A curator with a deep belief in the ability of art to transform, Jennifer Phipps envisaged a fund that would enable women artists working in the Pacific to engage in projects and learning opportunities, and ensured its existence with a significant bequest.
Oceania Women’s Fund
Visitors to the Queensland Art Gallery’s first exhibition profiling contemporary Pacific textiles in 2003 were greeted by a riot of colour, texture and bold design. The exhibition ‘Island Beats’ displayed textiles created by the region’s women practitioners, a theme that was later explored via ‘The 5th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT5, 2006) in the Pacific Textiles Project and subsequently in ‘Threads: Contemporary Textiles and the Social Fabric’ in 2011. The Gallery’s commitment to collecting and exhibiting the vibrant textiles created by Pacific women parallels the development of an equally rich collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander textiles.
QAGOMA’s ability to build on years of commissioning, acquiring and exhibiting the work of women artists in the Pacific has been enhanced by a generous bequest from Jennifer Phipps, allowing for the creation of the Oceania Women’s Fund. A curator with a deep belief in the ability of art to transform, Phipps’s vision was to enable women working in the more under-resourced and remote areas of the Pacific to engage in projects and learning opportunities to build creative capacity.
Inspired by conversations with her friend and former colleague Sana Balai at the National Gallery of Victoria and the work of NGO Pacific Black Box, the resulting Oceania Women’s Fund entrusts QAGOMA with the ongoing role of fostering creative production by women living and working in the region.
The first project to be supported by the fund arose from attending the Festival of Pacific Arts in Guam in May 2016, during ‘The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT9) curatorial research travel. Senior weaver Maraana Vamarasi was part of the delegation from Fiji, exhibiting a beautiful white kutareed ibe nauri (round mat). Conversations revealed that Vamarasi was keen to explore the transformation of this traditionally white-coloured form using the sumptuous black somo (mud-dyed pandanus).
The creation of black somo is an arduous process involving boiling and steeping the pandanus in mud, which imparts not only its characteristic dark tone, but also a supple softness. Highly valued in Fiji, black somo has chiefly associations and is customarily used sparingly in decoration. The black showcases the fine double-weave technique; rather than hide the texture of the weave, the black somo captures the light, emphasising the radiating nature of the mat’s construction and a sense of movement in Vamarasi’s intricate woven patterning. Like a blazing dark sun, it is believed to be the first totally black ibe nauri in existence.
Alongside research travel funded by the Australia Council for the Arts for the development of the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art exhibition series, the Oceania Women’s Fund will assist the Gallery in identifying new female artists in the region and exploring their art.
The fund will also consolidate the ways that QAGOMA is able to work with artists and communities in the Pacific, not only by celebrating the richness of their culture through exhibitions and public programming, but also by providing opportunities and platforms for exploring ambitious new aesthetic expressions and collaborations.
Ruth McDougall is Curator, Pacific Art, QAGOMA
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Feature image detail: Maraana Vamarasi, Fiji b.1965 / Ibe nauri (round mat) 2016 / Woven somo (black mud-dyed pandanus) fibre / Purchased 2016 with funds from the Oceania Women’s Fund through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist