At the core of Gina Kalabishis’ art is her relationship with the land, its flora and fauna. In her upcoming exhibition at Shoalhaven Regional Gallery, Nowra in New South Wales, Kalabishis’ love of the Australian bush is bathed in an aura of nostalgia.
“This body of work actually started in 2018, when I had my last show titled Bundanon Floor to Sky at Flinders Lane,” Kalabishis told Neos Kosmos. It was a series of works completed during her residency at Arthur Boyd’s property outside of Nowra, in the south-east coast region of NSW.
Bundanon means ‘deep valley’ in the language of the Wodi Wodi peoples of the Yuin nations, who as traditional custodians, share a deep spiritual connection with the fertile valley shaped by the Shoalhaven River.
“I had never taken the work back to the Shoalhaven. I wanted to have a show at the place where they were created. I was going to do half the exhibition with the existing paintings, because they’d only been seen for two weeks. And then new works would follow the Shoalhaven River to the sea – Bundanon Floor to Sea,” Kalabishis says.
Due to Covid lockdowns she couldn’t go back for two years and that changed the work completely as she was forced to draw from her memories of the place.
“I decided right towards the end, that I would make something like postcards, sort of mementos, nostalgic of things that I had memories of, when I was there during my residencies.”
The detailed ‘portrait’ of beautiful native wildlife are set in hazy romantic landscapes. They are combined with floral bundles, as a homage to the classical art of Japanese flower arrangements, that she loves.
Once finished Kalabishis noticed there was another level of subconscious nostalgia in her paintings. Her last five big paintings are similar to the family and wedding portraits captured in photographic rooms in Melbourne in the 60s and 70s, which used painted background.
“If my parents wanted to take photos of the family or weddings, they used to go to these photographic rooms, were they would stand on the stage, and then in the background, there were these made-up landscapes. I used to look at these black and white and coloured photo albums of my parents’ wedding, my uncle’s wedding, of these nostalgic times of when they first came to Australia,” Kalabishis said.
“Subconsciously, and symbolically [in my latest work] I am reminiscing my parents, in the landscape, but they’re not there. I realised after I finished them how similar they were, in the way they were set.”
Her parents, Paraskevi and Elias, passed away years ago. “Unfortunately, both of them didn’t, have longer lives, which is quite sad,” Gina reflected on her childhood and her parents who travelled separately in the 1960s from Rhodes to settle in Australia where they met and fell in love.
“My parents knew that I loved drawing, when I was a child I used to sit at the table and draw till 11-12 o’clock at night. When I used to go to Greek school, they would ask me to draw the saints, and they were very proud of me.”
“I was lucky because they integrated into Australian life. My mum was very pro education for women and doing the best that you can. My dad put us through a private girls’ school to make sure we had a good education, and I’m really grateful for that. We were never pressured into getting married or anything like that.”
Her mother sang in the Greek choirs and performed across Greek community halls in her forties.
“She was a mezzo soprano… a beautiful voice. I never knew she had a great voice until the end, when she started singing, and she enjoyed that. I don’t think even my dad knew that she sang so well.”
Growing up, her parents would take them crabbing, fishing, and hunting for rabbits, which connected them to the land, as they continued to do in Australia what they did back in Greece.
Gina is also a runner, which she believes adds clarity to the way she perceives nature, and the landscape. “I find it exhilarating to run through the bush. I fill up with endorphins, so I see the landscape so much clearer. Exercise is part of my practice as it feeds my energy.”
The Greek poet Callimachus’ poignant poem describes Kalabishis’ own unique visual language of the Australian landscape and her respect for the natural environment: ‘Leave open ways and trodden tracks alone and go the way that’s narrow but your own’.
Exhibition: Shoalhaven Regional Gallery, at Nowra in New South Wales from Saturday 1 October until 26 November.
See her works online here.
*Gina Kalabishis holds a post-graduate Diploma of Visual Arts, a Bachelor of Fine Art (Painting) from the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne University and an Advanced Diploma of Arts (Electronic Design and Interactive Multimedia) from Victoria University. She has featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions in Australia, Spain, Asia, and the US and has been selected for a number of significant national art prizes. The artist is represented by Flinders Lane Gallery in Melbourne and her paintings are held in major public collections such as the National Gallery of Australia, the Victoria University Art Collection, the Art Gallery of Ballarat, Gippsland Art Gallery, and the Bundanon Trust Art Collection.