Exhibition review: Dreamhome: Stories of Art and Shelter

A landmark exhibition for the new AGNSW, Dreamhome centres deep connections and diverse narratives at home and abroad.

As the exhibition title suggests, Dreamhome: Stories of Art and Shelter is an inviting space – an enclave in the grand glass architecture of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ (AGNSW) new building that further evokes the sense that ‘home’ is a feeling, rather than a static brick and mortar structure.

Dreamhome opens fittingly with Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan‘s collaborative cardboard installation, Making it Home, where local community groups have taken part in constructing their dream homes, offering a kaleidoscopic presentation of everything from lighthouses to flying boats.

The exhibition is divided into chapters like a storybook, with artists’ quotes threading the narrative of home throughout. Running parallel alongside the notion of home as a sanctuary are explorations into displacement, invasion and making a space for oneself.

Delving into the body as a dwelling is Sentinel (2019) by US artist Simone Leigh – perhaps one of the most talked about international artists of the year. Leigh made her mark as the first Black woman to represent the US at the 59th Venice Biennale and subsequently scooped the event’s top accolade, the Golden Lion. It’s a pleasant surprise to find the work in AGNSW’s collection, and its debut to the Australian public after being purchased in 2019. Sentinel is Leigh’s first work to enter a public collection in Australia.

Installation view of the ‘Dreamhome: Stories of Art and Shelter’ exhibition in the new building at Art Gallery of New South Wales, featuring works by (L to R) Simone Leigh, Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Moffatt. Photo: AGNSW, Zan Wimberley.

The exhibition also takes its cue from ‘art-making as a form of critical dreaming’ and, as metaphorical as that sounds, it’s a sentiment that feels palpable throughout the show. New Zealand sculptor Michael Parekōwhai’s commissioned work, Te Ao Hau (2022) speaks to this. An eye-catching centrepiece in Chapter 6, the sculpture is based on a 1950s state house built by New Zealand’s first Labor government after the Great Depression, but where many Māori were excluded.

Another strength of Dreamhome is its success in delivering a satiating balance between international stars and local talents, with its keen eye on diverse representation. In addition to Leigh, the former include Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Jeffrey Gibson, Samara Golden and Igshaan Adams, just to name a few, and from Australia there are Tracey Moffat, Hoda Afshar, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran and John Prince Siddon among others.

You have roots somewhere, and when you travel and move away from home, it’s like the roots are stretched and stretched, and you know that every minute that they could break.

Hoda Afshar in Dreamhome: Stories of Art and Shelter

Alongside deep reflection, there are plenty of kid-in-a-lolly-shop moments, with a full room dedicated to the colour-bomb works of US Choctaw/Cherokee artist Gibson. Golden’s seemingly infinite mirrored installation Guts (2022) is another highlight, and an army of Nithiyendran’s avatar beings draws stronger links with AGNSW’s historical Asian art collections.

A couple of paintings also shine through in all their quiet sentimental power, such as Scottish artist Andrew Cranston’s Moth (2021) and Danica Lundy’s The inspiration of the poet (2021). Cranston sets the scene with a humble but heartwarming domestic living room, while Lundy’s canvas presents a masterfully handled composition that expresses living as an entangled and bodily experience.

Strong female narratives also dominate the show, without defaulting to a soft femininity when exploring the notion of home. For example, the photograph by US artist Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (playing harmonica) (1990) from The Kitchen Table series hums with a comfortable sense of independence when women are expected in more subordinate roles at the table.

Read: Exhibition review: Adrián Villar Rojas: The End of Imagination

Dreamhome is an exhibition that will be remembered not only for its association with the opening of the new AGNSW, but also for the delight in finding international powerhouses in conversation with Australian narratives. Together they delve deep into a notion that connects us all – home.

Dreamhone: Stories of Art and Shelter on view until late 2023 at AGNSW North Building; free.

This writer travelled to Sydney as a guest of Destination NSW.

Celina Lei is an arts writer and editor at ArtsHub. She acquired her M.A in Art, Law and Business in New York with a B.A. in Art History and Philosophy from the University of Melbourne. She has previously worked across global art hubs in Beijing, Hong Kong and New York in both the commercial art sector and art criticism. Most recently she took part in drafting NAVA’s revised Code of Practice - Art Fairs. Celina is based in Naarm/Melbourne. Instagram: @lleizy_