The University of Melbourne Announces New Exhibition: Collective Unease | Ian Potter Museum of Art

The University of Melbourne Announces New Exhibition: Collective Unease

21 Aug 2022

Playful, bold and celebratory, new commissions by three Australian artists draw on the history and collections of the University of Melbourne

The University of Melbourne’s Ian Potter Museum of Art has announced Collective Unease; a bold new exhibition examining the legacies of colonisation and imperialism in the University of Melbourne’s collections, running 27 September – 9 December 2022 and then 14 February – 2 June 2023.

Co-curated by Samantha Comte, Senior Curator and Jacqueline Doughty, Head Curator, Art Museums, the exhibition forms part of the Ian Potter Museum of Art’s artistic program, inviting three contemporary artists to respond to and reframe objects from the University collection. Collective Unease is presented inside the Old Quad at the centre of the University’s Parkville campus, with the works in part inspired by the Oxbridge-style architecture of this historic building.

Through these newly-commissioned works, 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.

Jacqueline Doughty, Head Curator Art Museums University of Melbourne comments: The title Collective Unease signals a tension between contemporary Australian society and the remnants of a colonial vision still embodied in the architecture of the Old Quad building, with its references to the cultural and academic traditions of Europe. The artists speak back to this setting through artworks that are both defiant and celebratory, offering up alternative narratives that reflect more accurately who we are today and hope to be in the future. 

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. 

 In 2022 the Ian Potter Museum of Art is undergoing significant transformation. Key to this change is the Museum’s ambitious redevelopment by internationally renowned firm Wood Marsh Architecture, with the generous support of the Ian Potter Foundation. The Museum continues to program exhibitions, programs and events across the Parkville campus in the lead up to its reopening in 2023. 


Venue | Old Quad Treasury Gallery  

Dates |27 September 2022– 3 June 2023 (closed between 9 December 2022–13 February 2023) 

Hours | Tuesday – Friday, 10 am-3 pm 

Cost | Free (applies to all public programs and entry)