Ulanda Blair on Top Arts

‘Big Fish, Little Fish’ (Top Arts, 1997) was inspired by my move as a teenager from a tiny desert town in remote North West Victoria, to the Mornington Peninsula. It was a mixed-media work containing large-scale photographic prints, bleached fish bones and rusted-out sardine tins that I had found buried in the Mallee Scrub. ‘Big Fish, Little Fish’ was an attempt to describe my feelings of being a fish out of water – I was a small-town girl awkwardly navigating a new life in suburban seaside Melbourne.

The same year I exhibited in Top Arts I started studying art history and theory at university, which eventually lead to my current career as a curator and art writer. I am now a curator at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) where I make exhibitions about contemporary art, film, animation, television, and more. Since starting at ACMI in 2011 I have worked with one of my all-time art heroes, South African artist William Kentridge, as well as with the iconic Australian film critics Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton. I have developed a keen appreciation for the role of costume design in storytelling through my work on the Hollywood Costume exhibition, while more recently I have become intimately acquainted with the art of DreamWorks Animation. Each one of these projects has necessitated enormous amounts of research to help me familiarise myself with the exhibition materials, and to find the exhibition ‘story’. I feel very lucky to do what I do; I have a creative job that keeps me critically engaged and curious.

When it comes to the practicalities of exhibition-making, sometimes an idea or theme comes first, at other times it’s a particular artwork or an artist’s practice. For me, curating is essentially storytelling, of drawing relationships between objects and creating a spark from their contact. The best part of my job is the research and development of ideas – of listening to and learning from the makers, bouncing thoughts back and forth, and finding points of connection. Curating is nothing if not collaborative.

Today my curatorial interests lie primarily in moving-image art, but I have worked in very interdisciplinary contexts over the years.  In my previous role at the Next Wave Festival I worked with young, emerging artists across visual art, dance, theatre, and media arts, often in unconventional locations like nightclubs and sports stadiums. I started my arts career at Gertrude Contemporary, which ignited an ongoing interest in Australian contemporary art and art writing.

Having my work selected for the NGV’s Top Arts exhibition was my induction into the Australian art world – it marked my first contact with a curator, my first media launch, and my first exhibition opening. I had never before had the opportunity to peer behind the curtain and see how exhibitions came into being. Top Arts was a formative experience for me and I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Top Arts helped direct my life’s course. Before Top Arts I had never even registered the existence of curators, let alone considered curating as a career for myself.

I am now twice the age I was when I made ‘Big Fish, Little Fish’ and thankfully I feel much more comfortable in the world, and in my own skin! I have found a career that suits my interests and my temperament, and for this I’m very grateful.

Image: Ulanda Blair in her home. Artwork by Nick Selenitsch.