Entering the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) is like most galleries in Melbourne’s arts precinct in Fitzroy. It’s a fairly predictable experience of being engulfed in a large, spacious box with the art punctuating a blinding wash of stark white walls.
Photographer Georgia Metaxas’ latest exhibition, The Mourners deals with the entire opposite of white, with a series of portraits of widows dressed in the traditional black. Once you’ve passed all the other art pieces sharing the same space, you begin to wonder: well, where is Metaxas’ work? What with all this white, surely it would be first thing you would notice. The reason you don’t is because, if the entrance of the gallery were the tail of a snake, once your serpentine trip is complete, there tucked away in the centre is a hidden tabernacle – that is the head of the gallery’s spiralling snake. And it’s in there, where four of the 16 of Metaxas’ portraits of widows in black garb, encased in black frames, are hanging in an intimate pitch-black space.
The effect is Lynchian in its treatment of the sacrosanct and like most of David Lynch’s movies, it’s a space that could also be an imaginary porthole to a world that is as vast as it is ancient. Namely: ‘death’ itself. Also meeting this warmly spoken artist in this black tabernacle with her tall mute Elvin like assistant in tow, gave a theatricality to this bizarre yet rewarding experience.
Metaxas’ approach, as she explained, in choosing appropriate subjects for each of these portraits came from a rigorous process, where she asked each potential sitter four specific questions, “For whom are you wearing black? Do you wear it everyday? How long have you been wearing it, and will you wear it for the rest of your life?” If they answered the fourth question in the positive, then that would be the decisive point in asking the subject to pose for a portrait.
“I felt it was very necessary that whoever was chosen to be part of this project understood what I was doing, as well as to be part of this thread (of the 4 specific questions) to make a statement on other levels around the meaning of the colour black,” said Metaxas. Although there are only four portraits being featured in this exhibition, there are more presented in Metaxas’ beautiful and enigmatic catalogue, which is available in the gallery. “Then in good time,” said Metaxas, like a magician not wishing to reveal all of her tricks, “the rest will be posted on my website.”