The Shadow Stage

Opening address on occasion of “The Shadow Stage” photographs by Polixeni Papapetrou at Walker Street Gallery and Arts Centre, Melbourne, Australia, Sunday 9 October 2011

It is now ten years since Polixeni Papapetrou has been killing two stones with one bird: namely making beautiful, perceptive and important art whilst making beautiful, perceptive and delightful human beings in the form of her children Olympia and Solomon.

Forgive me if this story has been told before, but it is so inspiring and has such explanatory value when considering Poliʼs work, I hope you will indulge me.

Poli grew up in the home of Greek immigrants who, in the hurly burly of making a very successful life in Melbourne worked very hard with little time for other activities. Far from an unusual story, if I were to describe Poilʼs childhood as one of being good and purposeful, learning how to cook and look after siblings, coming home to an empty house and doing what she could do to assist her loving but focussed parents, this is a story familiar to each wave of immigrants to this country, including my own family. European women immigrants, like many nationalities since, worked in factories and did not have time to play with their children. The children learned to play on their own and in Poliʼs (and my motherʼs case) this had a profound effect on how she would mother. Poliʼs mothering would be a form of deep engagement with her children, one of making space for their development, of including them in issues of the world, and like my mother, of putting our needs fairly central in the home. Poli, like my mother was determined to give her children a different childhood than the one she had experienced.

What is unique about Poliʼs strategy, is that she was able to bring her own work and her own development as an artist and an intellectual, fairly and squarely within this mothering space, and unlike my mother and millions of other women, Poli avoided the resentment and depression which can accompany stay at home mothers. Poli was and is working as both a mother and an artist.And we are the beneficiaries.

In this exhibition we see a delightful selection of work over this last ten years, we see Poliʼs development and if we look carefully, we can see the development of her children and the impact of their growing contributions to the process of making Poliʼs work.

The curator of this exhibition, David O Halloran has selected works, which, while they shift between studio and world, are all located within an imaginary space.

I am lucky to have been witness to the development of Poliʼs work and to have benefited from conversations with the artist over many years. Poli describes playing a game with the very young Olympia. What a delight it must have been for this young child to find a mother with the emotional and craft resources to play with her, to make things together, to engage in role play and disguise, What a perfect way to inhabit different worlds and values, to explore and push boundaries within the safety of her motherʼs engaged and watchful eye.

Poli recalls an early game instigated by Olympia,that of playing the story of Pocahontas, inspired by the 1995 Walt Disney animation. Although Olympia declared, ” I donʼt want to play Pocahontas, I want to be the brave” (why am I not surprised to hear this).

Before the birth of her children and with a keen interest in the potency of role-play, dress-up, disguise, fantasy and something of the danger inherent in a conservative view of identity, Poli had created memorable photographic seriesʼ on Elivis Presley impersonators, body builders, and drag queens. So rather than being daunted by her daughters invitation to play, this mother was not only willing to participate, she had props to bring, such as a collection of masks.

However, Poli was not intending to make art with Olympia. She speaks of something which emerged from this play, which she couldnʼt fully understand. She speaks of how spontaneous and intense this childʼs play was. At some point the camera became involved. The first work was simple-arising from the body and dress-ups, from the site of play-it was spontaneous. A mask can be hugely transforming. And then Poli began to think about narrative and began to introduce simple objects.

This is a household of books, and when Poli read Lewis Carrol to Olympia, she said, “I want you to photo me”. As Poli comments, ʻThrough Olympia I made these discoveries.ʼ It is my experience that making art is very difficult. I see a lot of images in my work at CCP, and whilst the technology companies spruik the benefits of speed and ease and capacity, the photographer is basically still faced with a blank sheet. It is very difficult to make an image that engages another person. Through this journey with Solomon and Olympia, Poli has found a way of doing so.

At some inspired point, artist Papapetrou enhanced her experimentorium, her laboratory by including her husband, art critic, writer, painter, father extraordinaire Robert Nelson, and her own dear mother. Robert would paint the trompe l’oeil backdrops and Mrs Papapetrou would sew the costumes, and a little later the childrenʼs friends would find roles within the work. I would like to emphasise that Solomon and Olympia are robust participants in this process, suggesting and making changes, engaging with the issues.

Poli enduring interest, across all her work, is how the other is represented and how the other performs in reinforcing our own identity. ʻChildrenʼ, she comments ʻremind ourselves that we are adult. In the same way we look to animals to remind us of our humanness, perhaps our superiority in the animal kingdom. And we certainly look to the elderly and the insane as the other in reinforcing our own short-lived potency. The other serves a profoundly conservative role.

In the Dream Keepers, her latest work, the children are now adolescents. As an artist and as a mother, Poli, like many of us is deeply aware of the globalised teenager, the pressures on young people to conform to pre packaged ideas, desires and gratifications. As Papapetrou was making a space for her little children to imagine and play, she is now scoping out a space for her teenagers, and us to imagine strange possible futures.

Between making the work ‘Between Worlds’ and ‘The Dreamkeepers’, Poli suffered a serious illness. Her work is now more confronting, the photographs ʻwill a deeper placeʼ an essence of humanity in some way, Poli seeks a tenderness, a poetry in what repels us. Once again this part of the journey is shared with her children (and family), circumstances that unfortunately touch millions of families. But Papapetrou has a process: her art, though which to engage those around her. I hear in this work and in conversation with Poli, an urgency, a desire to address the future. No longer are the back-drops painted. Events take place in the real world, gentle strange

It is with enduring interest in Poliʼs work, the pleasure of seeing a selection across time, of seeing her work and her children grow, that I open this exhibition and congratulate, the curator, the artist and the participating family.

Naomi Cass
Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne
November 2011