Natalie King at Polixeni’s wake

Thank you Robert, Olympia and Solomon for giving me the honour to speak about your precious mother today. I am truly grateful to be able to say a few words about Poli – an inspirational friend and talented artist. Even though we all knew that today was imminent, the loss and sadness is immense.

In July 2014, Poli and I went to Korea with artists Destiny Deacon, Virginia Fraser, Patrick Pound, William Yang and Olivia Poloni as we were part of the Dong Gang Photo Festival in a photography museum on the outskirts of Seoul. It was hot, there were numerous mysterious cultural protocols but most of all we had so much fun as a group. Even though Poli was unwell, she seemed to have more stamina than the rest of us and led us on intrepid journeys to hidden restaurants and museums in downtown Seoul. She was the consummate professional and made the most of every opportunity. In Melbourne, she used to get up at dawn to walk the dogs in the park and greet the day: she told me how much she loved observing the transition of dawn to daybreak. She was a keen observer of transitions especially childhood to adolescence and adulthood.

Poli was immeasurably creative, indefatigable and unstintingly focused on her photographic practice. She skilfully melded her family life with her artistic output by casting her beloved children in her photographs as a way to cherish and conjoin both spheres while her husband painted her backdrops under strict instruction and Effie sewed costumes. She avidly consumed literature, poetry, philosophy, popular culture and fashion as sources for her artworks. Whether producing carefully configured landscape scenarios, masked portraits or emotive mise-en-scenes, she flexed her lens on the human dimension of loss, longing, love and the unknown.

Her photography was exacting and carefully planned, probably due to her early legal training in precision. She was curious about those on the outskirts of society and developed an early preoccupation with the work of Diane Arbus, leading to her own forays into photographing drag queens at the Calypso Cabaret in Bangkok, children and holy men in Nepal. Closer to home she depicted body builders, Elvis fans and homeless men who lived in a city shelter. Her interest in clowns began in the late 80s when she photographed clowns at Ashton’s and Silver’s Circus, intrigued by how the masked face can reveal, rather than conceal emotions evolving into the series Melancholia which she made for the 2014 TarraWarra Biennial that I curated with Djon Mundine. For her, the clown was an archetype for hidden emotions such as grief, despair and loneliness. She also had a large collection of vintage clown masks sourced on e-bay.

Her artistic output was prodigious making work until the very end including her final, solemn series of luminous silkscreens, My Heart, Still Full of Her, currently on display at Michael Reid Gallery in Sydney. She spent the past year and a half bedridden with increasingly limited mobility. Instead of bemoaning her plight, she used her confinement to review her archive making sure her photographs were in order and reflecting on her creative impetus. As a result, she came across negatives from 30 years ago, coming full circle with the origins of her work and her artistic cycle. I was privileged to be an observer of this work as it unfolded over the past year: Poli allowed me into the inner sanctum of creativity, the private place of making art.

She exhibited extensively internationally and has had an enormous impact on the photography scene in Australia and abroad, most notably as a founder of the CCP, Melbourne where she held a survey in 2013. Last year alone, she exhibited in Bogota, Thessalonika, Nanjing/China, the Netherlands, Kobe/Japan and Dusseldorf. She used to text and email me these exciting updates, paving her own professional trajectory in a limitless way.

Poli was a phenomenal friend, colleague and we shared a love of glamour, motherhood, recipes, literature and art. During my regular visits, she was acutely aware of the profundity of life and her existence between two worlds. Yet, I never heard her complain. She was a true friend and relished the success of others, usually her cohort or talented women. She loved hearing about my experience of curating the Venice Biennale and even gave me these gorgeous, fancy shoes to wear when she could no longer walk. She wanted immediate photos of Patricia’s recent opening at GOMA and full description of guests, outfits and, of course, the exhibition.

Each visit was precious in a home surrounded by her family: Robert was despatched to make my favourite tea, fragrant candles were lit and we chatted for hours until she tired. Poli was a deep listener, wise, kind and super stylish with her glossy black hair, impeccable grooming and jewellery. As Joanna wrote recently, she was both feminine and feminist. She gathered her coveted friends around her in her upstairs bedroom with piles of books from Irigaray to Irvin Yalom and the defiant painting “Fuck you cancer” above her bed. Gifts were a regular offering, sourced online and revealing her kindness and generosity: embossed notebooks, perfume, French tea, glittery socks and so much more. Each x-mas a hand-made card arrived with a new photo which must have taken her days to compose and produce. Gifts were a signal of her pleasure in giving to others.

Towards the end, she was remarkably luminous, glowing and radiant, showing her inner self, with Robert, Olympia and Solomon nearby just like her final series printed by Stewart Russell with gold and silver foil. Poli faced the unknown with grace and equanimity, while her photographs allowed her to freeze time, apprehending and holding onto ourselves and loved ones. As she said to me in an interview in 2013, “my work has felt like an act of love.”

We were all recipients of her radiant love.

Natalie King