Brenda L Croft:In My Father's House Destiny Deacon:Postcards from Mummy Glen Hughes:One Family: Perth Institute of Contemporary Art 12 August - 12 September 1999
Three exhibitions come together at Perth's Institute of Contemporary Art that all use photographic mediums to deal in different ways with a search for the artist's place in family identity. In each, the image of the artist is fleeting or in the case of Deacon's work, entirely absent. Rather, it seems these artists are using the process of image making to establish an imaginary dialogue with the deceased and with a new audience and to seek an understanding of how events in the past condition their present identity.
Does this current bold age of genetic manipulation create a certain anxiety to grasp the real inherited biological history? If not anxiety just yet, then certainly an interest in what Hughes terms 'genetic memory'. As the vast worldwide project to map each gene continues, our understanding increases that not only physical characteristics but our susceptibility to types of illness, our disposition and behaviour are all inherited via those fragile strands of genetic material.
Croft and Deacon's search was borne out of a more immediate and personal sadness. Croft's father and Deacon's mother both died in 1996 and having known each other for some time and presented work together before, they decided to present this new work in parallel. Croft's younger brother had been tragically killed two years earlier and so there is a layering not only of images but of grieving.
Hughes also felt an urgency to connect with her aging mother who died during the exhibition's tour. She talked through her photo albums and contacted relatives with requests for information and images.
Genetics however do not tell the whole story. The positioning of an exhibition by a white Anglo Saxon Australian woman next to those of two Aboriginal Australian women brings into sharp relief the human tragedy of generations of destruction of Aboriginal families through state-sanctioned policies of removal and displacement.
PICA's generous galleries allow each exhibition its space, but a viewer cannot fail to be haunted by the extreme contrasts in the artists' ability to represent their families. For Hughes there are church records, newspaper cuttings, formal baby photos, addresses, phone numbers, shipping records - all the facts that build up meaning and identity. She has been able to secure a photographic image of each family member going back five generations - there are no absences in her photographic tree that stretches out across a whole wall of the gallery.
Brenda L. Croft in contrast, has hazy recovered images of her father as an altar boy from institutional records and she has one picture of her grandmother with her father that she incorporates into the work She called him Son'. This image was the only one to survive of rolls of film taken at a reuniting family holiday in Darwin where her dying grandmother saw the son that had been taken from her as a boy.
Croft remembers her mother's anguish at the chemist who accidentally destroyed all the other negatives. This tragedy of loss of image was felt so keenly in a family who appreciated the importance of the reaffirmation of memory and identity through the photograph. Croft overlays this intimate and personal picture with an image taken from a childhood textbook that purported to show the different grades of skin colour according to genetic descent. As the child of a white woman and black man, Croft remembers wondering as a child 'well where do I fit in?'. As an adult artist she is able to conquer and deconstruct that image and find a strong identity outside such racist paradigms.
Destiny Deacon displays the few photographic records she has of her immediate family; however the main body of her exhibition is an attempt to recover images of her mother's early life in North Queensland of which she has no direct evidence other than the memory of her mother's stories. The linking of land with identity is crucial in Aboriginal culture. For Deacon, it is as if taking roll after roll of seemingly banal snapshots, with virtually no sign of human presence, finally allowed something of the essence of that country - its smells and textures, its light and humidity, to permeate into her and thus bring her to a closer understanding of her mother's character.
In a formal sense both Hughes and Croft use layering of text and image. Hughes creates a shimmering patina with the layers of transparency upon polished metal sandwiching them between layers of perspex to suggest time passing. In some works Croft's overlaid text perhaps makes her points too strongly, for there is enormous power in her juxtaposition of images.
Croft and Hughes in quite different ways also seek to deal with the impact of a wider cosmology on family identity. For Hughes this is depicted as the confluence of astrological, meteorological and geographical forces that came together on the night of her birth. For Croft the wider family, rituals and liturgy of the Anglican Church were central to her father's childhood. She finds it problematic to simply demonize this heritage and rather claims a new black iconography in works such as Suffer the little Children' 1988.
If a genetic legacy can form the basis of a story then certainly part of the power of these exhibitions is that photographs also leave us imagining more. The hazy snapshot, the suggestion of a cheeky grin on the face of an infant 100 years ago or the 'empty landscape', raise more questions and urge further investigation both for the artists and the viewer.