(c) Adam Ferguson

After reading some reports online and asking a few questions I sat in Yangon this afternoon and got a connection quick enough to stream ABC Radio (Canberra) to listen in to an interview (and surprisingly that interview was deeply flawed)…

Mr Angus Trumble, the Director of the National Portrait Gallery (of Australia) removed the portrait of Indonesian President Joko Widodo by Adam Ferguson from the gallery walls citing concerns for the safety of the work, collection and visitors. He also made reference to what he regards as the majority view within Australia as well as statements made by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, within the Parliament and the decision to recall the Australian Ambassador from Jakarta as influencing his removal of the work.

I was particularly appalled that such an important public Arts Organisation (yes yes… capitals and all) is pulling work by a photographer for what seems to be some sort of quasi-populist (?!) move to placate outrage… that on the face of it didn’t really exist. The NPG stated that no threats had been made… and during Mr Trumble’s interview on ABC radio he made reference to only a single visitor passing comment on an imagined scenario. On the face of it this seems to be a GIANT overreach.

A gallery like the NPG is in the stunning position of being able to shape debate, engage with the public on a large scale, host discussions and seminars and generally try and challenge the public with the magnificent opportunities provided by any number of Australian and international artists through their work. Holding popular blockbusters and hosting various touring shows and awards is another means to bring people in and point them towards even more pieces from the permanent collection.

Imagine if the real (past) threats to the photographic works of Mapplethorpe, Henson, Mann, Serano and Goldin had been so hastily cowed to? For there were threats in those instances (political and/or violent, overt threats)… and many of the galleries fought back in defence of the work and gave their heartfelt reasons for the importance and value of debate and the continuing visibility of the controversial piece(s). In the face of threats to the work, ongoing funding, and even life… many many stood and fought.

Mr Trumble, all you have done is censor a picture made by an Australian photographer. A picture that is from a series that graced the cover of one of the most widely read magazines in the English speaking world. That picture is a depiction of a figure who is at present at the centre of an issue/debate consuming large amounts of ink and pixels in the national media. You have not censored or condemned that figure. You have not placated any outrage or avoided a riot. You have not secured your funding for future years or avoided annoying the powers that be.

You have simply put a photograph in storage. A photograph that should be hanging on the wall and generating lively discussion. As the Director of a national gallery you have put the artist and the art itself at the very bottom of your priority list when there is no ‘crisis’. And that is a black mark against the NPG.

I would like to quote a short section from Calla Wahlquist’s piece in today’s Guardian that clearly expresses Ferguson’s views (an opportunity that ABC Radio denied him by not even referencing his quotes, rather asking Mr Trumble how “the photographer felt about the decision”?!?!?… truly ABC Canberra… WTF):

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Ferguson is in Nepal for Time and told Guardian Australia via email that he was “upset” and “perplexed” by the gallery’s decision to remove the portrait.

“The image has already received significant showing at the NPG so I am not upset merely because my image has been removed,” Ferguson said.

“I am though upset about the statement this makes about the NPG’s integrity and the support of visual art in Australia, despite how controversial [it may be]. I am totally perplexed that a leading Australian artistic institution like the NPG would take such action.”

Ferguson said the gallery should have taken the opportunity to engage in discussion about Australian-Indonesian relations, rather than hiding the image away.

“I would have thought that allowing people to engage with the photo that I created would be now more important given the circumstances,” he said.

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You can find plenty of Adam Ferguson’s work on his website:

http://www.adamfergusonphoto.com/

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