14 February 2023

Stronger Together pays tribute to Canberra's superhero health staff

| Genevieve Jacobs
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health workers in protective clothing

Marzena Wasikowska’s work focussed on the intense activity at the EPIC facility. Photo: Supplied.

Looking back, health worker Jessie Holberton can’t quite believe what she went through as a frontline worker at the pandemic’s height.

At the Garran Surge Centre, she faced endless streams of often frightened people needing help as the ACT worked desperately hard to protect the community and its most vulnerable citizens from COVID.

A year and a half later, a collection of artworks at the Canberra Museum and Gallery bears witness to the hard work, bravery and endurance of those who worked on the frontlines.

Artists Waratah Lahy, Marzena Wasikowska and Dion Georgopoulos were commissioned by Canberra Health Services, and Ellis Hutch was awarded an Arts ACT Creative Residency with the ACT Health Directorate. They’ve created Stronger Together: Artists’ perspectives on the ACT COVID-19 frontline health response exhibition, launched last week at Canberra Museum and Gallery.

Clad in full protective equipment and operating under strict protocols, they observed frontline workers across the pandemic, from clinical staff who dressed as superheroes to alleviate small children’s fears to the humming lines at EPIC as Canberra managed one of the world’s most successful immunisation programs.

The project was the brainchild of Art in Health curator Jenny McFarlane.

Canberra Health Services chief executive Dave Peffer said the intention had been to do more than document the pandemic’s effects but also to acknowledge the dedication and commitment of staff in the midst of an unprecedented emergency.

“It’s great for us to be able to have the inbuilt attitude that when significant things happen in the community, it is important to involve the arts because of the central role that the artists play”, Cultural Facilities Corporation CEO Gordon Ramsay said.

“This is a place where we can come together to recognise and be proud of the achievements of members of Canberra and community. This is a place where we can celebrate the strength that does come in working together. And this is a place where we can acknowledge together that art plays such a vital role in recording, expressing, reflecting and thanking people.”

woman dressed in costume

Dion Georgopoulos captured Canberra Health Services staff dressed as superheroes. Photo: Supplied.

For the artists themselves, these were strange days. Their role was more than documenting the turmoil and urgency of the tasks at hand.

Marzena Wasikowska says the challenge for her was how to capture something new.

“We’d seen so many images in the media, and I was wondering how to do this differently and still have that integrity of my own work,” she says. Wasikowska captured the relentless rhythm of the testing centre as staff dealt with hundreds of people daily at Mitchell.

Waratah Lahy’s practice is in watercolour and she focuses on the everyday in an unreal world.

“I was looking for those small moments, not the big heroic moments, not the things that become news stories or read well on TV; it’s just people doing these small jobs with care,” she says.

Superheroes were the focus for Dion Georgopoulos, who captured staff wrestling with relentless work and frightened children. Their decision to work in costume to inject confidence and good cheer took on new dimensions for him.

Georgopoulos, who works for The Canberra Times, said the transition from media photography was intriguing.

“To show the pandemic in a different light through the other artists and through various different perspectives is a really interesting way to understand it,” he says.

“There were so many different elements to it than just what was going on in the news.”

watercolour of health worker

Waratah Lahy’s work sought to capture ordinary moments during an extraordinary time. Image: Supplied.

Ellis Hutch’s work is a digital video installation that started with capturing the voices, rather than images, of people at work.

“So you listen to people talking about their experiences, and hear their voices crack with emotion or hear them talk about things that were delightful and joyful, and you hear laughter”, she says.

“That sparks deep physiological responses which create a different relationship to visuals. I’ve included the visuals of the environment that we’re all familiar with, but I’ve kept the people behind the scenes invisible, so we hear their personality and their experience through their voice.”

For health minister Rachel Stephen-Smith, the images were both revelatory and intensely familiar.

“This was something that we never expected to see, and I hope we never see again in our lifetime,” she said.

“But we also understood like never before the importance of community and coming together … This exhibition, I think, will support the healing journey of Canberrans, who come in to see it.

“The pandemic is not quite over, but we certainly are learning to live with it now. And it is time to move forward and reflect … We really have been stronger together. And I’m sure that we will continue to be as we face the challenges of the future.”

Stronger Together: Artists’ perspectives on the ACT COVID-19 frontline health response is now showing at Canberra Museum and Gallery.

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