The sound of hundreds of thousands of styrofoam balls whooshing about in a windowed blue space is the first thing that strikes you on entering Whisper in My Mask. An exhibition of considerable weight, this lightness reflects the sensitivity of curation that has become a hallmark of the TarraWarra biennials.

The mask – the disguise, the antic disposition, the masquerade, the safety shield, the conceptual persona – is a device that reveals much more than what it conceals. It relaxes inhibitions. It expresses identity. It focuses action. It protects fragility. It enacts character. And it comes in many forms.

Sören Dahlgaard’s carefully framed portraits take the face – typically, a portrait’s definitive element – and obscure it entirely with a large blob of dough, captured photographically in mid-sag, mid-fall. While the portraits’ disciplined framing evokes a Renaissance style of portraiture against landscape, with the texture of the dough itself suggesting the sculptural form, the absurdity of that dough has us questioning the portrait form from the moment we enter the space. With the ubiquity of the selfie in mind: “I’m trying to create an image that breaks through the noise of all the thousands of images that are being created every day,” Sören remarks during his artist talk. The face is thus not caught in time but lost to an amorphous and slowly descending form, uncannily skin-coloured and skin-textured; a mask that droops and drags just as the face will over time. The series’ largest work depicts Jack Charles, who I would go on to see perform in Coranderrk a couple of nights later; Uncle Jack masked and yet so much larger than life, right here at the edges of Healesville, the town that has grown to mask the memory of Coranderrk itself.

Gabriella Mangano and Sylvana Mangano’s moving image work explores the mask as filter and reflector, presented in a large twinned format. Digital images projected side by side create a dialogue that reflects that of the twin artists’ own. The artist holds a mirror before her face, across her body, over her head, reflecting the landscape and the light. The artist holds a filter to the camera, transforming the light and offering for the image a different meaning. The work evokes the experimental approaches of Richard Tuohy and Len Lye, each of whom mask the film directly with the hands using physical and chemical processes. For Gabriella and Sylvana, the digital approach frees the body in space to move through its own vocabulary, now adopting the analogue of semaphore, now interrupting the electronic flow with the starkness of cellophane shapes.

Polixeni Papapetrou’s work is presented in muted light: troubled, Grimaldi-masked portraits of her daughter Olympia against a deep black background. It was to have been Polixeni’s final body of work – and to have remained private. I am constantly astounded and deeply respectful of the profound commitment to artistic practice that has been made by the Papapetrou-Nelson family: a shared exploration that extends generously into public discourse and yet remains highly personal. The choice of Grimaldi, the C19th London pioneer of clowning and the first clown to paint his face, can only have been a very deliberate choice for a very difficult and slow mourning for a mother’s death to come at an unknown time – thankfully, not yet.

Sandra Hill’s work depicts familial relationships of a crueller kind, coming from four generations of stolen children forced into relationships with new mothers who didn’t know what to make of them, and who feared the intimacy that children need and crave. Sandra’s paintings introduce the figure of the black woman into a highly stylised Australian 1950s bliss. The other figures are black and white against hyper-saturated Douglas Sirk backdrops; here, I see a through-line to Dainie Mellor’s work which had occupied the TarraWarra spaces immediately prior (Exotic Ties Sacred Lies), with its colourised Indigenous people and animals set against landscapes stylised as a blue-and-white Spode china fabrication. A naked Indigenous woman in a kangaroo skin sits concerned in a bedroom’s foreground as the impassively satisfied husband lies in bed expectantly, dressing gown on and ready for breakfast. A white woman casts knowing, contented glances at other white women as they carefully ice a chocolate cake white, while an Indigenous woman sits bored and ignored in the foreground, gazed upon by nobody. In much later life, Sandra’s adoptive mother had been too ashamed to confess that she’d never allowed her to help with the cooking because she’d been given to believe that the black people were dirty and could contaminate the food and thereby the whites. It’s a gut-wrenching memory that Sandra shares during her artist talk – a memory she is still shaken by.

Sandra’s approach as an artist changed after seeing the work of Fiona Foley and Destiny Deacon, also represented in Whisper in My Mask. “I wasn’t brave enough to put this stuff on canvas, to put it out there. They gave me permission. Now I’m on a mission… The arts are very powerful in getting our message across and telling our stories.”

Masking is taught today as a leadership strategy – one that can only ever be short-term and to meet a specific need, lest it create an inauthentic and self-undermining leader. Adopting a strategic persona; disguising intent; negotiating. We speak of masking true intent when the gesture of concealment actually does more to reveal. “Indigenous Australians know themselves through art using masks,” Deborah Cheetham had said in her exhibition opening talk. “We are part of a nation that has many masks” – and here, she had reflected on how difficult it’s becoming to watch the nightly news, seeing people wearing “masks that tell us that our government is compassionate – if you can bring yourself to see the news.” The most profound moment in opening the exhibition had rightly belonged to Aunty Joy Wandin Murphy, announcing today as the anniversary of Barak’s death: Barak who had been so important to C19th art as an Indigenous practitioner, Barak who was so significant a leader, Barak who was Joy’s grandfather.

The mask offers a richness of expression for interpretation. The masks of the Greek tragedy, highlighting the actor’s body and voice, projected out larger than life for the gathered thousands who were in no position to make out lips and eyes, to distinguish subtle changes in facial expression. The mask chooses a mode of expression and empowers it, sometimes at the expense of other modes of expression. The woman’s veil, the man’s suit. Everyday modes and styles, concealing what we imagine can be hidden from ourselves in the form we present to others. In reflecting on these works, I have covered over many others – which await your visit.

At the exhibition’s opening, Deborah Cheetham had expressed in words what our bodies had all been feeling in place: a profound communion with a landscape heavily fogged, now lifting, now settling again across the valley, now masking, now revealing. Allan Powell designed TarraWarra to evoke what Leon van Schaik calls poetics in architecture: it is a place to commune – to locate oneself at the interstices of country and built environment – at once truth and mask.


Whisper in My Mask
TarraWarra Museum of Modern Art
15 August – 16 November 2014
Curated by Djon Mundine and Natalie King

Featuring work by boat-people (Safdar Ahmed, Zehra Ahmed, Stephanie Carrick, Dave Gravina, Katie Hepworth, Jiann Hughes, Deborah Kelly, Enda Murray, Pip Shea, Sumugan Sivanesan and Jamil Yamani) (NSW), Daniel Boyd (NSW), Søren Dahlgaard (VIC), Destiny Deacon & Virginia Fraser (VIC), Karla Dickens (NSW), Fiona Foley (QLD), Tony Garifalakis (VIC), Sandra Hill (WA), Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano (VIC), Romaine Moreton (VIC), Nasim Nasr (SA), Polixeni Papapetrou (VIC), Elizabeth Pedler (WA), Sangeeta Sandrasegar (VIC), The Telepathy Project (Veronica Kent and Sean Peoples) (VIC) and The Tjanpi Desert Weavers Project with Fiona Hall (SA/NT/WA).

IMAGE: Smokescreen (2013-14), Elizabeth Pedler. Photo by Esther Anatolitis.