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Mixed Messages @ Counihan Gallery

I often find sociological exhibitions in art galleries to be out of context and poor art but Phuong Ngo’s exhibition “My Dad the People Smuggler” at the Counihan Gallery is long overdue and worth a visit.

Currently in Australia the two major political parties compete to demonise ‘people smugglers’, the people who assist refugees to get to places of refuge, and to abuse those seeking refuge. The Australian government’s deliberately cruel, degrading and illegal policies on refugees (piracy is still a crime even if carried out by the Navy) have been going on for decades now.

But back in the early 1980s in Australian policy towards ‘people smugglers’ was very different. Although Australia has long had an immigration policy that expressed racist xenophobia, the results of the Vietnam War lead to a brief period when refugees were welcome in Australia. It was during this period that Phuong Ngo’s father assisted others to leave Vietnam and arrived in Australia. The evidence that such things happened is in photographs and videos, including his father’s talking about his experience in people smuggling.

Not that I expect that this exhibition will have any effect on Australia’s current policy on refugees; it is safely in an art gallery and will just contribute to the mixed messages that exist in our society.

Michelle Hamer’s exhibition of small tapestries “I send mixed messages” is in Gallery One of the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick. The mixed messages are everywhere, as the Situationists loved to point out, the billboards, signs, stencils and tags all contradict each other. “Stop the madness,” reads a stop sign (stop me if you have seen this before). Clement Greenberg argued that kitsch was the inappropriate translation of art to the wrong media; I wouldn’t say that Hamer’s work is kitsch but I don’t know if the media is appropriate. As tapestries, the focus and much of the detail of the original photographs has been lost. I last saw Hamer’s work at Bus in 2010 but the work seems very familiar as there are a lot of artists creating needlework tapestry of urban scenes in recent years including Catherine Tipping, who will be having an exhibition of tapestries at Tinning Street Presents… later this month.

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

5 responses to “Mixed Messages @ Counihan Gallery

  • Jo Rye

    Very pertinent comments about the Counihan exhibition and current immigration policy. Thanks for another interesting review of the Melbourne art scene.

  • artandarchitecturemainly

    Before WW2, at the 1938 Evian conference in France, Australia’s disgusting attitude to saving even 10,000 Jewish lives was not negotiable. But once the war was over, Australia really did take a more moral response to bringing migrants in. Sure there was a major element of self-interest in our new migration policy, but that is ok. Australia became a better country as a result.

    Now we have moved back with a vengeance to our 1938 views. We can’t really attack starving, desperate refugees, so we demonise people smugglers instead. The conservative government’s deliberately cruel, degrading and illegal policies on refugees WERE indeed obscene, but the Labour government is only marginally less nasty. And I am a passionate member of the Labour Party!!

    Apart from the indigenous population, there would be almost no people here if our parents and grandparents weren’t running away from starvation, persecution or misery somewhere else. Our parents were lucky they got into Australia when they did…. if they tried to get here now, they would be turned back.

    By the way, my parents in law used to take a thankyou present each year to the person who got them out of Czechoslovakia illegally. He was the hero of the entire group that _walked_ to Austria.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Hi Hels, Thanks for providing a longer historical view on people smuggling and Australia’s shameful treatment of refugees. (Sorry about the delay in replying as I’m currently traveling.) We need to remember that history and the brave heroes who help people escape from repressive regimes. We also need to stop providing any encouragement to politicians who demonize refugees and the people who help them.

    • artandarchitecturemainly

      Mark, the world moves in mysterious ways. First I have to mention that I had never heard of the Counihan Gallery,

      Now the surreal part. Just yesterday I was writing up Counihan’s politics and art because two of his drawings had recently arrived at my place! Then four hours _after_ I had finished, your comment on a post called “Mixed Messages @ Counihan Gallery” popped up.

      If the same comment had popped up in early April when your post was originally published, I would not have even noticed the words Counihan Gallery, Thank you.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Noel Counihan’s politics and art is reason for the gallery’s name. (The gallery also has a collection of his art, not on public display.) Glad that you found the connection and enjoy his drawings.

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