The Post-Colonial Humanist: Remembering an Artist and a Scholar

Catherine Dewhirst   University of Southern Queensland

In her reflections over the last nine months of her life, the words of my very dear friend might resonate with readers of this special publication: ‘… at the end of the day… material wealth, work priorities, domestic demands all fall by the wayside – and relationships are all that count.’ These poignant words suggest the wisdom gained from the knowledge of, and preparation for, impending death. Yet, they also intimate the way my friend lived her life and engaged with her professional calling.

I should mention that I had originally intended to submit something to this volume about the teaching of Italian history to students in two south-eastern Queensland universities. But this idea slipped into insignificance when Jo-Anne Duggan died at the age of just 48 in early March. Many members of the Cassamarca Foundation and the Australasian Centre for Italian Studies (ACIS) knew, loved, and respected Jo-Anne and her work. I am aware, too, that her network of associates and friends was also more extensive and complex. So this reflective contribution will not do justice to the personal memories and feeling of loss of those who read it. For me, however, Jo-Anne’s friendship was central to my research, teaching, academic life and comparatively unproblematic personal and professional challenges. She was not only an inspiring artist and scholar but also a confidante. I therefore felt that devoting a piece to her was not only important because of her contributions to knowledge in the field and to the Foundation’s Australia Project but also imperative because of who she was. The recollections that follow cover my experience of four of her creative outputs and her research through ACIS.

The words I quoted above are from the eulogy Jo-Anne wrote for herself and which one of her closest friends, Wendy, read out at her memorial service a week after her death. It was a service that Jo-Anne and her life partner, Kevin Bayley, had had the luxury of time to plan in the short journey after her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer last year. The time that they shared from that point onwards, as we might guess, was traumatic – by no means a luxury. Even with the diagnostic warning, the degree of preparation they were given might not have been possible due to the ferocity and aggression of her particular tumour. Such diagnoses inevitably come too late and leave too little time to assimilate the devastating news for those in such circumstances. Jo-Anne told me how the necessary arrangements for winding up her life were tedious and time-consuming, which she described as a process of administering the bureaucracy of her life.

Medically Jo-Anne defied the odds against her as another of her friends, Gary Ianziti, put it. Yet, she also transcended the trauma of her diagnosis and the pain of her disease. She continued to produce scholarly pieces and choreograph her final exhibition while simultaneously remaining true to herself in what can only be considered a state of joy. My personal admiration for Jo-Anne aside, this commemorative volume is a timely occasion to reflect on the generous contributions made by a leading Australian artist and scholar since the inception of the Foundation. Describing herself as a post-colonial artist, Jo-Anne was also a remarkable historian, using her talents with precision and leaving us with an indelible message about the role of the scholar in investigating history for our contemporary understanding.

I met Jo-Anne for the first time ten years ago at the inaugural ACIS conference in Canberra in 2001 and felt an immediate kindred spirit. I was struck by her spontaneous kindness, sincerity and encouragement, by her astonishing intellect and by her infectious laugh. She was excited about the possibilities that ACIS offered. We discussed numerous things, including our respective disciplinary training and work. Since she did not present a paper at the conference, I only later discovered the incandescence of her photographic talent and the uncompromising commitment and focus that she brought to her work.

When we met again at the second biennial ACIS conference in Perth in 2003, I made my way to Perth’s Western Australian Museum, excited about seeing Jo-Anne’s work for the first time. She had never really talked much about her research and creativity despite my many questions. She tended to describe her work briefly, then turn the conversation in another direction. This was not self-depreciation. What I understood it to be was contentment with the primacy of her creative life without the least need for self-promotion. Arriving at the Museum, I was curious about the results of her inter-disciplinary studies and the kind of creative terrain she had been exploring. I was richly rewarded that day. As anyone who had the chance to observe her ‘Impossible Gaze’ will attest, the exhibition was breathtaking.

Jo-Anne’s inter-disciplinary engagement with art history, critical theory and photomedia articulated something revolutionary. The ‘Impossible Gaze’ was quite simply a dynamic introduction for me to the ways the art-practice of photography could facilitate interpretations of, and relationships with, the past. Of course, it was not until much later that I realised her stubborn commitment to the use of the analog rather than digital camera contributed to the exquisite beauty of her photography. What she captured through the lens and creative imagination so central to this artistic collection was the intimation of personal involvement in the process of viewing objects of art. By projecting moments from history, Jo-Anne decoded and demystified the seemingly insignificant cursory glances at ‘ordinary’ objects that we all experience in visits to museums or art galleries, not least in Italy.

Viewing Jo-Anne’s work in this exhibition, I felt drawn into a refreshing place which involved, firstly, seeing her own ‘gaze’ and, secondly, my own imaginings about the history of the objects she depicted so skilfully. Hers was an approach reminiscent of the intimate photographic direction in some of Martin Scorsese’s films. Every minor detail told a story. In effect, she mediated a process of emotional engagement. Refocussing the expectations inherent in museum or art gallery visits, Jo-Anne’s work usurped the traditional roles of curator and audience, challenging the relationship between the observer and the observed. The exhibition was profound and sublime.

If Jo-Anne’s ‘Impossible Gaze’ invoked multiple readings from the transitory moments experienced in viewing Italian art collections, her ‘Sites of Convergences’ exhibition suggested another level of perspective and relationship. I went to its launch in 2006, which was held at the Noosa Regional Gallery in Tewantin, where I discovered that the series was an invitation to move into a number of shared historic and contemporary settings of rooms within several Italian or Italian Australian public institutions. This transnational dynamic already spoke to the important history of relations between Italians and Australia. However, emptied of their human forms, voices and activities, Jo-Anne’s focus on these rooms emphasised communal and civic encounters through four visual effects, as I read later – architecture, lighting, decorations and furniture. The absence of people in the photographic frame only accentuated the meanings behind the ritual use of each space. Seizing the interiors of these buildings in this way, Jo-Anne was creating a new language to encourage discussion about the past and the present, and our connection to both.

By the time of the fourth biennial ACIS conference in Brisbane in 2007, Claire Kennedy had involved a small group of scholars from cross-disciplinary backgrounds working in south-east Queensland universities, including Jo-Anne, in the local working-party. At the conference, Jo-Anne presented a joint paper with Suzanne Goopy on their collaborative work on representing Italian migrant culture visually, which reflected on concepts of space, place and identity. This was a theme that Jo-Anne took up again with Enza Gandolfo in another collaborative project, presented at the fifth biennial ACIS conference in Auckland in 2009. Their work resulted in the ‘Other Spaces’ exhibition, focussed on the multi-layered interpretations we can make of the multicultural migrant donations to the Migration Collection of Museum Victoria. Her slides displayed photographs of the poignant mementos of the donors’ cultural and personal histories, as well as their archival resting places. It was clear from Jo-Anne’s paper and her touching images that her project formed part of an invisible dialogue about homeland and host-society. She was also pointing to the role of the museum as a repository for storing the cultural narratives of our migrant past.

Over the last four years, Francesca Laura and I met Jo-Anne for coffee and cake fairly regularly in Peregian Beach or Eumundi – locals of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast that we have been. Sometimes there were only two us when one or other was in Italy. For the most part, this was Jo-Anne, largely due to one of her final projects on the Gonzaga family of Mantova, which took her and Kevin to Italy together on two occasions. Her great love had always been for Renaissance Italy on which she had already published some reflections, ‘Rinascimento through a contemporary lens’, in the volume Australians in Italy, edited by Bill Kent, Ros Pesman and Cynthia Troup in 2008. However, with the generous assistance of Loretta Baldassar, Jo-Anne launched her ‘Wondrous Possessions’ exhibition at the Monash University Prato Centre in 2010, a set of works which pay homage to the dazzling palazzi and archivio she had the privilege of working in. Although viewing her ‘Wondrous Possessions’ only through her official website, I could nevertheless distinguish the sumptuous tones that have come to typify her art-form. Suggestive of Leonado da’ Vinci’s innovations with gold, the angular series of photographs convey what must have been a dramatic and beautiful visual spectacle to the audience in Prato, doubly appropriate for the regional context of the Italian Renaissance.

In this light, the impact of Jo-Anne’s life and her articulation of visual and material culture recall for me the path-breaking work of Renaissance humanists at once experimental as critical, imaginative and original. Indeed, in the ‘Invisible Presences’ booklet (Arts Queensland, Brisbane, 2006) in which she brought together a selection of three of her exhibitions, Bill Kent described her approach as being ‘at the edge of new directions in combining academic and creative research methods and outcomes’. In the same publication, almost anticipating the words of her eulogy, Jo-Anne recorded how these three exhibitions in part conveyed ‘our transitory encounters with the visible representations of the past that continue to circulate in the contemporary world’.

Jo-Anne’s own relationship to both art and history counted for a great deal in her professional life. More striking perhaps, as her closest circle must have felt over the last year, as did I, was how firmly she maintained her lucidity, her humour, her empathy and her positivity to her last hours, transcending what many of us might not have coped with so well. While we are yet to discover how significant her work will be for future artists and scholars, Jo-Anne’s presence remains with us through the legacy of her stunning achievements and the personal memories many of us will cherish.

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