Margaret Ackland

The Arid Zone

May 25 - June 8 2013

Margaret Ackland's new body of work interprets her experience of the Fowlers Gap landscape situated 112 kilometres north of Broken Hill. The title of the exhibition is so named after the UNSW Arid Zone Research Station to which Ackland and 12 other artists journeyed for a two weeks residency sponsored by the Artist Profile magazine. Fowlers Gap is a bleak and ancient place with occasional river red gums dotting the Station's ephemeral creeks. Scrubby saltbush, bluebush and tiny wildflowers speckle the heat-hazed, corroded vastness. While most of her fellow artists expressed their responses to that arid region in terms of depicting its landforms and flora, Ackland chose to explore the impact the extreme conditions might have had on the lives and psyches of those who once dwelt there.

In the old Shearers' Quarters where the artists were housed Ackland discovered a display of fading photographs. As her signature imagery has been the intricate rendering of disembodied, but curiously animated historical garments it was only natural that she would be drawn to the costumes the subjects were wearing. Ackland describes her fascination with those portraits of people dressed in staid Victorian outfits so at odds with the rigours of the environment. "I imagined the dreams that might have inspired them to relocate here, sometimes from halfway across the world. I sensed the alienation and the physical harshness they encountered and wondered what these ‘foreigners' had made of the indigenous owners' deep connection with this land."

Clothing has a metaphorical resonance in Ackland's paintings. It carries the imprint of personal histories, cultural identity and memory; traces of the essence of the wearer. In her Fowlers Gap works, the landscape itself now permeates attire. A delicate antique garment stands wraith-like against an impenetrable blackness in the Treeline painting. As if rent by the moonlight of bygone times, vestiges of scrubby, tree-lined hills appear among the embroidered knots and pin-tucks.

The figures depicted in the Arid Zone image are William and Fanny Campbell, or perhaps their daughter Elizabeth and her husband on their wedding day - the records are unclear says Ackland. William Campbell established the Fowlers Gap station in 1900. His wife Fanny bore him eleven children. Their stern, unsmiling faces and resigned, or is it determined stances confront the viewer. Here too, the darkening landscape penetrates their very beings in swathes of heavy sepia and scuttling cloudbanks. The atmosphere is electric, prescient.

Despite the stark, nocturnal imagery, Ackland's paintings communicate a sense of stoicism and equanimity. They offer a meditation on the spirit of peoples, both pioneer and indigenous, who make a life amidst red dust heat, immense overarching skies and deep, engulfing silence.

Margaret Ackland has won and been a finalist five times in the Portia Geach Memorial Award. Thrice a finalist in the Blake Religious Art Prize, the preparation for her 2008 entry was the subject of the ABC television series, Compass. Ackland's work is represented in a number of important collections including Artbank, the Holmes a Court Collection and the Deakin University Collection.


» Back to previous page