This exhibition features photographs by Australian photographer Polixeni Papapetrou (1960–2018) of her children Olympia and Solomon, and their friends. In the period from Olympia’s birth (1997) until the artist’s death (2018), Olympia played a particularly important role in the artist’s image making, assuming the complex roles of model and muse, collaborator and champion.
Papapetrou’s photographs explore the relationship between history, contemporary culture, identity, and the construction of childhood and adolescence. She created fantastical worlds that feature her children, set against both real and imagined backdrops, reflecting a limitless world of play acting, imagination and storytelling.
Robert Nelson was Papapetrou’s husband and is the father of Olympia and Solomon. Trained in art history, Nelson has been art critic for The Age since 1996. He is the author of many poems, seven books and numerous articles and chapters on art, architecture and education. Nelson was also Papapetrou’s scene painter and studio hand.
In the following video extracts, Robert Nelson provides insight into Papapetrou’s art making practices, and interprets the concepts and themes which informed the creation of the works.
Introducing Papapetrou’s Haunted Country series, 2006, where Olympia, Solomon and their friends pose as both real and fictional children in the Australian landscape. Nelson explains the true story that inspired She saw two girls and a boy 1966 #1, 2006, where three children disappeared from the beach, presumed to be abducted and murdered in the 1960s. Other images from the series show children lost in the Australian bush during the nineteenth century. Nelson discusses how Papapetrou uses colours, and changes the children’s clothing, to represent the mood and time period in the image.
Robert Nelson provides insight into some of Papapetrou’s views and beliefs which informed the Games of Consequence series from 2008. It explores themes of childhood, nostalgic memories of play and the idea of ‘stranger danger’.
In The Dreamkeepers series from 2011-12, the children dress as adults and wear strange masks to form an unusual family in the scenic countryside. Providing his interpretation of the series, Nelson describes the characters and speculates about their personalities and lifestyles.
Reflecting on the impact of Papapetrou’s cancer diagnosis on the Melancholia series from 2014, Nelson considers the artistic choices the artist made during this challenging time. This short video includes behind-the-scenes photos, and explores the theme of death, representations of clowns, and the significance of masks in the artist’s work.
Nelson compares Papapetrou’s use of a clown mask and black backdrop in the Melancholia series, 2014, to a much earlier work, Winter Clown, 2002. Explaining the processes and practices the artist used to create Melancholia, 2014, he speculates about why Papapetrou departed from her motif square photograph shape for the series.
‘Olympia was about four years old when we started this project [Winter Clown, 2002]…. I was interested in exploring the performative nature of the masks and how the mask could be used as a device to move Olympia and the photograph from the “real” to the “imaginary” – both body and photograph were transformed by the mask.’ – Polixeni Papapetrou, 2006
‘In the series Lost Psyche I wanted to talk about history, memory and psyche. The immigrant, for example, portrays a nineteenth-century immigrant (played by my daughter), but countless others have followed her, often bringing with them to their new country a world of harrowing memory and fragile hope. Often the immigrant – such as my parents coming from Greece to Melbourne – is torn between the past of their homeland and the future of their adopted country. The work is also a metaphor for the journey from childhood to adulthood.’ – Polixeni Papapetrou, 2015
Created when Olympia was a teenager and navigating the world of social media, the It’s all about me series from 2015-16 explores popular culture, sexualisation of youth, and feminism. Standing in confident poses, Olympia wears a mask while modelling a range of t-shirts with provocative slogans. This short clip poses a range of interpretations and questions about one work from the series, It’s all about me, 2016.