22 May 2023

Canberra artist draws on story-telling to help heal a world of ills

| Sally Hopman
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Woman in front of art

Canberra multimedia artist Toni Hassan with one of the works from her installation on show at the Huw Davies Gallery in the Manuka Arts Centre until 10 June. Photos: Sally Hopman.

No one will ever forget Canberra’s Black Summer. Whether you were physically struck by the fires, floods or storms or if you watched it through the filter of a news camera, it didn’t really matter.

It was nature at her worst and for multimedia artist Toni Hassan, who grew up on Gadigal land in Sydney and now works on Ngunnawal-Ngambri country in Canberra, what mattered was that it was part of the biggest of pictures – climate change.

“I just felt that whatever I could do, with whatever breath I had to do something, to make a difference,” she said. “How do we stay resilient in the face of more catastrophic events, events that we have to expect?

“It was … a way to process my own grief,” the artist, who is currently undergoing chemotherapy for oesophageal cancer, said.

Toni’s multimedia installation Between presumption and melancholy is on exhibition now at PhotoAccess in the Manuka Arts Centre until 10 June.

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The installation is a platform for “public mourning” and a safe space where people can process and engage with their emotions connected to “climate grief”, Toni says. A place where people can come to terms with loss – be it a life, a home or an animal.

Back in early 2021, Toni made a series of audio recordings with women who lived through Canberra’s blackest summer, to document their experience.

When those devastating bushfires claimed 33 lives and the lives of 3 billion animals, she wanted to know “how do we process such a loss?”

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She said when she started the work, which began as part of her multimedia honours project in the School of Art and Design at the ANU, the importance of telling such first-hand stories became clear.

“Stories have got us here and stories that elevate our shared hopes will help us get through the tumultuous years ahead,” she said. These stories of nature at her worst are told through first-hand accounts of women in a series of videos.

The installation begins with the image of an unfurling Australian flag which looks like it’s being pulled in every which way. Through the voice of volunteer firefighter Rhian Williams, you are transported through the time when suffocating smoke blocked your view of anything and everything.

The artist depicts it as a time of fear and uncertainty, yet there always remains a glimmer of hope. The flag’s presence, looking so fragile and vulnerable, can be seen to represent the nation’s response to climate change.

In another of the installations, featuring Tess Horwitz, the video begins with a screen laden with tiny piercing lights shining through leaves. It also looks eerily similar to the hailstones that rained down on Canberra back in 2020. For Tess, who tragically lost her father in a fire, it tells the most life-changing of stories. The footage is interspersed with the sounds of rhythmic breathing, which brings the message of the fragility to the fore.

Video screen

Smoke from the Canberra bushfires as seen from the air is part of the installation – complete with headphones to hear the whole story.

Toni believes “art can take us where we need to go – and in the case of her installation, it’s “public mourning”.

“This lack of a public memorial for the bushfires, the floods, for COVID, even for the Canberra hailstorm that traumatised so many people, is the problem,” she said. “We haven’t created a public space for grieving. We need more than piecemeal fixes so this is my contribution to that.

“How do we hold grief deftly so it leads to good nourishment? What are the rituals that will help us hold grief deftly – there is a lasagne of layers there.

“We’re going to extinguish ourselves if we keep at it.”

Between presumption and melancholy by Toni Hassan is on at the Huw Davies Gallery at PhotoAccess, Manuka Arts Centre, until 10 June. Entry is free and the gallery is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm. Visit the website for more information.

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