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  • Writer's pictureKoulla Roussos

Seeking transcendence: ‘Out of the darkness’ at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, Exhibition preview

Pic: Katherine Rolfe, 2021

As I enter Ballarat, an eerie silence pervades. Clouds hover above the heritage houses, quaint miner cottages and sprawling mansions. The front gardens are speckled with begonias in full bloom. Neo-gothic cathedrals and tree-lined boulevards are testament to the exuberant confidence of this town, once supported by rivers of gold. Now, ribbons are tied around the front gates of the St Alipius church and St Patrick’s Cathedral, marking out a crime scene. For decades, Ballarat was a hunting ground for paedophile priests who were so active in this area that it has been labelled Australia’s epicentre of clergy sex abuse. The final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, published in December 2017, listed 136 victims within the Ballarat Diocese, and named 21 individual perpetrators, with at least 130 claims and substantiated complaints since 1980.

It is not surprising, then, that art galleries are filling the void left behind by churches that have been stripped of all legitimacy: seeking and finding transcendence is at the heart of religious worship, as is the prostration before works of art. ‘Out of the darkness: A survivor’s journey’ is a group exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ballarat curated by Robert House. As a child sexual abuse survivor and an activist who has found strength through the healing qualities of artistic expression, House has commissioned, collected and created art as he has agitated to bring perpetrators and their enabling institutions to account. The exhibition combines work from House’s collection with that drawn from the Art Gallery of Ballarat.

The exhibition lays bare the power that the church holds over people, indoctrinating children to suffer unquestioningly through silence. It exposes those – who masked themselves with love and compassion while doing unspeakable horror – for the monsters they were and are. Indeed, it is hugely valuable for the hypocrisy of the church to be visualised, as this shifts the prevailing medico-legal gaze away from the violated individual and examines the pathological criminality of the perpetrators and the institutions which enabled them.

Rodney Pople’s Night dance (2013) references Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953), explicating the horror of so-called pious men – macabre predators who preyed on the innocence of children. James Money’s Guilty charged (2017) in all fairness affords Cardinal George Pell the presumption of innocence. But in lampooning the widely circulated newspaper photograph of Pell walking to court in support of Father Gerald Ridsdale, the work scathingly hints at Pell’s leadership of a church which spent millions of dollars fighting off claims. Incidentally, Ridsdale, the caricature in oversize black glasses, is serving a lengthy prison term for sex offences relating to 65 child victims.

As the majestic painting by Peter Daverington The raft of the clan (2017–18) captures, the exhibition is an accountability project that records for posterity a political force of our times. Its overarching ambition is to document the struggle and eventual vindication of these outsiders who, against all odds, usurped hegemonic order. This work, like the exhibition, invests the cause with a hieratic aura and transforms the shame of victims into honour by utilising the valorising properties of art. The exhibition’s rationale is to ennoble the protagonists of this fight against institutional power as objects of art and heroic subjects of history, worthy of our deep respect.

House emphasises there are many survivors who are high functioning, and these artworks resist dwelling on the material experience of the body as victim. The exhibition aims to make a powerful statement, for as House exclaimed: suffering without purpose is the doubling of the woe.’ Akin to art’s inherent healing properties, the exhibition aims to transform the experience of the spectator to behold works of art as material records of activists, activism and the long arduous struggle to hold the behemoths of obscene power to account.

This is not an exhibition that can be experienced dispassionately or objectively. Viewing these works requires a deeper contemplation into a void which cannot be represented. It resists clichés and re-presents the institutions responsible for abuse as moribund. Kudos to Robert House for amassing technically exemplary works of art and to Director Louise Tegart and Curator Julie McLaren and their fearless Art Gallery of Ballarat team for providing a space on traumatised ground for this visual record to be sown into our cultural memory.

Curated by Robert House, ‘Out of the darkness: A survivor’s journey’ is on view at the Art Gallery of Ballarat until 1 August 2021. In her role as deputy managing lawyer at Victoria Legal Aid’s Ballarat office from 2006–10, Koulla E. Roussos represented adult defendants who were child victims of sexual abuse caught up in the criminal justice system. In 2014 she appeared as junior counsel in the Royal Commission inquiring into the experiences of men and women who were sexually abused as children at the Retta Dixon Home in Darwin. She continues to represent and advocate for the interests of individuals navigating the complex maze of criminal justice.

Koulla Roussos, Ballarat


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