During shutdown, artists have continued to create and galleries have continued to acquire work. Ebay may not be the most obvious source of art, especially for Australia’s major cultural institutions, but unorthodox acquisitions are as valuable as any.
A hand-knitted jumper depicting a runner and a kebab has been a highlight addition for the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA). Created by artist Emma Buswell, the knit refers to West Australian premier Mark McGowan’s response when asked about social distancing restrictions.
“I find it hard to believe someone was going for a run and stopped to have a kebab,” Mr McGowan said during a press conference in June, before dissolving into laughter. “We are not making it unlawful to go for a run and then have a kebab.”
Ms Buswell, 29, who was stood down from her local government job for eight weeks due to the pandemic, said she initially made the jumper as a “working home uniform”. But when she posted on social media there was a frenzy, generating 102 orders for the jumpers which were sold at $100 each.
Ms Buswell said her generation felt disatisfaction with governments but Mr McGowan’s laughing fit “endeared a lot of us towards him, it was quite nice to see a politician being real”.
AGWA director Colin Walker said the jumper not only reflected the health crisis but captured a high profile figure losing control. “During COVID none of us have as much control of anything, no matter who we are,” he said.
Tony Albert’s Misunderstanding, recently acquired by AGWA, is also a response to a contemporary moment, referencing Rio Tinto’s destruction of two sites in the Juukan Gorge, one of which contained evidence of human habitation dating back 45,000 years. Albert painted several sticks of dynamite, labelled Rio Tinto, across a velvet portrait, of the kind popular in Australia in the 1960s and 70s, of Aboriginal children.
Institutions across the country have launched programs to help artists keep working during the pandemic. The Together In Art series at the Art Gallery of New South Wales was designed to support local artists by providing them with commissions to create new work.
The first is From My Window, which features works on paper by nine artists. Asked to consider the view from their window, responses varied from images of comfort and community to uncertainty and fear, as seen in Emily Hunt’s (Returned) Three Gorgons, created when the artist was in Berlin.
“I spend a lot of time on my balcony at the moment, looking at other people’s windows and watching the movements of people on the street,” Ms Hunt said. “My work is driven by looking at people, but I don’t particularly like to be around them. The lockdown, strangely enough, has helped me become more accepting of the introverted parts of my nature.”
The Art Gallery of South Australia has also reinvigorated its South Australian Artists Fund, offering six artists $10,000 bursaries to support the continuation of their practice with no exhibition outcomes.
Around the country, young artists are addressing global issues, AGWA’s Mr Walker said, and “getting their voices amplified” through their work. “I’m really interested in where truth-telling will take us, those kinds of ideas. Politically, where Australia is and where it’s been, and that gives a really strong particular strand [in art].”
Kerrie is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald