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Australia's social history is a medley of cultures: sub-cultures shaped by time, location, isolation, language, and custom. In many cases migrant peoples have retained a sense of cultural tradition which has been long lost in their native lands. This is partly an attempt to retain a sense of identity in foreign and initially alienating lands.
50 Reasons, a collaborative exhibition by Rox De Luca and Jo Darbyshire was the sequel to their 25 Reasons, exhibited at aGOG, Canberra, in 1997. It is a further chapter in the artists' ongoing enquiry into identity through the revisitation of memory and personal history.
The works present narratives which are developed through the individual diaristic approach of these artists who live on opposite coasts of Australia, are from contrasting cultural backgrounds and who have similarities and differences which shaped the various periods of their lives. Rox De Luca, based in Sydney, was born in Australia to Italian parents who migrated from Calabria to Melbourne in the late 1950s. De Luca uses symbols drawn from her 'reality', real or perceived - a coffee percolator, crisp white underpants, doilies and tablecloths, food and family photographs. Jo Darbyshire lives in Perth. Her anglo-Australian heritage is explored through her surroundings and nature. Flowers, plants and fruits become still-lifes referencing the singularity of the Western Australian environment and her childhood and adolescence in a vast, distant, yet perhaps more informal and unconfined land.
Working with paint on aluminium, De Luca's images are formal, urban and, at times, static. The surfaces are sometimes scratched, thinly painted, and the metal panels are embossed. Many images have a delicate yet industrial quality. In contrast, Darbyshire's paintings on canvas depict the natural environment. They are fluid and delicate. The paint surface is sensuous and the picture is sharpened by the subtle transition between light and dark.
This exhibition demonstrates that cultures which seem very different are often more similar than we realise. The physical coupling of artworks, which presents differences both in style and iconography, illustrates the similarities and connections between the artists' narratives.
50 Reasons proposed a number of parallels between the two artists' memories and experiences, but none more engaging than in L'lnfermiera II and The Nurse. The catalyst for the work was the fact that each artist found a photograph of herself dressed up as a nurse, both of which were taken at similar ages. As individual pieces the resulting paintings are accomplished, personal documents, however, when they are displayed together, as a diptych, startling new references emerge. Two little girls look out towards the viewer. In the canvas to the left, a young De Luca poses proudly but somewhat shyly, smiling for the camera. She stands poised behind the dark wall and stares at the camera lens directly in front of her. She is self-assured and proud. The painting exudes a sense of stillness and propriety. On the canvas to the right, a brighter depiction of a little girl, holding a doll and standing in front of the dark wall, is somewhat less posed. Jo Darbyshire is more distant. She half-smirks at the camera, the sun in her eyes. She seems to be looking straight at the viewer rather than at a lens. The subtlety of each image is lessened when they are viewed separately.
The careful grouping of works throughout the exhibition, highlights the connections between the artists' histories by exposing their differences. As single works, the paintings relate individual stories, but when read as units of a more complex arrangement and then, in turn, each arrangement as a chapter of a broader narrative, the works propose multiple layers of association and begin to operate on a number of interpretative levels.
This anthology of images creates a new world where identity is not analysed in isolation but as part of a melting pot of associations, influences and contrasts. A remarkable aspect of this art-making process is the geographical distance between the artists. Looking at the paintings one wonders if this distance is in fact one of the reasons why the body of work is so engaging and successful. The exploration of ideas seems to be strengthened by the artists' physical detachment from each other which appears to give them the freedom to venture into their own personal worlds.
A flower, a watermelon, a pair of underpants may be unimportant in themselves but when viewed in cinematic succession, juxtaposed with other often dissimilar symbols and metaphors, they become vivid testaments of our own experiences. These works are vehicles through which we can explore our own realities, our identity as individuals and as interactive members of society. One of the important messages of 50 Reasons is that we do not have a single identity - identity is mutable. We establish who we are at any time, by our relationships, our surroundings, and the rituals we perform every day.