Review / Croft’s complex exhibition of love

art / “heart-in-hand” by Brenda L. Croft, at Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Gorman House, until September 8. Reviewed by JOHN LANDT

A slide in Brenda L Croft’s ‘heart-in-hand

THIS is an exhibition about love – the love, sometimes complicated and conflicted, of a daughter for her mother, and the equally complex love experienced within a family. It’s a privilege to be invited to enter their world.

Brenda L. Croft’s mother Dorothy had an Anglo-Australian/German/Irish heritage and grew up in the working-class, southern Sydney suburb of Hurstville. She went to work on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme in Cooma in the late 1950s. There she met Joe Croft, an Indigenous man of Gurindji/Malngin/Mudpurra/Chinese/Irish heritage from the Northern Territory who was already working as a surveyor on the SMHES when Dorothy arrived in 1959.

They married in 1962 in Sydney before moving to Perth, WA, where Joe worked as a surveyor on the railways. Following further working stints as a surveyor and small business owner in northern NSW, the family relocated to Canberra in the mid 1970s, when Joe commenced work with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

Crocheted crosses made by the artist’s mother.

This exhibition shows their life in loving detail, through the objects created or meticulously, somewhat obsessively, collected by Dorothy. There are slides of the artist’s parents’ lives from the late 1950s and early 1960s in and around the Canberra region and outfits that were made at home on a sewing machine or knitted by hand. There are also slides depicting precious moments captured in Kodachrome, later shared in slide nights in a darkened family living room. CCAS’ smaller gallery is re-configured as the living room with 1950s-60s furniture and music, with the slideshow clicking over, a highlight of the exhibition.

Enlargements of a selection of slides from around this period – taken by Dorothy, Joe, her parents and friends – fill the main wall of the exhibition. The cardboard surrounds of the slides with Dorothy’s hand-written notes have a striking three-dimensional effect and they appear to float away from the wall. As in the artist’s previous photographic works drawn from family archives, the figures face the camera and the surrounding scenes are evocative.

A still from Amala Groom’s video work work, ‘Does she know the Revolution is coming?’

Present as a backdrop, but not shown in “heart-in-hand”, are the ignorant and often bigoted attitudes of mainstream Australian society of that era – many of which are still present today, as evident in the separate six-channel video work by Wiradjuri artist Amala Groom, “Does she know the Revolution is coming?” Groom shows that these attitudes still cut deeply in an explicit and humorous manner. 

This joint exhibition is one of several currently being held in Canberra in conjunction with NAIDOC Week. The NAIDOC theme in 2018, “Because of Her, We Can!”, honours Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who have played and continue to play significant roles in their families and communities.

Croft’s tribute exhibition has expanded on this theme to honour her mother Dorothy’s dedication to reuniting the artist’s father, Joe, with his own mother, as well as acknowledging Dorothy’s own experience in facing challenging negative social mores during the years of her marriage, while doing her best to create a nurturing home life for her family.    

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