The ACP files: Spring 2013


‘The more one talks about one’s work, the more one diminishes it,' so Emmanuel Angelicas introduced himself one afternoon to gallery-goers convened at the Australian Centre for Photography to hear the artist speak about his latest solo exhibition Buka. Slight in stature but grand in presence, Angelicas has the shape-shifting personality of a fox who commands attention with his piercing hunter’s eyes while slipping through the snares of others who attempt a casual assessment of the man. Angelicas doesn’t do casual—he is no gullible, opportunistic tourist—as his portraits from Bali in Buka attest, the exhibition’s title being the translation from the Javanese ‘welcome’ or ‘opening'. Whether capturing members of the royal family of Ubud, their stoic servant staff, or naked young women and tough tattooed men of an altogether more speculative sphere of daily existence, Angelicas’ emotionally uninhibited portraits of Balinese coupled with his lush settings of temple, beach and countryside intimate a land of ritual raised to the providence of a people beset by a changing world. 

I had come to lay eyes on Angelicas for the first time, a full fourteen years after I had been introduced to his work by fellow photographer Arthur Georgeson during my first year at art school, seeking to meet an artist I had grown to admire and respect for his distinctive vision and endearing commitment to the ‘no bullshit’ approach to art and its making. Indeed, throughout those years it was the searing memory of his remarkable early series of photographs produced in Thailand, Japan and his native stomping ground of Marrickville in Sydney’s inner west, that stoked my desire to find out more. Since he swaggered into his stride as an artist in the mid-1980s, a cocksure, angry but brave young man who had an insider’s view of the toil of migrants and the toughness of the streets, Angelicas chose to pick up a camera instead of a gun (okay, he did both as some self-portraits of this period testify). In the exhilarating prose of Max Pam’s exhibition essay, he says of his friend at this time: ‘As I remember he was in his channelling Rocky Balboa period: black beanie jammed down to the eyebrows, black fingerless woolly gloves, flanno shirt and the Bruce Springsteen sleeveless [leather jacket].’ Since then Angelicas has garnered more attention in Asia and Europe than in his homeland, making ACP’s commitment to presenting this solo exhibition all the more felicitous.

In Buka the question of photography’s material tactility and perishability was countered by the self-evident bridging of the intimate space between photographer and subject. To this end Angelicas pushed his experimentation with alternative print materials to skilful resolutions, with the spectral quality of ultraviolet printing techniques employed on bamboo strands, terracotta, galvanised metal, cotton, raw silk, sandpaper, sterling silver and even snakeskin. Indah Ikan (‘beautiful fish’), a large-scale luminous work depicting a submerged koi printed on a grid of white tiles raised from the ground, acted as an ineluctable material relation to the other concurrent Spring 2013 exhibitions: Rowan Conroy’s The Woodhouse Rephotography Project, that elected as its subject the marriage of archaeological and photographic typologies in its exploration of the ruins of classical Greece; and the revelation of Robert Besanko’s masterful vintage Kodalith print of a sandstone column from the University of Sydney campus. The thread that held together the work of these artists was a faith in the ability of close inspection of the surfaces of relics to reveal connections across time. 

Taking one’s time to pass through the meditative world of Buka, one recognised that with the hard-earned wisdom of age, Angelicas has wrestled with the truth of his own secrets as revealed to him in the faces of his subjects. Though it’s true that the young artist was a firebrand who did not suffer fools gladly, these days one senses that Angelicas has experienced a lion’s share of sickness and sorrow, and yet has been blessed to witness more beauty and tenderness than most. As the artist confessed that Saturday afternoon in the gallery: ‘I firmly believe in the fate of film. Every roll, every frame has its own particular destiny: to let light in or remain in darkness.’

Emmanuel Angelicas: Buka; Rowan Conroy: The Woodhouse Rephotography Project; Robert Besanko: Contemplations; Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, 31 August–17 November 2013.

Published in Photofile, no. 94, March 2014, pp. 77-79.    

© Pedro de Almeida 2013.