At a time when the world is in collective mourning, Dancing with the Dead confronts grief and celebrates its part in the human experience. Curated by Grace Partridge of Antidote Projects, the title is a reference to the Malagasy funerary ritual called famadihana. Known as the “turning of the bones,” people on Madagascar exhume the bodies of their ancestors to re-wrap the corpses in new funerary cloth, ask for blessings and guidance and dance with the bodies.
Partridge was introduced to the ritual through a 2017 documentary, Move! Dance Your Life, directed by her close friend Fanny-Jean Noël. Partridge later became interested in how people “make sense and compartmentalise the process of dying” after Noël’s unexpected death after the release of the film.
“For a long time [after viewing the documentary] I was preoccupied with the visual image of someone dancing with a body, and then it became this idea of dancing with darkness, and how we interact with darkness and loss, and things that are distressing or upsetting,” Partridge says.
The exhibition features new work by the renowned Badtjala artist and researcher Fiona Foley, Analogues to Slavery, 2020 – nine black hoods embroidered with pearls and shells symbolising Australia’s documented history of slavery associated with pearling. Jemima Wyman, who lives between Brisbane and Los Angeles, also contributes new work. Her large collage Aggregate Icon (Black and White), 2020, speaks to the high incarceration rates of First Nations people and African Americans in Australia and the United States.
Although death underlies many of the works in the exhibition, others explore grief and loss more broadly. And as in thefamadihana ritual, light and lightness play an equally important part in the exhibition, Partridge says.
Bangladeshi photographer Sarker Protick’s video work, Raśmi / Ray, 2017-2020, translates to ‘ray of light’ and is a continuation of his ongoing explorations of temporality and memory. “It’s purely dark and light,” Partridge says.
The Iranian-Australian artist Mojgan Habibi’s installation, Si-morgh, 2020, is a literal beacon of light in the gallery space. It comprises a fabric pillar lit from within, decorated with two thousand ceramic feathers handmade from clay and bone ash. It is both a reference to ‘The Conference of the Birds’ by 12th century Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar and a memorial for the tragic crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, shot down by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards in January 2020.
Pieter Hugo’s photographs, from his 1994 series, are one of just two works that feature children in the exhibition – an important inclusion that Partridge says “signifies life, death and rebirth.” The Rwandan genocide took place in 1994 and it was also the year apartheid ended in South Africa. The subjects in the photographs are children born to parents who were children themselves in 1994: an embodiment of loss, survival and hope.
“Death is present for everyone… but I think if you embrace the darkness, and let it wash over you, and you lay back and sit with it – with that darkness comes illumination and renewal,” says Partridge.