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New exhibition celebrates love in all its guises

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article may contain images of deceased persons.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is celebrating love in all its guises, from the romantic to the platonic, with its new exhibition Australian Love Stories.

Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown 2006 by Peter Brew-Bevan. Collection:  National Portrait Gallery. 

Opening 20 March, the major exhibition is accompanied by Australian Love Stories Online, an interactive exhibition that launched in August 2020. Presenting a selection of significant Australian works from the last two centuries, both the online and physical exhibitions offer a rich insight into what it is to be human.

Sandra Bruce, NPG Director of Collection and Exhibitions, said the online exhibition was a way for the Gallery to continue to engage with audiences during its COVID-19 closure.

“We had to think about what we could do for our audiences when people were feeling so isolated,” Ms Bruce said.

Australian Love Stories Online allows visitors to navigate their way through a series of portraits and stories – from the enduring to the forbidden, familial, platonic, unrequited, obsessive, scandalous, and creative, the famous, the infamous and the little-known.

“When we were talking about it from the perspective of last year, what we wanted to remind ourselves and our audience is love comes in many guises, it’s not just romance. Love is all-encompassing and diverse and it can be found in all aspects of our lives,” she said.

At the end of the exhibition, visitors receive a ‘love profile’ based on where their love interests led them.

“We think it’s a lot of fun. It’s a choose your own adventure,” Ms Bruce said. “Depending on what a person was interested in, they got a score saying what they lined up with.”

Drawing on treasures from the NPG Collection and other public and private collections around Australia, the Australian Love Stories features more than 200 artworks including photography, painting, works on paper and small objects. Online, more than 60 stories are featured for the audience to explore, with a hope to add more in the future. The online exhibition is unique because it will feature some stories and artwork that the Gallery cannot physically borrow.

They will complement each other but they won’t be the same. Some of the online artwork can’t be borrowed for the physical exhibition. In other cases, it will be the same story, but different artworks might be used,” she said.

One of Ms Bruce’s favourite stories is that of Australian musicians Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter. Ruby Hunter was a Ngarrindjeri/ Kukatha/ Pitjantjatjara singer songwriter from South Australia. At 16 she met Archie Roach, a Gunditjmara and Bundjalung man who is a prominent Australian musician, author and human rights campaigner. They were inseparable partners for life until Ruby passed away in 2010.

Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter pose for a portrait that is featured in the Australian Love Stories exhibition
Portrait of Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter c. 1999 by phra ajahn ekaggata fka terry milligan
Courtesy of the artist with permission from Ruby Hunter’s family
© phra ajahn ekaggata fka terry milligan

“It’s a story of high romance. They were in love with each other from the beginning to end. There was wonderful synergy, like Archie wouldn’t have become the musician he is without Ruby,” she said.

Other exhibition highlights include four new portraits of high-profile Australian couples that have been commissioned exclusively for the exhibition, including David McAllister and Wesley Enoch, Stan Grant and Tracey Holmes, John Bell and Anna Volska, and Jimmy Barnes and Jane Mahoney.

In addition, Canberra-based glass and mixed media artist, Harriet Schwarzrock, has been commissioned to create a luminous installation that responds to the theme of connectedness.

 You can view Australian Love Stories Online here.  

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