June 14, 2023 Rhonda Pryor

How Curiosity Led to the Laughing Rose … and a New Body of Work

Original photograph of Rose, c. 1918


My exhibition Invisible Structures will be showing at Woollahra Gallery at Redleaf from 26 July until 20 August. Woollahra Gallery is a beautifully restored and relatively new space, dedicated to visual arts and culture. This exhibition touches on themes of identity, human relationships, time, existence, and ideas of beauty.

I thought you might like a little insight into how the work evolved.

During lockdown in 2021 I pored over some very old family photograph albums of my late father’s I hadn’t seen before. My brother had kept these while I had kept a lot of Mum’s, and I was interested to see what they held. In these albums I found photographs of my paternal grandmother smiling – and even laughing. This probably won’t seem at all unusual to most people, but I had never, ever, seen my nana express happiness. It was a shock, although a pleasant one. Nana died when I was twelve, after some eight years in a nursing home in a vegetative state after suffering a stroke. We’d visit her every weekend without fail, and my brother and I were alternately fearful or creeped out at the state of her and the entire ward of around eight similarly affected people.


The laughing one….third from left. My grandfather is on her left. Others unknown.


My mother used to tell me stories about how she thought Dad was Nana’s favourite child (she’d had four) as she had always given Mum a particularly hard, sometimes verbally brutal, time. But when I saw her smiling face in those photographs it made me think hard about how we interpret, absorb, reflect on, and form beliefs around hazy memories, colours, smells, family stories and all the other little inputs into our lives. I felt like I owed Nana an apology, for believing she was a difficult, unfriendly individual. But of course, I hadn’t had the opportunity to get to know, or indeed understand, her.

Her name was Rose.

One of her old photographs really struck me. She was sitting on a beach, holding her first born, one of my uncles. She looked so young – exactly like my cousin. Everything seemed to evolve out of that photograph. Responses in paint and textiles followed from there.

I’m drawn to the mystery of the obscured image and what may lie within. Photographic imagery on sheer silk make the picture harder to read – like a secret – getting glimpses, guessing the story. The inclusion of fabrics represents a connection to human beings: combining cloth that reminded me of female relatives, or that emphasised something in the image formally, giving warmth, texture, and dimension to the works.


Naturally, Nana’s namesake – the rose – became important during the evolution of the works. In subtle and not so subtle ways.


This exhibition stems from the fleeting character of the photographic image, blending imprecise recollection with perceived truths. Our response to experiences and stories, and how we recall them, become the structure we build our lives around. The title Invisible Structures refers to these foundational beliefs; the works themselves: the subjective nature of memory.

Aside from my paternal grandmother/Nana/Rose, the exhibition also references my maternal grandmother/Grandma/Ailsa Lavinia. Her influences were considerable, even though Mum’s family lived interstate and we saw them infrequently. I suppose that just illustrates the wonkiness of recall and the power of the conditioning we grow up with.


Original photograph of Lavinia, c. 1908


Lavinia’s references are more of a particular landscape – one I will always associate her with.


The works on show blend the inherent associations of textiles with the intimacy of the body, the ostensible objectivity of the photographic image, found materials, and the expressive gestures of paint, and allude to the reality of human coping mechanisms – what we choose to believe and the inaccuracies we live with. While my particular focus is toward the female lineage within my own family, the exhibition contemplates interpretations of the past, while encouraging viewers to consider their own personal histories, how we establish truth and create meaning, and how these (mis)interpretations might inform our perceptions of, and in, the future.

I hope you can visit the exhibition.

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