Collections that focus on a particular locale — a city, district or region — are intriguing because the narratives that unravel from both the artist’s framing of the situations before them and the viewer’s reception of their work generate insights into the place and its people. Over a 50-year period the City of Fremantle has undertaken such a task and the collection now includes 1400 paintings, drawings, photographs and prints that locate, with specificity, key sites and rituals of life within the port city.
Andre Lipscombe has been the curator of this important collection for the past
10 years and in that time has brought new life to the growing collection through a series of imaginative exhibitions at the Fremantle Arts Centre. Fundamentally, the collection tracks the various histories of Fremantle and charts the cultural and social ebb and flow of individuals, events, venues and activities that have made
the city a home for many artists and writers. They choose to live and work in Fremantle, not only because they find the ambience conducive but also because there are so many subjects to depict and investigate on their doorstep. As participants in its daily life, they are ideal diarists and recorders. Through their eyes they provide the key that enables the citizens of Fremantle to find a point of connection and to open the door to knowing and understanding. What better service could a collection of artworks provide?
This is the starting point for Lipscombe’s curatorial journeys through the collection. Always alert to the exhibition program of the Art Centre, he pitches his exhibitions not only to showcase the City’s holdings but also to reflect on the issues raised in the Centre’s program, and current concerns within the community. For example, in 2011, Fremantle artist Olga Cironis worked with the local Afghan community to create a response to a pair of 19th century Afghan rugs in the collection. The resulting exhibition, Fajr, was the outcome of a six-month residency at the Centre and combined both installation and video work. It not only showcased rarely exhibited works from the collection, but also documented the social history of Australia’s Afghan Cameleers and the vibrant Afghan community in Fremantle.
Outreach is vital, and bringing new audiences into the Art Centre to engage with the collection is one of Lipscombe’s passions. Last year he worked with students from Disablility in the Arts, Disadvantage in the Arts (DADAA), Hamilton Senior High School and John Curtin College of the Arts to make short videos in response to works in the collection. Take 12 appeared on YouTube and in an installation within the Art Centre. Made in collaboration with artist Poppy van Oorde-Grainger, filmmaker Aaron McCann and Blue Forest Media, the videos found a new audience and, through interpretation and interrogation, made the collection both relevant and entertaining to a younger audience.
The collection continues to grow and an important aspect of Lipscombe’s role is to keep informed about what artists are creating in Fremantle and how it reflects on the life of the community. Some of these new purchases will be included in Girt by Sea, an exhibition that opens in November and explores the seduction of beach culture, the coastline, and its importance for a port city like Fremantle. Like all Lipscombe’s projects, as well as holding up a mirror, the exhibition will pose questions and encourage reflection.