions, the self-definition and resistance, the longing and the separation that accompany this complex relationship.

What does condition this relationship and our perception of it? We can be close or less close to our mother, we can sense her as a fundamental support, a source of strength and affirmation, or alternately as a drain on our resources, someone with a fixed idea of who we are that does not allow us to develop and change, to grow up and away.

"I was sure I was going to grow up to be you but I'm not like you at all." So writes Clare Martin (b.1952 South Africa) to her mother in a letter included as an artists' statement. This statement suggests the female child looking at her mother and studying the adult form. Will I be like that? Martin's work is a giant dressing table, the scale emphasizing that child level view and the wooden perfume and cosmetic containers on top of it also enlarged and joined by a little figure who examines them with a magnifying glass. Living in Australia Martin has learned to be ashamed of South Africa but the feelings brought to light in this work, for the dressing table drawers contain the debris of a certain type of femaleness in the form of face powder and old make-up and old make-up applicators, has a resonance far beyond that country.

Claudia Lünig (b.1957 Germany) and Madelaine Neveu (b.1963 Chile) both take an adoring approach to memories of their mothers, in Neveu's case evoking an essentialist chthonic mother made from roots and clay, earth of my earth, flesh of my flesh, in a series of almost Archimboldo heads. The work is poetic and well-meaning but less credible than the display of a more complex and ambivalent set of feelings towards the maternal parent. Sprawling out of and above an old trunk that has travelled Zwischen Zwei Welten, Between Two Worlds Lünig shows amateur folk and flower paintings by her mother along with other artefacts and carriers of memory, photographs, face washers on which her mother's young face is printed and a sound tape of her voice. In another exhibition venue the face washers were pinned up with safety pins and it is nappies of course that come to mind in the combination of towelling and pins. Is there a cultural gulf here between Old World and New World in the fact that I felt that Lünig's work displays homesickness and an unresolved nostalgia about her mother, rather than an experience to be shared?

Ambivalence is strong in the work of Maria Stukoff (b.1969 Australia) who has taken the cool medium of the computer graphic to speak most effectively in rich colours and many layered effects of bitterness, decay, disease and dis-ease. The work travels inwards conceptually and visually to show the bones beneath the skin and to reflect upon matters of being and the body, perhaps she speaks of breast cancer, perhaps mere disillusionment. Hanh Ngo (b.1971 Vietnam) also touches on an antagonism to the mother as the carrier of conventional values and as the woman whose roles are delimited by patriarchal society. (daughter she obeys her father/wife she obeys her husband/widow she obeys her son)Ngo uses fragile paper fans to describe these changing states of submission. Lisa Jeong (b.1968 Australia) also uses artefacts from an Asian culture but she links Chinese Hell banknotes and joss papers with moving parts from a piano to make subtle kinetic works which, in combining Western and Chinese objects, reflect upon the wealth of ambivalent meaning to be found in Chinese culture made richer still by being reflected onto and back from other cultures.

In a video of her mother cooking Paloma Ramos (b.1956 Spain) takes us into the kitchen, the secret place of ritual and recipes, time-worn movements repeated over and over with the sacraments of bayleaves and wine, the place of talk and method, aroma and vision, where the senses of smell and touch, taste and hearing are paramount.
Margaret Sanders (b.1957 Australia) draws together imagined memories of early Australian botanist Georgina Molloy with memories of her mother as a gardener and farmer, seed collector and pragmatist. The juxtaposition of imagery in very simple drawings allows large amounts of empty space in which meaning may expand, in which ponderous thoughts may billow like skirts to fill the horizon.

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