In 2009 the Bega Valley Regional Gallery joined the ranks of the Patrons of the ANU School of Art Emerging Artist Support Scheme (EASS); offering an exhibition opportunity here, at the gallery, to a meritorious student at the school’s annual Graduate Show. Haeli Van Veen is the third recipient of the BVRG award – receiving it in 2011 on the completion of her undergraduate degree in Textiles for a body of work that romanced tattooed embroidery on latex. It was at once humorous and edgy (and immediately prompted the intriguing curatorial possibilities of a combined show with eX de Medici.) Since that time Van Veen has gone on to complete Honours at the ANU SoA Sculpture Workshop, taking a huge leap in scale and creative breadth.
The work in Skun has clearly been informed by both disciplines. And so much more besides, not the least being the advent of baby Juniper, both muse and model for this current show, and the trigger for a thrillingly powerful interrogation of the psycho-biological imperative, wrought by motherhood and driven by universal socio-cultural heritage. The morbid portent of the fetishistic/shamanistic sculptural work is palpable; that black density lurking in the hoods carries unearthly overtones of the portal between life and death further promoted by the contrast between the archaic foreboding and the rude health of the tattooed child.
It’s a tension that bridges the mediums. Post-modern urbanity has a fixation with the outward trappings of fealty, of fashionable tribalism (tattooing, scarification, piercing, costume.) But the tattooing of the baby is far more ambiguous. In Tongan culture tattoos are symbols of protection, carrying no aggressive implication whatsoever. In the Chin tribes of Myanmar, the faces of young women were tattooed to discourage lustful kings from stealing them for wives. Over time this has translated into a tradition evincing beauty, strength and pride. Undoubtedly many people will find the images contentious – but in the arts, of course, this is a very desirable thing.
eX de Medici is certainly no stranger to contention. She has never shied away from the central tenets of socio-political activism, knowing full well that art is a powerful tool and that some things are best served illustrated. She is represented in all the major national collections from the NGA, to the Portrait Gallery, to MONA and Goma, to the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of NSW, and of course in many significant private collections. And some more private than others, those many enthusiasts lucky enough to bear an eX de Medici tattoo.
The Drill Hall Gallery in Canberra very recently held Cold-Blooded, a survey show of de Medici’s signature watercolours – huge, highly detailed and decorative canvasses; overwhelmingly seductive and shocking in the one breath. The work here at the BVRG is from a different though no less powerful facet of the artist’s practice – her photography. Over the past few years she has revisited Iran, spurred on by her perception of the community injustice in a country held and squeezed at the mercy of both its own oppressive government and the callous propaganda of the West. Having grown to love the people and culture of Iran, it’s hardly surprising that the rich and decorative vein of Persia has struck an already long established, sensitive visual chord.
Happy snaps here.