Coming Home: The art of Tamara Dean
“If I can continue making works that fulfil the idea of being beautiful ways of saying painful things, that’s what I want to keep doing.” Artist Tamara Dean and I are chatting on the phone about her art practice. I’m at my kitchen table and Tamara is at home in Cambewarra, south of Sydney, with a dog at the door and black cockatoos calling nearby. Beautiful ways of saying painful things. In a way, she tells me, this resolution, this vision, is about coming home to who she’s always been.
She started as an unofficial environmental activist, spending her 20s attending protests and dreaming of becoming a photographer for Greenpeace or National Geographic. A decade working as a photographer at the Sydney Morning Herald took her in a different direction, and the “insular focus” of motherhood started her off on her long, increasingly critically successful, walk toward where she’s always been.
“Each series I’ve done has brought me closer to my environmental roots. It took the Endangered series last year, going to Heron Island with the Climate Council, for me to remember where I started.” The series speaks directly of her love of the natural world and her deep concern for our planet. “Climate Change is the most pressing issue for humanity and the planet today. I wanted to show the beauty of nature and humanity, in order to show how much we have to lose.”
Endangered depicts humans as mammals in a sensitive ecosystem, vulnerable to the same forces of climate change as every other living creature.”
“All I’m really doing is distilling down the idea that I’ve been working on for a while – trying to make the connection that we humans are a part of nature. And doing that over and over again in different ways,” she says of her work. “There’s nothing more important to me. Unless there’s some crazy, radical shift, and the world suddenly says ‘yes, we’re going to make this all better’, I don’t really know how I can move away from this.” I find myself harbouring a similar sentiment. I do what I do, I write what I write, because I care. And because, perhaps like Tamara, I don’t know that there’s anything else more important for me, or her, to do.
I first interviewed Tamara in 2015. Since then, I’ve watched her work and voice evolve and grow. I’m endlessly impressed by how clearly she articulates the conceptual, environmental and personal underpinnings of her work. She is telling a story, an important one, and it seems people are listening; In the last year alone she’s won three important Australian art prizes – the Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize, the Meroogal Women’s Art Prize, and the Josephine Ulrick & Win Schubert Photography Prize.
Last year her work, In Our Nature, appeared in the 2018 Adelaide Biennial of art. “In Our Nature is a symbolic reminder that we are neither separate nor superior to nature,” she told Vogue Italia. “Instead, it acknowledges, we are a part of nature, and that to wreak destruction upon nature is to ultimately wreak destruction upon ourselves.” A site responsive series set in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, Tamara photographed the images over a year, linking the seasonal changes in the gardens with the lives of the people in the photographs. It’s a strikingly beautiful series of work – it’s richness drawing in a broad spectrum of fans – seeding Tamara’s important message in hearts and minds within Australia and abroad.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily fashionable to make beautiful images, but I can’t escape it”, she tells me as we speak about the evolution of her work. “It’s how I look at the world. It’s what I choose to see. It’s also important to me to tap into people’s curiosity. To show an image that is beautiful but that also requires people to look a bit harder to work out what it is about it that makes it so compelling.”
As the afternoon leans towards dusk, our conversation shuffles towards gardening. A few years back Tamara and her family moved from Turella to a six-acre property at Cambewarra, in the Shoalhaven region of NSW. It was covered in lantana (a noxious weed) when they first moved in and Tamara has been removing it ever since. In the process, she’s discovered a dam that was entirely engulfed by the plant and cleared space for native plants to sprout from the soil seedbank – helping the land breathe freely after being smothered for so long. “It’s just like unwrapping a birthday present, but for years.”
Whilst her gardening/bush regeneration endeavours haven’t necessarily changed the course of Tamara’s creative output, they have certainly provided nourishment “I feel like it’s the perfect antidote to the photographic experience. Most of the work I make is out somewhere, it’s not at home. Getting home and clearing a bunch of lantana is insanely therapeutic and immediate.”
Home. It is both near and far. It is Tamara Dean’s lantana covered six acres at the bottom of a mountain, it is my patch next to a river, it is our cities, our countries our planet. Home is a place. Home is a hope. Home is sacred. Tamara’s work reminds us that we are home. It’s a truth worth remembering.
Join The Planthunter editor Georgina Reid in conversation with Tamara Dean on Sepbember 8, 2019, as part of the Art and the Garden Sunday morning event series at the Domain Theatre at the Art Gallery of NSW. The Art and the Garden series is presented by our friends at Garden Life.
Endangered is on exhibition at Martin Browne Contemporary until August 18.