Collective Unease is a bold exhibition of three new commissions inspired by the University of Melbourne’s students, archives and collections.The three works, by artists Andy Butler, Lisa Hilli and James Nguyen,move beyond colonial narratives to a complex, multi-voiced understanding of Australia inflected by experiences of migration and diaspora. In the face of difficult histories and an uncertain future, these works emphasise themes of self-representation, empowerment and optimism.
Co-curated by Samantha Comte and Jacqueline Doughty, the exhibitionforms part of the University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art’s artistic program, and is presented inside the Old Quad, at the centre of the University’s Parkville campus.
Andy Butler’s video The Agony and the Ecstasy juxtaposes artworks from the University Art Collection with footage of the University of Melbourne Cheerleading Club. Landscape paintings and decorative art objects represent a nostalgia for European traditions and social hierarchies, contrasting starkly with the dynamism of the cheerleaders, whose high-energy routines and exaggerated positivity function as a metaphor for the effort required to maintain a spirit of optimism in the face of continuing inequity and uncertainty.
Lisa Hilli’s installation Birds of a Feather celebrates the resilience of Papua New Guinean women through the story of Dame Meg Taylor, the first woman from Papua New Guinea to receive a degree from the University of Melbourne Law School and most recently Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General. Composed of images of the feathers of PNG’s national bird, ‘kumul’ (birds of paradise), the artwork honours a significant figure who continues to inspire and empower women to navigate their role in contemporary PNG society. Accompanied by the calls of the birds of paradise, Hilli embeds Taylor’s voice into a series of digital prints that weave through the cloisters of Old Quad, culminating in a major fabric installation in Treasury Gallery.
In James Nguyen’s video An Australian National Song , musicians interpret a Federation-era song sheet from the University of Melbourne’s Rare Books collection, performing this nationalistic jingle on violins that have been muffled with foam. Through a characteristic mix of critique and humour, Nguyen enacts a symbolic stifling of colonial settler narratives, and asks how immigrants in Australia can create alternative ways of belonging in a new home without perpetuating myths of terra nullius.
The Potter acknowledges the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work and create. We recognise that sovereignty was never ceded and pay our respects to Elders, past, present and emerging.