Review: Onetoeight Exhibition

Image: School of Art website

Canberra-based artist Alison Alder uses a fresh, light-hearted lens to depict Australia’s early political journey in her Onetoeight exhibition.

On display at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, Onetoeight focuses on the first eight prime ministers of Australia, who served in office from 1901 – 1929. With the utilisation of vintage ephemera ink-printing from the 1920s and an unconventional use of space, Alder invites the viewer to reconsider how they remember these men – not for their policies or legacies, but for their individual characters.

Despite being shown in the polished and grand Old Parliament House, Alder challenges the traditional gallery space by making use of every wall. Around the prints, colourful wallpaper created by Alder herself hangs. The wallpaper displays the wives of Australia’s first eight prime ministers in the background, reflecting a historical lack of acknowledgement of these often influential women. Alder was actually unable to find a photo of Ada Watson, Chris Watson’s wife, which is indicative of the lack of regard for the significant role she played in her husbands’ life. In the place of Ada Watson, therefore, Alder has added a photo of herself, cheekily saying she ‘… wouldn’t mind being with him either!’

By no means, however, is the display of these women done in a disrespectful or flippant manner. These women were strong and Alder’s work demonstrates a true respect. Alder says, ‘The wives are really important as well … I don’t think any of those men married shrinking violets … they were all strong women.’ It only takes a quick search of Margaret Fisher, Andrew Fisher’s wife, who contributed to the suffragette movement in England, to affirm Alder’s comment.

The photographs used in the exhibition are those that were used in public communications, and were therefore chosen by the prime ministers themselves – thus, they depict the man that each wanted to be remembered as. Adler also draws inspiration from the lapel badges that were often worn by politicians in the decades after federation. The badges that each of the eight wore are included in the exhibition to represent their individual legacies. Edmund Barton, for instance, wears two badges: one with ‘White Australia Policy’ printed on the front, and the other with ‘Votes for Women’. The closeness with which these badges are worn juxtaposes the political climate at the time and emphasises the complexity of each leader – which policy defines his legacy?

When asked which of the prime ministers was her favourite, Adler responded by saying that each were important in their own way, but from a political perspective that her favourite would be Andrew Fisher for his role in campaigning for female representation in Parliament. Reflecting on the significance of these characters to our history, Alder said, ‘I found I couldn’t be partisan looking back. I started to see the nuances of the political situation at the time.’

Onetoeight is an insightful and thought-provoking exhibition, which aims to challenge the preconceived impressions and knowledge that many of us have about Australia’s history.

The exhibition is on display until February 2018, and is open daily from 9am – 5pm.