My Upstate Art Weekend Adventure

July 30, 2022 in ArtSpiel

Vanessa German,  Black on Black, 2021, Handmade folk art cloth Black woman pin cushion, glory, wood, love, astroturf, Black seed beads, confusion, Black rhinestone trim, Black bead trim, (they traded your grandmother for a handful of beads), vintage hand purse, rage, old doll parts, ptsd, the fallout from white supremacist delusion, cork, Black pigment, sorrow, vintage mirror, self loathing, cotton, a miracle, twine, tears, yarn, heartbreak, love. 26 x 18 x 9 1/2 in.

Last weekend was the third annual Upstate Art Weekend, a wildly ambitious and fun three-day art fair that winds its way from Westchester to Catskill NY. Founded by impresario Helen Toomer in 2020, Upstate Art Weekend celebrates and promotes visual arts throughout the Hudson Valley. One hundred and forty venues participated this year, and there was everything from art in a big-box truck in Kerhonkson to the gallery/studio campus of Foreland in Catskill.  The intense heat of last week made this year’s event a challenge, but totally worth the sweat. Here is a brief travelogue of my schlep around the Hudson Valley: 

I started in Beacon on Friday and caught the two-person show at Mother Gallery, entitled We Flew Over the Wild Winds of Wildfires. I am a fan of both Vanessa German and Zoe Buckman’s work individually, but for me the two artists work did not “sing” together. German’s pieces are so strong, as always, that I feel like she carries a room all by herself.

I hit Kingston on my way home and went to a number of small studio exhibitions. Lemon Sky ProjectsLite Brite Neon Studio, and Headstone Gallery  all hosted interesting group shows. The city was brutally hot and still there were a lot of people braving the heat to visit these small venues scattered across the city.

On Saturday I headed across the river to T’Space. Founded by architect Stephen Holl. It is an estate, dotted by buildings that house his architectural archives and an artist residency, and plays hosts to musical and poetry events. The gallery is a jewel that sits in a wooded area with lovely views that bring the outside in a most poetic way. This season’s featured artist is Arlene Shechet. The elegant gallery space holds two of her equally elegant large sculptures and two small wall pieces. Shechet’s sculptures are a perfect pairing with Holl’s spare architecture. They are evocative of both architecture and contemporary abstract forms. Each is imbued with deep and rich color. The cast iron piece is a luminous play of orange and shades of rust. The mixed material sculpture combines deep, woodsy blue greens and a flash of silver. It was a lovely pause from the heat of the day, and the work looks perfect in this space.

Mystery History, 2022, Dyed hardwood, steel, glazed ceramic, and silver leaf, 84” x 34’ x 24“

On to Kingston and the non-profit space called Artport Kingston. Located in a spectacular 19th century steamboat building, the space is simply breathtaking. A venue this big, with no space divisions, is very hard to curate. There are three current shows, and it’s a bit of a grab bag of small shows within the space. A little more signage would be helpful in an exhibition of this size and scope. But I look forward to seeing how this project develops over time. The potential for the space is very exciting.

Installation by Jeila Guermian

Installation view at Artport Kingston

At this point the temperature was 105 degrees (literally) and I needed to get out of Kingston. I headed west towards a new artist-in-residency program called Swimming Hole Foundation. Not locatable on a GPS and perched on a mountaintop, at the end of a very winding one-lane dirt road, this is one of the most breathtaking places I’ve been in a long time and quite a respite from the rest of the world.

Founder Deb Johnson has turned her property into a magnificent residency program that focuses on collaborative projects. Groups of up to 12 artists, from all disciplines are invited to spend a week working collaboratively on a single themed idea. The residency is in its first year and has visionary plans for the future. The nature of the final collaborative project—a sound and light collaboration filling a two-story space—made it difficult to photograph.

Parallel to the residents’ exhibition there was a solo presentation by Advisory Board member Matt Nolen, showcasing work in clay and watercolor that he completed during a recent residency in Sienna, Italy. The work looked enchanting, displayed on rough built wooden pedestals with the mountains in the background. The soft Italian palette that Nolen uses popped magnificently against the brilliant green of the countryside.

Sienna Albaello- fired terra cotta clay. 13”x 5 x 5. 2022

And that was it. I was dehydrated and ready to have a beer on my own porch and get ready for Sunday, the final day of Art Weekend.

On Sunday three friends and I decided to tackle the East side of the Hudson.

Starting in Germantown we started at Alexander Grey Associates which is featuring a tranquil show by Harmony Hammond. The show is very spare, perhaps a little too spare for my taste. But the gallery is beautiful, with a barrel vaulted brick ceiling and understated soft lighting.

Onward to Hudson, and a plethora of galleries to visit. As we trudged up Warren Street towards Susan Eley Fine Art my companions began to fade. Thankfully the gallery was crisply air-conditioned and we spent a delightful 45 minutes chatting with Susan. The current two person show Earthen Energies, Ancient Roots is an apt summer exhibition, full of light, flowers and insects. Jackie Shatz’s small ceramic wall figures are a delightful foil for Ashley Norwood Cooper’s paintings of people interacting with nature in humorous and slightly alarming ways.

Artist info. Unavailable

And then went out for ice cream. It seemed like the only answer to the day.

It was an exhausting, exhilarating, art-filled weekend, an inspiring celebration of the growing art scene in the Hudson Valley. Some very good shows, some meh shows, some wholly new discoveries. In all a great adventure, one that I highly recommend you take next year.

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Hew Locke: The Procession at the Tate Britain

Published on July 28, 2022 in Art Spiel Each year The Tate Britain commissions a large-scale art installation for the iconic Duveen Galleries at the museum. This is a vast space, an art-filled hall, more than a typical gallery that winds its way down the center of the museum on the first floor. This year they tapped the Guyanese-British artist Hew Locke whose visual musings on migration, history, national identity and ritual are well known in the British art world. Locke has long worked these themes, but never on such a scale. It is a wildly ambitious vision that embraces his interests and presents a fully developed Universe.

Locke has created a massive procession of about 150 life-sized figures fabricated from a wide array of materials. As they march through the soaring white marble space we are drawn into the history of the British sugar trade; Henry Tate, the founding benefactor of the museum made his fortune in the Caribbean sugar trade, a lucrative but abusive business built on the back of slave-labor. The installation references Carnival, British military parades, Caribbean death rituals, weddings, the BLM movement, farming, flood- in its dizzying yet always coherent parade of imagery and objects.

There are figures on horses, bands playing musical instruments being carried on palanquins. As we walk around the procession we see flags both real and imaginary. Sugar plantation certificates printed on fluttery silk. Men, women and children all moving in silence. It is a procession that is full of both sorrow and joy. Many of the figures are masked… or perhaps these are their true faces that we are seeing, without their “social masks.” All are wearing elaborate costumes that reference historical and social events and that carry baggage, both real and conceptual.

It is an extraordinary project. I have never seen anything quite like it. A part of me longed for music or sound to accompany the procession. It seems to beg for that. But after spending over an hour circling the work repeatedly, I began to understand the beauty of its silence. One could extrapolate a metaphor from this- of a people being silenced. That is perhaps too pat an explanation and Locke too nuanced an artist to provide such an obvious answer. I began to appreciate the music that viewers can bring to the project via their imaginations. I heard British marching songs interspersed with the sounds of the Caribbean. And I heard the silent weight of history marching resolutely forward, acknowledging its past and seeking to transcend it.


Hew Locke: The Procession Runs through Jan. 23, 2023 at The Tate Britain. Millbank, London SW1P 4RG.


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Posted on March 22, 2022 in Art Spiel

Dances With Color and Form

Installation view

Staring at Kathy Butterly’s ceramic sculptures, I am overwhelmed by an urge to reach out and touch them. The marriage of color and form is perfectly wrought, shapes and colors inextricable yet sharply distinct. I want to trace my finger along that delicate whisper thin band of orange in Between Things, and feel the little bumps along the rim of Luminious Flow. I want to feel the change between matte and gloss surfaces and the weight of the sculpture in my hand.

Butterfly starts from a classical, deceptively simple premise: a formal vase sitting on a base. She has coupled this form with concepts of modernist painting; in the ways she uses color and composition in the glazing process.  Starting with a very simple slip cast ceramic form, Butterly alters each one, boldly folding it in onto itself and poking through the skin of the clay. The forms are augmented with delicate ropes of porcelain or carefully carved beads, both of which remind me of sewing notions- ribbons, piping, and trim. They drape elegantly around, over and through the forms, adding a lyrical note to each sculpture. Though diminutive in size (6-12 inches tall), these sculptures pack a wallop.

Luminous Flow, 2021, Porcelain, earthenware, glaze, 6 3/8 x 7 1/8 x 6 1/4 in.

And then there is the color. Much has been said about Butterly’s masterful use of color and in particular that she uses glaze to create surfaces more commonly associated with painting and drawing.  It is important to note that glaze, a form of colored glass, literally moves on the surface of an object while it’s undergoing the firing and cooling process. There is always a degree of unpredictability in the medium and as glorious as the results can be, there is always the possibility of heartbreak, as colors may drip or melt in an undesired way. Butterly, as both a master of the medium and as a flexible artist, works with the uncertainties and surprises of the firing process. She fires her sculptures up to 40 times in the kiln and is thus able to layer color and texture in completely new ways. I would bet  that she also works with the occasionally errant firing result and uses it moving forward in the sculptures. The pools of glass and swirls of color are adeptly offset by precise painted lines and carefully crafted ornamental elements. Between the hard gloss of the glaze and the softness of the clay forms, the sculptures feel simultaneously hard and soft.

Subtle Slide, 2021, Porcelain, earthenware, glaze, 7 7/8 x 6 x 5 1/2 in.

Between Things, 2022, Porcelain, earthenware, and glaze, 8 3/8 x 4 3/4 x 9 1/8 in.

This, 2022, Porcelain, earthenware, and glaze, 8 x 6 x 6 3/4 in.

Butterly has always used color in beautiful and startling ways. The color palette throughout this body of work suggests a strong mid-century modern influence. Odd oranges play off of slightly sour greens, with a hit of yellow running though. There is a shade of pink that often appears that reminds me of my mother’s Russell Wright dishes. However, within these color choices, there is never even the faintest hint of nostalgia; rather it feels that she is referencing these colors of another era and through eccentric mixing and combinations, making them her own.

Color in Forming is a show that deserves more than one visit.  We are drawn into the dramas that happen in each sculpture. They are alternately funny, alarming, serious and joyful. Each telling a tale that winds around, in and out, up and over the small sculptures, and stays with you after you’ve left their presence.

All photos courtesy of Melissa Stern

Kathy Butterly: Color In Forming Gallery Exhibition at 48 Walker St | 24 February – 26 March 2022



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Report from Kinderhook: Feedback at Jack Shainman Gallery/The School

Oct. 21, 2021 ( yeah I know, I’m posting a wee bit late!) in Artcritical

Installation shot of the exhibition under review, with Karon Davis’s Double Dutch Girls (2021) in the foreground. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery

Jack Shainman opened The School in Kinderhook, NY as a satellite space to his New York City galleries in 2014. A 30,000 square foot former schoolhouse built in 1929, it was renovated by architect Antonio Torrecillas. Some elements have been left intact: girls and boys bathrooms, fixtures removed, are still painted in the pink and blue of the era, the decaying plaster walls sealed permanently in their beautiful, melancholy state, in sharp contrast to the “white box” galleries elsewhere . It is worth the 2-1/2  hour drive from the city just to see the building.

This summer, the Schoolhouse presented a 22-artist group exhibition, “Feedback,”curated by Helen Molesworth “Feedback is filled with art works by artists who I’ve been following for a while,” the curator has written. “In other words, artists I ‘like’ and who I have asked to gather together today to form an assembly, a class, a chorus.”

According to Molesworth, the idea for the exhibition was triggered by first experiencing the audio piece by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller that now greets visitors upon entering The School. When a visitor steps on the “wah wah” pedal, the amplifier placed behind it begins to play a Jimi Hendrix-inspired version of the Star Spangled Banner that is amplified to the point of aural pain. When I visited there was a guard stationed nearby to turn it off immediately, so unbearable is the noise: An inauspicious introduction to an exhibition that is in many ways a gentle exploration of contemporary visions. Among its other meanings,  “feedback” is a term for the sound generated by this pedal.

Mixing and matching in each room, Molesworth has installed works to create small universes where the artworks are orbiting each other in meaningful ways and in turn responding to the architectural implications of each space.

Kerry James Marshall, Ecce Homo, 2008-14.  Acrylic on PVC panel, 9 x 24 inches. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery

One of the most successful in what the checklist calls the “southeast unfinished classroom,” an eerie space with peeling and pockmarked blue paint on the old plaster walls. Molesworth has assembled the works into a tableau of relationships that carry the echoes of an old schoolroom.  Taylor Davis has a trio of three watercolors that riff on the American flag (ever present in American classrooms of the past), their stars and stripes morphed into calligraphic poems that float across the page. The room is bookended by two powerful paintings: “Ecco Homo by Kerry James Marshall and The Treasures by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Each portrays a young Black man, perhaps teenaged, in very different states of mind, looking at each other from across the room. Both send mixed messages of slavery and freedom.

Marshall’s painting, with his typical attention to crisp detail, presents a young man adorned with a massive gold chain encircling his neck which can be read as a golden yoke. He meets the viewer’s eye with what can be taken, equally, as pride and a plea for rescue.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, The Treasures, 2012. Oil on canvas, 9-1/2 x 51-1/8 inches. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery

Rose Simpson- Storyteller. Ceramic, steel

But it’s the two freestanding sculptures that, for me, tie the theme of the room together. Rose B. Simpson, whose masterful ceramic and mixed media figures populate several rooms in the exhibition, has a piece here entitled Storyteller. A medium-sized figure, glazed in matte yellow ochre and painted with dark simplified symbols, sits on the floor. Out of their mouth erupts a steel framework upon which are perched small terra cotta figures. Huddled together they reach, cuddle, whisper and climb on one another. The work is at once evocative of pre-Columbian and Southwest American pottery forms and totally contemporary. The sculpture personifies the passing of knowledge, albeit in a different kind of classroom.

Karon Davis- Game:9:43 am ( Frankie) . Plaster, found objects. Lifesize

Karon Davis’s Game: 943am (Frankie)  is provocative and open-ended like other works in this room, disturbing but alternatively perhaps amusing. An elementary age schoolgirl, fabricated out of stark white plaster, sits under a vintage school desk looking upward with human eyes. An open schoolbook lies on the desk above her, as if abandoned hastily. Evocative of so many things at once. There used to be “fallout drills” in U.S. schools; upon the sound of an alarm we would all scuttle under our desks for protection from the possible atomic bomb that was about to land on us. Hardly reassuring, but a potent image of the era. Is our young girl participating in a drill or is she hiding from an unseen threat? Or is it a game of hide and seek?

Feedback is an ambitious exhibition whose success lies in imagining the school space as a totality. The exhibition is especially resonant as American’s rethink their relationship to public spaces and the nature of childhood and schooling. Feedback is an endearing and affecting artistic take on the late-summer theme of “Back to School.”

Feedback at Jack Shainman/The School runs through October 30, 2021,  25 Broad Street, Kinderhook, NY 12106.

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A Blizzard of Paint and Objects: Joyce Pensato Makes Pop Culture Her Own

Feb. 10, 2021 in artcritical

Joyce Pensato at Petzel Gallery

Installation shot of the exhibition under review showing Joyce Pensato, Daisy, 2012, to the right. Courtesy of Petzel Gallery, New York

Joyce Pensato’s 2012 exhibition, Batman Returns, although her third at Petzel Gallery, was greeted by the New York art world with astonishment.  At its core was a large-scale installation titled Fuggetabout It. The gallery was transformed into a simulacrum of Pensato’s work space: toys, posters, photographs, empty paint cans, old furniture, and used paint brushes cohabited with her explosive paintings of pop-culture icons. After more than 30 years in her Williamsburg studio, Pensato had lost a legal battle with her landlord and was forced to vacate. She had literally ripped out pieces of her studio walls and installed them in a pristine white-box gallery. It was funny, alarming, and bold.

Petzel Gallery, which manages the artist’s estate (she died in 2019) has mounted a brilliant exhibition that partially recreates the 2012 installation while adding drawings and paintings not in the original show that amplify the artist’s singular vision.

Fuggetabout It (Redux) situates studio detritus seductively in the entry way while placing a huge drawing of a child’s toy, Daisy(2012), in the first gallery, as if to welcome visitors with arms extended. Vigorous gestures in charcoal and pastel swirl around the figure, both defining it and bursting out of its sides. There is palpable delight in the artist’s mark making as layer upon layer of charcoal is repeatedly applied, erased, and applied again, revealing the drawing’s rich and tactile history. In some places, Pensato erased so aggressively that she went right through the paper. The energy is electric. Both the artist and her subjects seem very much in charge. Though she grins a seemingly friendly smile, the monumental roly-poly Daisy could rip you apart.

Daisy is joined in the first room by Underground Homer and Smackdown Lisa, two characters from The Simpsons that were perennial Pensato subjects. The trio is a canny introduction to the rest of the exhibition. The next room houses much of the reconfigured Fuggetabout It installation, a mad tangle of objects on tables, chairs, the floor—all covered in drips and blobs of Pensato’s paint of choice, black and white commercial grade enamel. It takes a moment to readjust your focus as you are drawn into this compact universe. Stuffed animals, a life-sized cardboard cutout of Muhammad Ali, furniture, a fake palm tree, and dozens upon dozens of paint cans and brushes, milk crates, and rags. It’s a whirlwind of paint and objects, both fun and startling. I watched gallery visitors take a step back at the entryway of the room, alarmed that they had, perhaps stumbled into a hoarder’s den. Installed so that visitors can walk around, peer under and over the tableaux, it’s a maximalist’s dream come true

Underground Homer, 2019, to the right. Courtesy of Petzel Gallery, New York. Installation view.

As we absorb this past view of Pensato’s work, it is important to consider how far she traveled. As a student at the New York Studio School in the 1970s, she aspired to be an Abstract Expressionist. According to her own account and those of her peers, she struggled to find her voice and artistic acceptance. Her ambition undiminished, she turned to pop culture for her iconography, but without abandoning her AbEx roots. The extraordinary energy of her gestural painting and drawing relates directly to the work of Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner and Franz Kline. But while the grit and passion remain expressionist, the iconography is unabashedly pop.

Despite the power and skill of Pensato’s drawing, her use of pop culture sources was seen by some as a gimmick. But a concurrent exhibition at the uptown Petzel Gallery centered solely on the artist’s deep dive into Batman and Spiderman show the extent to which her disciplined and focused work deconstructs and reconfigures these all-familiar superheroes to take full artistic ownership of them.

Joyce Pensato, What’s Next, 2015. Enamel on linen, Set of five paintings, 48 x 40 inches each. Courtesy of the Estate of Joyce Pensato and Petzel Gallery, New York

The third room at the Chelsea exhibition is where the brilliance of both her career and the installation of this show are most fully realized. A clean white room is hung with large portraits of the eyes—and only the eyes—of Pensato’s subjects. In stark black and white, these giant paintings walk the line between representation and abstraction. Informed by Pensato’s drawings and the installation, we know that these are the eyes of Homer and Lisa Simpson, Batman, South Park’s Eric Cartman and other such figures. But at the same time, they read as pure explorations of form, texture and material. Pensato has distilled recognizable traits to their essence. They are convincing portraits and galvanizing abstraction, exemplary as both.

Installation shot of Joyce Pensato: Fuggetabout It (Redux) at Petzel Gallery, New York

Fuggetabout It (Redux)
January 15 to February 27, 2021
456 West 18th Street, between 9th and 10th avenues
New York City,

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An Outsider Artist Channels His Demons Into Uniquely Funny and Dark Compositions

Jan. 31, 2020 in Hyperallergic

On display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia, works of Benjamin Jones project deep sorrow as well as an unvanquished ray of optimism.

Benjamin Jones, “Isolating the Disease” from the Isolation Series (2003), graphite and colored pencil on paper, 18 x 23.5 in.

ATLANTA — I think of the artist Benjamin Jones as a kind of art superhero. By day, Jones stocks supermarket shelves near his home on Tybee Island, Georgia, a quiet barrier island off the coast. After work, he ascends into his own universe and creates artwork that is emotional, passionate, funny, and dark. Benjamin Jones Speaking at the Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia (MoCA GA) is an exhaustive retrospective of the artist’s unique career and a much-deserved honor for someone who has flown under the radar for decades.

Born in 1954 in Atlanta, Jones faced many challenges in his life. Called “sissy boy” as a child, he started drawing at a young age and channeled many of his internal (and external) demons into his artwork. His early drawings often feature a solitary central figure (possibly the artist himself) who seems both put upon by the world and is screaming back at it. The artist’s name, written in an idiosyncratic script, is always prominent in these compositions, as if to declare his existence and his value. The work projects deep sorrow as well as an unvanquished ray of optimism.

Benjamin Jones, “Sissy Boy” (2005), graphite on paper and collage, 14.25 x 10.5 in.

As his work developed over the years, Jones began including other figures, as well as animals and collage elements culled from his voluminous notebook and ephemera collection. Many of these private source materials are on display in the exhibition. Color, used minimally in the early work, later became a central element in his images. The transitions between his early and later works echo a life-stage metamorphosis, and indeed this is redoubled in Jones’s autobiography: After a hiatus of several years, when he tended to his ill mother and dealt with his own health issues, Jones came roaring back to the studio, almost reborn.

Tinged with a sense of humor, Jones’s work of the past decade has become both funnier and darker, as well as more overtly political. The maturity of his vision is matched by the sophistication of his drawing. Lines, both subtle and strong, render figures imbued with deep psychological resonance. His compositions often have an off-center focus, a quality that represents his subjects and self-image. Animals peep in from the edges of the drawings, or drop in unexpectedly from the top, while dramatic scale shifts amplify what I see as the psychological stances underpinning his work: feeling like the outsider looking in and standing tall in a world that makes us feel small.

Installation view of Benjamin Jones: Speaking Retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia

Benjamin Jones, “Scream” (2000), graphite and colored pencil on paper, 12.5 x 41 in.

Jones is also a collector of vintage toys and action figures, many of which are on display in a large case in the show. And he is an extraordinary correspondent, through that quaint, old-fashioned thing called “mail”; a huge gallery wall is covered, salon-style, with the envelopes and drawings that he has sent to friends, dealers, and collectors all over the world. Each one is a work of art. I dearly wish that I had been his pen pal.

Benjamin Jones is an outsider artist who has come in from the cold.

Benjamin Jones, “Notes from Journal” (2003-2004 -2005), graphite on paper, 30.25 x 22.75 in.

Benjamin Jones Speaking continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia (75 Bennett St. NW, Atlanta, Georgia) through February 15. The exhibition was organized by Barbara Archer.

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Testing one- two-three !

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Hermannsburg Potters

Reposting from March 2016. Originally in Hyperllergic

Aboriginal Women in Australia Celebrate Their Football Heroes with Pottery

Rona Rubunjta Arrente’s “I’m Black” (2015) (left); Ngala Wheeler’s “Brotherhood” (2015) (right) in ‘Our Land is Alive: Hermannsburg Potters for Kids continues’ at The Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

MELBOURNE — The desert of Central Australia might seem like an unlikely place to find an art cooperative making potent and beautiful pottery. But an exhibition at Melbourne’s Ian Potter Centre is featuring a moving display of hand-painted pottery by the Aboriginal women of Hermannsburg — a tradition not indigenous to the area — celebrating, of all things, their football heroes. What gives?

Settled by colonialists in the 19th century, the town of Hermannsburg is 80 miles west of Alice Springs and home to just 700 people. The indigenous Arrernte/Luritjapeoples here were subject to a radical and often violent disruption of their lives and lands — a sad story common to many countries and native cultures.

Around 1900, a group of Lutheran missionaries built a mission house and school in Hermannsburg, offering food, water, and protection from other white settlers to the local people if they converted to Christianity. Given their other options, it’s understandable why the Arrernte/Luritja people would embrace their European “saviors.”

The Lutherans proved comparatively benevolent occupiers. Among the many crafts they introduced were Western art-making in the form of pottery, watercolor painting, Western “women’s” skills such as crochet and knitting. (In the mid-1930s, a local watercolor style emerged and Albert Namatjira (1902–1959) became the most famous Aboriginal artist of his generation.) It’s a little unclear why the missionaries decided to introduce these arts to the Arrernte. I suspect they thought the sale of pottery to tourists could generate income.

Installation view of ‘Our Land is Alive: Hermannsburg Potters for Kids continues’ at The Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria.

In 1975, the land was officially given back to the indigenous inhabitants and the town became dually known as Ntaria/Hermannsburg. Shortly afterward, the local government built a ceramic workshop and the Hermannsburg Pottery cooperative was officially founded. Locals not only continued but developed the pottery tradition into artwork that has real resonance.

Initially, all the work was done by men. The pots, depicting local flora and fauna, were pretty, if not exceptional, and sold to tourists passing throughout the central desert. But in 1990, senior lawman Nashasson Ungwanaka invited a potter named Naomi Sharp to come to Hermannsburg and teach a workshop, and soon thereafter the women of Hermannsburg took over. No longer quite as passive as the male potters, the women of Hermannsburg began to make pots that reflected their lives in a more meaningful way than the “tourist art” had done.


Pot by Rahel Kngwarria Ungwanaka “Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer” (
2015), installation view, Northern Territory
 earthenware, under glazes.

It turns out that the women of Hermannsburg, by their own admission, are fanatical fans of Australian rules football, a rough and tumble team sport played only in Australia. Founded in 1908, the game has been traditionally a white sport and for many years the leagues (unofficially, of course) mirrored the racist attitudes of their nation. Aboriginal and other ethnic minorities faced discrimination and outright racism as they slowly integrated into the leagues. Famous and accomplished Aboriginal players such as Nicky Winmar, Michael Long, and Chris Lewis have publicly stood up against racism, and this, in turn, has given an enormous boost to the Aboriginal rights movements.

While the Hermannsburg women potters still continue the tradition of lyrical pottery depicting the natural world in which they live, it is their dynamic football pieces that reflect the personal and political victories of the players that pack a visual and emotional punch. One of the most famous moments in Australian football is portrayed in a piece by Rona Rubunjta that recreates the image of celebrated player Nicky Winmar lifting his shirt and proudly pointing to the color of his skin in 1993. The piece, entitled “I’m Black,” is a triumph of identity, and one can only imagine the empowerment that this gesture conveyed to his country folk.

Photograph of Hermannsburg Women Potters fans

The Ian Potter Center exhibition consists of 20 pots, with animated scenes from famous football games painted (in fired underglaze) around their exteriors. Each is topped with a sculptural finial portraying one or several athletic figures in three dimensions. The drawing and modeling is loose and fun; the pots self-assured in their design and fabrication, and bold in their statement of ethnic pride. Each pot tells its story in a circular way, the narrative traveling around its exterior, though each maker has a different portrayal of space. In some, the figures are foreshortened and slightly warped, as their bodies conform to the undulation of the classical ceramic shape. Others tell a visual story in space that is compressed, both horizontally and vertically, so the story reads more as a band of images. The color is universally bold and opaque. The individual drawings are personal and idiosyncratic; there is no mistaking the work of one potter for another.

Because this is a significant political and cultural exhibition, I was slightly dismayed that the curators decided to design it as an exhibition primarily for children. Officially entitled Our Land is Alive: Hermannsburg Potters for Kids, the show is set up like a football field: a red floor with boundary markings delineates the gallery and the pots are placed in vitrines that mimic the official football starting positions. The gallery is hung with the banners of Australian Football teams. It’s lively for sure, but also a little chaotic, and I fear decreases the social import of the artwork. I am all for enticing children into museum shows, but this one feels a little like an amusement arcade. I’m not sure why the giant wall text needed to say “For Kids.” The art and the message presented in this exhibition is in no way childlike. I could see adults read the signage and turning away from the exhibition, which would be a loss for everyone.

Lindy Panangka Rontji, “The tackle” (
2015), installation view, Northern Territory
 earthenware, under glazes

While I had no idea of the personal significance of the pots and their various scenes of football triumph to those who made them, the exuberance and joy need no explanation. The exhaustive wall text connects each pot to its episode and makes the pieces feel even more important in a larger context. And while each of the 20 pots stands on its own, there is something very moving about seeing them all together — like a team whose individual players collectively create a new and powerful entity.

Our Land is Alive: Hermannsburg Potters for Kids continues at The Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) (Ground, Federation Sqaure, Flinders St & Russell St, Melbourne, Australia) through April 10. 


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The Urgent and Necessary Images of Shahidul Alam

Published Jan. 8, 2020 in Hyperallergic

At the Rubin Museum of Art, ” Truth to Power” spotlights Alam’s tireless documentation of over 40 years of struggle and change in his native Bangladesh.

Shahidul Alam, “Smriti Azad at Protest at Shaheed Minar ( Shaheed Minar, Dhaka, Bangladesh)” (1994), photograph (all images courtesy of Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World, unless otherwise noted)

Shahidul Alam did not set out to be a photographer, a social justice activist, or a political leader. He wanted to be a scientist — a chemist, to be exact. While working on his PhD in London, he purchased a camera by chance, for a friend who turned out to be too broke to pay him back. Stuck with this thing, he started using the camera himself,  capturing images of London street life as he was finishing his degree.

Alam returned to his native Bangladesh in 1984 during a time of political turmoil and hit the streets to document the lives of his countrymen and women. Capturing on film the myriad dimensions of Bangladeshi life proved to be his calling.  Alam has documented over 40 years of struggle and change in the country and in the process, founded some of Southeast Asia’s most important photo agencies and photography programs. 

Shahidul Alam, “Protesters in Motijheel Break Section 144 on Dhaka Siege Day (Motijheel, Dhaka,Bangladesh)” (1987)

A retrospective of his career is now on view at the Rubin Museum of Art where it will run until May. Truth to Power is arranged chronologically, and starts in the 1990’s, when Alam’s photos first began to be picked up by the international media and circulated worldwide. As a photojournalist, he has chronicled flood, war, famine, joy, refugee migrations, street life, and political oppression. Select images also allude to his work as the founder of the Drik Picture Library, the Pathshala South Asian Institute of Photography (now the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute) and the Chobi Mela International Photography Festival, each dedicated to free speech and self-expression. These institutions are actively training  future generations of photojournalists in Southeast Asia. Alam’s is an extraordinary career of commitment to capturing and telling stories that matter.

Shahidul Alam, “Woman in Ballot Booth (Lamatia, Dhaka, Bangladesh)” (1991), photograph

Alam’s early photographs are very much in the spirit of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photos of India from the 1940’s. High contrast and dramatic framing heighten the narrative. In his photo from 1987, “Protesters in Motijheel Break Section 44 on Dhaka Siege Day,” he presents a formalist view of an urban street, a wide and long expanse framed by buildings. Backlit, the figures of the protesters are sharply thrown into shadow. They appear as dark cutouts  in a brilliant haze of light. Everyone in this photograph is moving. There is an air of expectancy, unrest; at the same time the elegant lighting and composition reads simply as a beautiful moment captured on film.

From this section of early work, the exhibition moves us into a grouping that addresses Alam’s social justice practice head-on. In the 2010s Alam produced three bodies of work addressing the disappearance of feminist activist Kalpana Chakma, who was kidnapped in 1996 and of whom no trace has since been found. Entitled Kalpana’s Warriors, Alam’s series ventures into a realm of imagery that is abstract and artistic, rather than journalistic. Bits and pieces of women’s clothing are photographed in color, as well as Kalpana’s journals and shoes (shot in black and white). They depend heavily on their labels for explanation, and although I think that Alam was attempting to create an atmospheric portrait of the missing activist this grouping does not have the power of his straightforward documentarian work. 

Installation view of “Shahidul Alam: Truth to Power,” presented by the Rubin Museum of Art, November 8, 2019 – May 4, 2020 (courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art, photo by David De Armas Photography)

“Red Orna” (2013), is  a photograph from this series presents what appears to be a piece of deeply saturated woven red fabric (an orna is a woman’s garment common to Southeast Asia). It stretches across the entire picture plane, light streaming across it accentuating the richness of the color.  The extensive wall text explains that this is part of Alam’s interest in how a photographer and their viewers “interpret the truth” about an image. Personally, I prefered the photographs that are more straightforward, which allowed me to experience his vision without conceptual explanations.  However, as the exhibition is arranged chronologically this part of Alam’s body of work is important to consider. 

Shahidul Alam, “Airport Goodbye (Dhaka Airport, Bangladesh)” (1996), photograph

It is fascinating to see the evolution of Alam’s work and vision. From the early black and white film photos, to the later digital color work one can see both the continuity in his work and the changes that new technology have brought. At the terminus of the show, which focuses on Alam’s imprisonment, the museum has mounted several terminals that show, in slideshow mode, his most recent photographs taken on an iPhone. I wish that they had given this work a bit more prominence. These new photos carry a sense of energy that is fresh and captures Bangladesh right now. They would have made a great counterpoint to the vintage images in the show.

Over the course of his career, Alam has tirelessly produced bodies of work documenting the movements of migrant laborers, sex workers, environmental devastation, and most recently the forced migration of the Rohingya people. His photos are urgent and necessary. There’s an interesting line that activist artists must walk — having your social justice bonafides in the right place and making great art are sometimes different skill sets. It can be complicated to have to critique journalistic images that are timely but sometimes don’t work as well from an aesthetic perspective. Luckily for us, Shahidul Alam is an important humanitarian with a beautiful aesthetic sensibility. This exhibition will move you on both levels; Alam bears witness to troubled times and people. And he makes beautiful photographs.

Shahidul Alam, “Rohingya Refugees After Having Just Landed in Bangladesh (Shah Porir Dweep, Teknaf, Bangladesh)”
(2017), photograph

Shahidul Alam: Truth to Power continues at the Rubin Museum of Art (170 West 17th Street, Chelsea) through May 4, 2020. The exhibition is organized by Beth Citron.

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