It’s Australia’s largest gathering of art galleries and an opportunity to see a diverse range of artists and art works under one roof. As Sydney Contemporary opens, we’ve profiled some of the most exciting female artists presenting their work.
“This series is the most vivid expression of my feelings”
NSW artist Tamara Dean creates otherworldly work in her purpose-built swimming pool.
The past few years have carried their fair share of difficulties for everyone, but Tamara Dean’s challenges began even before the pandemic.
The photo media artist lives in the Southern Highlands, and in 2019 she and her family found themselves in the direct line of the devastating bushfires that enveloped the area. “We had to evacuate three times,” she says, recalling the eery orange light that bathed her home.
It was an apocalyptic start to the year, and things didn’t get much better. When the pandemic struck, Dean was left grappling with bouts of anxiety.
To cope, she turned to her work, and this month, the result – an exquisitely surreal series called Palace Of Dreams, named after a line from Alice in Wonderland – is on display at Sydney Contemporary.
“This series is the most vivid expression of my internal feelings,” says Dean, who shot the series in a purpose-built swimming pool that she constructed on her property during lockdown.
“In Palace of Dreams, you can’t tell whether the figure is flying or falling. There’s a sense of anxiety, and a sense of wonder,” Dean says, explaining that she wanted to convey the strangeness of living through an environmental and health emergency, while simultaneously “having to get on with making dinner and the daily grind”.
Dean’s celestial series and artful, expressive work couldn’t be further from her earlier career as a news photographer for The Sydney Morning Herald, where she covered hard-hitting events from court cases to politics.
Palace of Dreams is even a departure from Dean’s most recent works, which veer into dark territory. “I’m trying very hard to bring light into my work – figuratively and literally,” she says. “I’ve been dealing with anxiety, and I wanted to look for the beauty to lift myself out of a pretty challenging situation.”
“I’m definitely a nostalgic person”
Zoe Young never set out to be a still life painter, but the NSW artist has accrued a dedicated following for her carefully composed domestic scenes.
In her twenties, Zoe Young flirted with experimental video, fashion and graphic and mural wallpaper design. Today, the Bowral-based artist seems as surprised as anyone to have ended up carving out a career a still life painter: a genre perhaps best known for its conservatism rather than its creativity.
And yet there were early clues that Young would end up focusing her considerable artistic talents on food and drink.
As a child, Young grew up in and around her parents’ restaurants, wine bars and hotels (“my family dinner would be with a bunch of staff before service”), and by 11 she had been recruited to create menus and screen-print her designs on to napkins.
It was only after having children, that Young, who studied sculpture, began to focus specifically on still life. “Once I had children, I had to really think about how I could generate income from what I love.”
For Young, that meant finding a way to squeeze her art-making into the precious few hours in which her children slept every day. “I had a driving ambition to keep my art practice going,” she explains. “I knew I had two hours while [my son] Wilbur slept so I would set up a cheese plate and force myself to do a watercolour.”
Young would then sell the watercolours on Instagram for $350 a piece. Today, the two-time Archibald Prize finalist no longer offers her work on social media (it tends to be sold in more rarefied spaces) and also enjoys portraiture (“the ultimate blood sport – it’s so tricky and hard”). However, her interest in painting food and drink remains.
Each still life takes hours to compose. “I work really fast when I paint, but there’s a lot of preparing and setting up. Often, I’ll set up the whole still life and be ready to go when I realise I really need to put in a bottle of [vermouth] Noilly Prat. It’s a really strange urge that [the work] won’t be complete until I get in the car and buy that bottle,” she laughs.
Along with food and drink, nostalgia is another theme of Young’s work. This year, for Sydney Contemporary she has painted a series of still life works featuring antiques as a way to explore her fascination with scale and memory. “I’m definitely [a nostalgic person]. I look at life as though it were a movie going back and forwards and rerunning.”
“My interest in photography is an interest in history”
Atong Atem has fast become a rising star in the art world
When Atong Atem dropped out of architecture school to study art, she accepted that in abandoning her career as an architect she’d also most likely be surrendering her financial security.
“I accepted that pursuing art as a career was not smart because that’s what the world around me told me,” says Atem, who was born to South-Sudanese parents in Ethiopa before settling in Melbourne as a refugee when she was six.
But although Atem did endure what she describes as “rice and lentils” phase, her star has risen quickly. Today, her work is hung in the National Gallery of New South Wales, and she has shown in London, New York, Milan and Amsterdam. This weekend her work is on show at Sydney Contemporary.
Atem is known for her vivid use of colour and for her self-portraiture, with much of her work focused on interrogating and reimagining her cultural history. “My interest in photography is really an interest in history and the history of photos of over time,” says Atem, who is particularly interested in historical ethnographic photographic portraits that were captured by colonial explorers and the ways in which these images exploited and objectified their subjects.
The prints on display at Sydney Contemporary are recreations of family photos – an attempt to “fill in the blanks” of a family and cultural history that she feels so distant from today. “I’m not trying to be a documentarian or earnest…some of the photos are direct recreations, [others] take the purpose of visual language of the family photos.”
More rising art stars…
Nadia Hernández’s work is informed by her experience as a Venezuelan woman living in Australia. Using colourful textiles, paper constructions, paintings, music, installations, sculptures and murals, Hernández negotiates complex narratives, weaving the personal and the political. It’s time for sancocho! will occupy a dedicated space at Kid Contemporary and invites children to create an artwork inspired by Hernández’s practice.
Miranda Skoczek is known for her vibrant, colourful work and her layered, abstract approach to art. The artist, who lives in the Dandenong ranges, has collaborated with Gorman and been profiled in a range of art publications.
Peta Clancy is a descendant of the Bangerang People and her photographic work explores hidden histories of colonisation. Her series Undercurrent will be projected on the exterior façade of Carriageworks during the evenings of the Fair.
Julia Trybala is an early-career artist whose luscious, velvety paintings show closely cropped and ambiguous body parts. Her work reveals the complexity of human relationships through subtle gestures and expressions.
Yukultji Napangati is a rising star of the Papunya Tula Artists – one of Australia’s most successful Indigenous art communities celebrating its 50th anniversary. Napangati is renowned for her shimmering surfaces and subtle use of colour.
WeiZen Ho presents The Stories from the Body #1, the first of a performance series that attempts to retrace lineages that have been disrupted, as a result of migration, from the South Fujian Province of China to Java, Singapore and Malaysia.
Elisa Jane Carmichael is a Quandamooka woman and multidisciplinary artist who honours her saltwater heritage by incorporating materials collected from Country. Her practice explores the beauty of nature and surrounding environments, drawing inspiration from her cultural identity and heritage.