Keith Munro

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Keith Munro from the Museum of Contemporary Art tells us about The People of the First Sunrise – a very special exhibition being held at the Glasshouse from June 24 to August 7.

What’s your position with the Museum of Contemporary Art?

My position at the MCA is Curator Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Programs. My role covers two key departments of the museum – Curatorial, as well as our Education and Public Programs Department.

What’s involved in the course of your day to day activities in this position?

Working across two areas of the museum keeps me very busy. Some of the many tasks that takes up my working days will include initiating, developing and delivering exhibitions. From time to time I will also be working on publications that complement these shows.

I also enjoy working closely with our Education Department on public programs related to an exhibition or in celebration of important events such as Seniors Week or NAIDOC (National Aborigines & Islander Day Observance Committee) Week.

From time to time, I get invited to write commissioned texts or judge an award, be on an external programing committee at an arts organisation, or participate in a panel. I also get a number of queries from the general public, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate university students.

Tell us a little about the Museum of Contemporary Art …

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) is located at Circular Quay, Sydney. The MCA is the only museum in the country that is dedicated to exhibiting and collecting contemporary art in Australia. In 2010, the MCA had a record 578,913 visitors.

Our diverse exhibition program includes a twice annual MCA Collections exhibition, Primavera – an annual exhibition of young Australian artists under 35, a bi annual focus exhibition of mid-career Australian artists, as well as a number of group and solo exhibitions by Australian and international artists that has recently included Bardayal ‘Lofty’ Nadjamerrek AO, Ricky Maynard, Yayoi Kusama and Annie Leibovitz.

What’s the Museum of Contemporary Art’s role in the hosting of ‘The People of the First Sunrise’ exhibition at the Glasshouse?

The MCA worked closely with staff from the Glasshouse Regional Gallery and North Coast Institute of TAFE – Port Macquarie. The project aimed to mentor students undertaking art studies at North Coast Institute of TAFE – Port Macquarie and involved initiating, developing and presenting an exhibition of work at the Glasshouse Regional Gallery, which has been selected from the collections of the MCA and Glasshouse Regional Gallery and complemented by a small number of private loans.

A visit to the MCA was undertaken at the beginning of this process by the Glasshouse and TAFE group, where a curatorial framework was first established that focused on the dynamic art practice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists throughout areas of Eastern Australia and the selection of a draft list of works. A number of teleconferences were established that discussed and resolved aspects relating to the show.

How many and what kinds of art works does the exhibition contain?

There are 35 works included in the exhibition by 25 artists, which are diverse in genre and representative of art that is being made now and since the late 1980s by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists. Linocut prints, works on canvas, photography, installation, moving image projections, hand-coloured prints on paper, etching, photo-lithographic prints, etchings and sculpture are all included in the exhibition.

Who are a few of the artists featured in the exhibition?

There are a number of artists with a strong body of work that has been developed over a number of years. Artists such as Fiona Foley and Destiny Deacon are represented in the show with photographic and film projection works. Vernon Ah Kee often employs a clever use of image and text within his work.

There is a projection by Richard Bell, the artist known more for his canvas paintings. This is his first venture into moving image. Badger Bates recreates important cultural sites and personal histories in his linocut prints.

What themes/mood does the overall exhibition portray?

Within the larger frame work of the exhibition, there are a number of thematic grouping of artworks that members of the curatorium developed throughout the course of this project. The placement of these works thread across a range of media, such as the projections in the ground gallery space and linocut prints by artists from the Torres Straits in the mezzanine gallery, to themes connected to the personal and historical such as the work of Badger Bates, Milton Budge, Robert Campbell Jnr and Vernon Ah Kee.

There are also references to past government policies that link the work of Esme Timbery and Destiny Deacon.

What do you feel are some of the standout works from the exhibition?

Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s artwork Narrbong challenges the possibilities she has developed out of industrialised farm waste, creating cultural objects from this process.

The work by Daniel Boyd provides an alternative perspective to popular history paintings. Esme Timbery’s large installation shellworked slippers is simply beautiful. They are quite delicately made, and I love the matrilineal connection of her people to shell working that has been passed on in these new forms.

Vernon Ah Kee’s series is also a very important body of work and commands your attention. I love the process of mark making within these works – all male members of his family – as well as the dignified and resilient way he has captured their gaze.

I also feel I should mention the incredible detail captured in the artwork of Dennis Nona and Alick Tipoti. Working within the unique artistic traditions of the Torres Strait Islands, these large works on paper are impressive, and the attention to detail is amazing.

The private loans from the Campbell Family are also quite interesting. I have never seen a self portrait by the artist nor a classic landscape scene identifying areas more closely connected to the artist country on the NSW Mid North Coast than the saltwater country more often depicted in his canvas paintings.

What do you hope viewers will gain or take away from viewing the exhibition?

I hope that visitors to the exhibition will have a greater understanding of the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art practice. The show has a number of amazing artworks and is reflective of the dynamic diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.

Final words …

The MCA is currently undertaking a major building project that will see us launch new galley spaces, the National Center for Creative Learning, new entrance points, a theatre / lecture space. The 53 million dollar project sees the MCA close at the end of this month in readiness for the launch of the 2012 exhibition season in March.

Thanks Keith.

Interview by Jo Atkins.


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