When the renowned American theatre director and artist Robert Wilson was visiting Mona in Hobart a few years ago, he saw the work of Jacqui Stockdale in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. He immediately curated these works – Lady Rabbit and Colonial Boy from her Familija series (2004) – into his Watermill Foundation Collection in Long Island. He also included them in an exhibition Living Rooms in the Louvre, Paris, which he was guest-curating as part of a residency there. Not too bad, for a young artist from Benalla.
Stockdale studied painting under Gareth Sansom at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne. Years later, they are both exhibiting in the 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art curated by the Art Gallery of South Australia’s assistant director, artistic programs, Lisa Slade. The seductive title of this overview of 25 contemporary Australian artists is Magic Object; the departure point for Stockdale’s new series inspired by a national enchantment with the notorious Ned Kelly, which exhibits at the biennial until mid-May and at Melbourne’s This Is No Fantasy + Dianne Tanzer Gallery in April. She has called the whole series The Boho, “because I wanted to have an ambiguous title for the series, I didn’t want it to immediately proclaim Ned Kelly,” she explains. “I called it The Boho after a little town I drove through between Melbourne and Benalla.”
I’m sitting with Stockdale in her large studio space in Brunswick Street, a few days before the biennial is due to open. She’s telling me how she managed to get singer Paul Kelly to play the role of his namesake Ned, in one of a series of staged photographs that employ vast painted backdrops from the area around Glenrowan. One of those large backdrops is lying on the floor between us as we speak, an overgrown path through the bush seeming to disappear through the floorboards in one point perspective.
“I used many different models in this series and a few of them were well-known musicians,” she tells me. “One of them, Missy Higgins, sometimes plays with Paul Kelly and she suggested I should contact him to play the role of Ned Kelly.” Each of the models in the new works is holding their own magic object; a snow globe, a glittering sabre, an emerald green sash with golden fringe, the latter inspired by the sash Kelly was wearing when he was shot at Stringybark Creek.
Stockdale had initially wanted to borrow the original sash from its home at the Benalla Costume & Kelly Museum, which specialises in costumes and local history, including the Ned Kelly story. “There was no way they were going to allow me to take it away,” she says. “It was really frustrating. I even thought of hiring a helicopter to get Paul up there to do the photoshoot in the museum. But that didn’t happen either. In the end I made a replica of the sash, and that’s the magic object he’s holding. The original sash has Ned Kelly’s blood stains on it. So I persuaded Paul to let me take some of his blood to stain the replica with. It’s also got some of my blood on it, and everyone else involved in the different shoots.”
In a very real sense this project has brought Stockdale home. She grew up in Benalla, known Kelly country, born into a family of teachers and educators. After her time at the VCA she moved to Tasmania for seven years, focusing on film and video projects. “I also did a lot of cabaret at that time in Hobart and learned to sing, dance, perform and play guitar.” More recently, Stockdale would sing at the funeral of her great friend and fellow artist Katthy Cavaliere.
A move from Tasmania to Sydney was a three-year sea change for the artist, before a call from a friend took her to Darwin, initially for a six-week stint teaching in a prison. She fell in love with the northern capital and ended up working at Darwin’s Berrimah Prison for three years, where she worked with mostly male prisoners. “I stopped working in oils and stopped drawing from life,” she says. “I started using what the prisoners were using. I was doing inks and acrylics and basket weaving and linocuts. I was getting all the ideas from my head and I stopped showing commercially. It was my rite of passage as an Australian as well. I met all these wonderful people, albeit they were in prison, and I got all these touring exhibitions up and running in the Northern Territory with [NT arts touring agency] Artback – and I took a lot of the work back to the communities.” A touch of homesickness saw a move back to her Melbourne hometown in 2001, where she’s been based ever since. It took Stockdale about five years to find a way to merge photography with painting and collage.
We discuss some of the other works in the latest series. The largest, The Powers Lookout, is inspired by Harry Powers, the bushranger who apprenticed the young Kelly. Powers’ six daughters stare into the distance, each holding a piece of rock candy with the name “Ned Kelly” written along its length; “one of the many examples of tourist memorabilia I have collected on the Ned Kelly tourist trail through Glenrowan,” says Stockdale. In the Higgins work, Stockdale wanted the singer to become the magic object herself. “She’s wearing a floral mask with a slit in it. This triggers the whole Ned Kelly mask idea. She’s standing in the pathway, in the middle of the road, and she’s a little bit tribal looking. I describe her as being some kind of hybrid character, or bunyip, from Gondwanaland or Glenrowan. She’s just this spirit that appears. At the same time, I was looking into flowers and the meaning of flowers: love, loss, and longing. I spoke to Missy Higgins about titles, and one of her songs is called Where I Stood. That’s what I named the portrait.”
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 76, APR–JUN 2016.