Nici Cumpston Has A Yarn About Beating About The Bush Art Exhibit


Nici Cumpston is a proud Barkandji artist, curator, writer and educator. Having studied fine arts, specialising in Photography at the University of South Australia, she has worked as a photographic lecturer and wrote and delivered the inaugural course Indigenous Art, Culture and Design at the University of South Australia.

Nici is the Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia and since 2014 has also been the Artistic Director of Tarnanthi Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art with an annual Art Fair and major exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

She has been exhibiting her works of art since 1998 and in that time has been invited to participate in many prestigious awards and group exhibitions. Her work is held in major institutions and private collections nationally and internationally.

Opened on Saturday November 5, Beating About The Bush brings together the Art Gallery of Ballarat’s outstanding collection of paintings by Australian Impressionist artists with works by leading contemporary Australian female photographers.

Artist Nici Cumpston is artistic director, Tarnanthi, Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, at the Art Gallery of South Australia, says:

“As a Barkandji artist I make work in Country, about Country, for Country. Beating About the Bush is providing a welcome opportunity for contemporary women photographers to be exhibited alongside the iconic artists of impressionism in Australia. Showcasing our work on the same platform gives our work reverence and a platform to speak about our Country and all that our work means to us.

The images I have created for this exhibition tell stories about my own personal experience with places on Country that are important to me. The two locations depicted are places of abundance where First Nations from many different language groups came to meet to exchange knowledge and goods."

One of Nici’s works in the exhibition is Tree stumps, Western Shoreline, Nookamka. Nici says the work “symbolises the missed opportunity of colonisers to learn first-hand about First People’s knowledge of land management systems. This photograph was taken on the edge of Lake Bonney Barmera where once there was an abundance of majestic river red gums lining the shores. These trees provide shade and shelter, are a vital source of food and provide the resources to create weapons and utilitarian objects. At this location there is not one tree left, every single tree has been ring-barked and cut down.”

Beating About the Bush features photographs by artists Anne Zahalka, Leah King-Smith, Fiona Foley, Nici Cumpston, Polixeni Papapetrou, Jane Burton, Jacqui Stockdale, Siri Hayes, Nicole Welch, Tamara Dean, Peta Clancy, Jill Orr, Robyn Stacey, Janet Laurence, Hayley Millar-Baker and Maree Clarke.

Beating About The Bush brings together the Art Gallery of Ballarat’s outstanding collection of paintings by Australian Impressionist artists with works by leading contemporary Australian female photographers. By bringing these contrasting perspectives together, the exhibition challenges our understanding of the Australian landscape and the perceptions behind the myths that have shaped our nation. Since white settlement, ‘the bush’ has been portrayed in art and literature as largely a male domain. More recently, this has been challenged by contemporary women photographers who have applied a female gaze to our shared historical narrative, challenging ideas of what it means to be Australian as well as notions of gender, migration, class and the environment.

The exhibition includes paintings by Tom Roberts, Charles Conder, Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton, Jane Sutherland and Clara Southern and photographs by photographers including Anne Zahalka, Leah King-Smith, Fiona Foley, Nici Cumpston, Polixeni Papapetrou, Jane Burton, Jacqui Stockdale, Siri Hayes, Nicole Welch, Tamara Dean, Peta Clancy, Jill Orr, Robyn Stacey, Janet Laurence, Hayley Millar-Baker and Maree Clarke. The Gallery holds one of the most significant collection of artworks created by the Australian Impressionist (Heidelberg School) artists and other Australian artists of that era. This exhibition celebrates that holding and brings it into contemporary context by contrasting these older works with new work by leading contemporary female photographers that engage with the Australian landscape.

Art Gallery of Ballarat Director Louise Tegart, who has curated the exhibition says: “Beating About The Bush brings together historical and contemporary perspectives to challenge and extend our understanding of the Australian landscape and the perceptions behind the myths that shaped our nation. “The Australian Impressionists were criticised by artist and writer Ian Burn in his essay Beating About the Bush for creating romanticised images of the bush and its people, viewing them from the leisurely gaze of upper-middle class men whose imaginations did not really address the role of women, the precarious existence in the face of poverty, bushfire and drought, and the place of Aboriginal people in the bush. “As well as giving due recognition to the work of women artists of the Australian Impressionist era, this exhibition explores what has been left out of the Australian Impressionist paintings, allowing contemporary female photographers to put these elements back in the picture.

These artists don’t beat about the bush – they tell a more comprehensive story, addressing issues pertaining to immigration, First Nations people, gender and social status. “The exhibition not only explores the Gallery’s significant Collection and long history, it also highlights the Gallery’s practice of looking for thematic connections between old and new works in the Collection, allowing audiences to examine them from a fresh perspective, or in this case, with a new lens.”