from the editor's desk

Imaginary Encounters: ‘Ekphrasis in two galleries twenty years apart’

‘Imaginary Encounters’ showcases creative prose and poetry written in response to the sculptural exhibition Everything is True, by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah. The exhibition was curated by Chris Malcolm for the John Curtin Gallery and Perth Festival 2021.

In February of 2021, a small group of Curtin University staff and postgraduate students were invited to visit the exhibition and respond through creative writing. A small selection of the resulting works are published here in an online format. Others have been included as a special feature in the print issue of Westerly, to be published towards the end of June.

There is a long tradition of creative writing in response to artworks. Traditionally, this practice of ‘ekphrasis’ involves the transcription of a viewer’s experience into a written account. Abdullah’s sculptures are especially well-suited to this contemplation of experience because they evoke an empathic connection with the viewer. We invite you, Westerly readers, to enter into these imaginary worlds. We hope you find them as stimulating and thought-provoking as we did.

Ekphrasis in two galleries twenty years apart
Per Henningsgaard

On an unseasonably warm autumn day in 2001, one week after planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, I joined the loose knot of creative writing students following our instructor across the green lawns of Vassar College in upstate New York. We were bound for the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, which was founded in 1864 as the Vassar College Art Gallery. Like my fellow students, I had been equipped with this information in an email sent by our instructor the night before. But the building we arrived at was not an old building; it had been built in 1993 by César Pelli, better known as the architect of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur and the World Financial Center in New York City. We had been provided with this information, as well. After reading my instructor’s email, I had typed the words ‘World Financial Center’ into Yahoo! Search. The results assured me that the World Financial Center and the World Trade Center were separate entities, though proximate enough that debris from the collapse of the towers had punched holes in the World Financial Center roof. I wondered about the efficacy of Pelli’s designs to protect a building’s inhabitants.

Inside the gallery, students quickly dispersed through the maze of white-walled rooms that housed the collection. On display were works from antiquity to contemporary times, including minor works by some well-known artists, such as Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso, Pollock and O’Keeffe. The instructor—an earnest white man in his mid-thirties, with blond hair thinning at the front and a penchant for plaid dress shirts—had told us we should write ekphrastic poetry. He helpfully described it as ‘poems written about works of art’ and mentioned that, in ancient Greece, the success of an ekphrastic poem was judged by its attention to detail—but that we shouldn’t feel pressured to judge our own work by such criteria. Rather, he said, we should give ourselves over to the art and whatever emotion it evoked. I wondered if this activity was a response to recent events, or if it had been his plan since the beginning of the semester. Either way, recent events left me feeling like the artwork was remote—disconnected from the realities of the nascent twenty-first century. I wandered with echoing steps, looking for something truly contemporary and couldn’t find it. I ended up selecting an untitled painting by an unknown artist from the Renaissance period.

Twenty years later, I visited the John Curtin Gallery to see ‘Everything Is True’, an exhibition of artworks by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah. I did my own research in order to determine that the John Curtin Gallery was established in 1968. The building in which the gallery is housed goes by the inauspicious name Building 200a—no supremely generous donor on the horizon, in front or behind, that would merit a naming ceremony. It is a squat brick building—solid and seemingly safe. I entered the building in a dream-like state, my glasses fogged by my own hot breath rising up from a surgical mask. Less than a week after the five-day snap lockdown that paralysed Perth, I was still uneasy about my place in the world. But on this occasion, I was inspired. Abdullah’s sculptures—of bird, fox and water buffalo—felt intensely immediate. They made sense on that day, and they will make sense in a post-pandemic world. But they also sent my mind backwards—to the long-forgotten memory of a day in September in Poughkeepsie, New York, when I struggled to find the words, and artwork provided no solace.

That night, after visiting the John Curtin Gallery, I read my son a chapter from the graphic novel Ms Marvel, Volume 1: No Normal under the glow of a single bedside lamp. Then, I traded one light source for another—this time, a red plastic torch with failing batteries. After searching through several plastic crates of paperwork stored under the house, I found what I was looking for: the ekphrastic poem I had written all those years ago at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. I am surprised to discover that it contains no allusion to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Instead, it is about the body. It is clumsy, but undeniably immediate. One sentence, in particular, sounds like it could have been written about several of the sculptures by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah: ‘The colors—pink skin, blood-red blood—are the colors of both suffering and ecstasy, fatality and consummation’.

Per Henningsgaard is a senior lecturer in Professional Writing and Publishing at Curtin University. He has published more than twenty refereed journal articles and book chapters across six countries. His research investigates the significance of place in contemporary book publishing. Per is a Fulbright Scholar who received his PhD from The University of Western Australia and has held permanent teaching positions at Portland State University and University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point.

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