Environment at the heart of 2019 ANU drawing prize

13 September 2019

The winner of the 2019 ANU School of Art & Design Drawing prize says her work is about getting society to think about the environmental issues confronting it.

Henrietta Farrelly-Barnett's work, Murray Darling Willow (2019, ceramic, dimensions variable), looks at the issues relating to the Murray Darling river system, with a specific focus on last year's highly publicised event where hundreds of fish died in the waterways.

In the final few months of her Bachelor of Visual Arts, majoring in Ceramics and Art Theory, Henrietta says she was surprised by the win but the timing was fantastic.

"It was my birthday the next day so it was a kind of really lovely early birthday present!" she says, admitting she had an inkling when, in announcing the prize winner, the School of Art & Design's head, Professor Denise Ferris, started talking about British ceramicist Grayson Perry, who is one of the most famous ceramicists in the world today.

Perry creates hand-made pots that often poke fun at the establishment.

"I really like his work and always have done - I don't seek to emulate his styles in my own work but I do consider him to be a very rich, visual reference."

Henrietta's own piece makes reference to the famous Willow style of china that is known around the world for its distinctive dark blue and lighter shades of blue on a pale white porcelain.

"I was interested in the history of blue and white china and, in particular, that design which is made to look like it was of Chinese origin and then mass manufactured. So it's about that idea of transport, export and colonialism and that sort of translation of narratives.

"And then in my work I was drawn, last summer, to the mass fish kills that happened along the Murray Darling and the horrific nature of these events and what they signalled for the river system and us all."

Visiting artist Wayne Simon, who judged the finalists in the exhibition, chose Henrietta's work for her attention to the issue of water scarcity and management of agriculture.

"I feel that is not only an important issue to the Murray darling region but across the entire Australian environment," he says.

"Her ceramic vase, illustrated with playful images of farming surrounded by skulls, is a silent but deadly reminder of a pressing issue which I feel our country and people should have a greater awarness of."

In judging the works, Wayne says he embraced a broader view of what constitutes drawing and how drawing can be used in other mediums.

"As such I was drawn to Henrietta's illustrated vase. I'm also a sucker for practical but beautiful art with a deeper meaning than just what we see."

Henrietta says some artists are overt with political messaging so viewers immediately receive the message.

"But I prefer to engage primarily through aesthetics and through that appeal and attraction and then have that secondary messaging that hopefully stays with people and raises questions in their mind."

Henrietta says she does have relatives who are farmers, but she was influenced more by last year's political coverage around the fish kills.

"Everyone was upset for 24 hours, but then not so after that. And I don't think many people fully grasped the gravity of having these slow-growing, very long lived apex predator fish, that could live up to 100 years - and these were fish that had lived through the millennium drought and had done some hard yards - all just dying," she says.

"I think that should be a really strong alarm bell for where we're at with our relationship with the environment."

With her final semester underway, Henrietta is working on a related body of work - a series of other pottery objects and items, including vases and pottery moulds of cow skulls, that build on the theme of the environment, drawing in other factors that have caused the decline of the Murray Darling cod such as commercial fishing, irrigation, damming and chemical run offs from farming.

These works will be on show as part of the ANU School of Art's 2019 Graduating Exhibition.

"I think it's getting to the point now where it's less about are you interested in the environment and more like do you wish to continue living on a habitable planet," Henrietta says.

"It's pretty universal and the fact that we seem really intent on ignoring that is understandable because it's terrifying but it's also not going to help. It's something that needs to be confronted and dealt with and anything that can raise people's interest in the issue is a really social positive but also essential."

The budding ceramicist, from Sydney, was drawn to the ANU School of Art & Design because the School is so practically-focused and studio-based.

"One of the main drivers of that was the consideration of having hands-on and close contact with instructors to learn a lot of the skills needed," she says.

Another strength of the school is having access to the School of Art Theory.

"I think having a strong understanding of art theory is essential to having a strong conceptual basis in your own work. So if you're going to make work of any depth and longevity you're going to have to have that basis and it's fantastic that you have access to that."

The ANU School of Art & Design's Graduating Exhibition opens at the end of November and runs for one week.