Review: The Quiet Activist: Juno Gemes Survey, Macquarie University Art Gallery

Aptly titled 'The Quiet Activist', this survey by Juno Gemes does more than capture a social or political zeitgeist – it is about the human spirit, resilience and respect.

Bush Pieta (detail) – Culture Lab + Juno Gemes Blake Prize Exhibition; courtesy the artist.

This is a weighty exhibition, but then that is what university galleries do so well. Curated by Rhonda Davis and Kate Hargraves for Macquarie University Art Gallery, The Quiet Activist brings together nine bodies of work created by June Gemes from 1979-2019.

The “weight” is two-fold – the vast breadth of content and the reminder it carries.

It is not surprising to learn that Gemes has a background as a journalist, when you spend time with her photographs. They slide between a passion to document and an unearthing of injustice.

But this exhibition is far more than just capturing a social or political zeitgeist; it is about the human spirit, resilience, respect and our need to break free – to experiment and to find ourselves.

The exhibition started with the idea to present Gemes’ series The Language of Oysters (1997), which captures the quiet life of oyster farmers on the Lower Hawkesbury River, but more pointedly, raises questions of sustainability. These images ooze beauty, in their black and white simplicity, but are also filled with deep empathy for a community Gemes knows intimately, having lived there since 1987.

Detail from series The Language of Oysters (1997), The Quiet Activist Juno Gemes Macquarie University Art Gallery (2019), supplied

Despite being published in a book of the same title – a collaboration with Gemes’ partner, poet Robert Adamson – many of these photographs are on view for the first time.

The same can’t be said of one of Gemes’ signature series, Proof: Portraits from the Movement, 1979-2003, which has been a milestone in Gemes’ career – shown internationally, toured for a number of years, and shown by the National Portrait Gallery.

What both these series capture is the kind of jostle in narrative between the private and the public – a tenuous balance that is characteristic of Gemes’ oeuvre.

Walking into the gallery one journeys down its long wall on which this series is hung, passing through history as we know it via mainstream media – the handing back of Uluru, the apology to our Stolen Generation in Parliament, and Land Rights protests.  

And yet while the faces are familiar, Gemes’ hand results in a different tone. She opens a window to our First Nations people behind these moments.

Arriving in Australia aged five from a war-torn Hungry, Gemes says she has an understanding what it feels to be an outsider. This is one reason she has connected so authentically, and with respect, with Indigenous Australians in delivering their nuanced connections with Country and their flight to regain ownership of it.

Gemes writes: ‘I saw powerful beauty, strength, resilience, ingenuity and hope at a time when others mostly saw only despair, their own discomfort and shame.’

Gemes reminds us to remember.

Seeing these portraits in the context of Gemes’ other work is a real treat, and we start to understand some of the ways our own past plays into who we are, what we are passionate about, and how we express that.

Marcia Langton 1982 and 2003 © Juno Gemes; Courtesy Macquarie University Art Gallery

Particularly strong in the hang of Proof: Portraits from the Movement, is the pairing of two photographs of Marcia Langton: one taken in 1982 at a land rights march; the second in 2003. Despite being two decades apart the strength, defiance, pride and resilience is the same.

Grounding the exhibition on its end wall – and in a pendulum swing across styles – is a suite of more experimental, and highly staged works, Terra Ancien / Terra Nova (2003-07). Using a tableaux style presentation, Gemes considers a narrative of white settlement in our wild country.

Central to the group is the photograph Bush Pieta, a finalist in the 2003 Blake Prize for Religious Art.

Curator of the Blake Prize, Ron Pattenden made the comment that Gemes’ ability to connect to people and relay their stories harks to her training as an actor and director at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA). Pattenden says of Gemes: ‘the photographer is an unseen performer in the orchestration of the moment’.

The quick read is that this is an exhibition with a genuine pulse for activism of the day, but there is a consistent understory that speaks about the strength of women, their resilience and capacity to lead.

Installation view, The Quiet Activist: Juno Gemes, Macquarie University Art Gallery (2019). Photo: ArtsHub.

Furthermore, the role of collaboration is almost palpable across this survey, and in many ways seemingly underpins much of Gemes’ creative practice. Peppered across this exhibition is poetry and text by other artists; images with collaborator activists, such as Benny Zables, who Gemes has championed since the 1970s, or Detroit born dancer and academic Aku Kadogo with whom she made the multimedia piece Love Cancer, screened in a side gallery.

Central to the gallery are two museum cases containing memorabilia of this passionate journey through a career and a life. I started by calling this a weighty exhibition – and no doubt it is for the value of its content – but it also celebrates with lightness the human spirit.

Rating 3 out of 5

Juno Gemes: The Quiet Activist, A Survey Exhibition 1979 – 2019
4 May − 28 June 2019
Macquarie University Art Gallery
Curators: Rhonda Davis and Kate Hargraves

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina