Sunday, May 25, 2008

She's young, but nude picture has been on show for 15 years

A slender young girl, naked, is held from behind by a naked young man - it's a Bill Henson photograph perhaps not unlike those that have provoked the current storm of controversy.

But this photograph is 15 years old and was part of an exhibition sanctioned by the Federal Government.

As politicians of both major parties criticised Henson's work in the past few days, it emerged that some of the artist's photographs of naked adolescents featured in a touring exhibition that was partly funded by the previous government.

The Strange Cargo exhibition was curated by the Newcastle Region Art Gallery collection, and toured through regional Australia over the past two years. It aimed to showcase contemporary Australian art, and included four works by Henson.

One features a naked young girl in a gloomy light. She is held by a young man from behind while another young female holds one of her legs.

Most of the Henson photographs that featured in the exhibition were produced in 1992, said Penny Finnigan, acting director of the Newcastle Region Art Gallery.

Positive response

"We had a very positive response from all the regional galleries where the exhibition toured ... it was exceedingly well received," Ms Finnigan said.

She did not want to weigh in to the current controversy, but said the Federal Government had granted the Newcastle Region Art Gallery a subsidy to help it take the exhibition around the country.

Among the regional art lovers able to view Henson's work as a result of this funding were visitors to the Newcastle Region Art Gallery, the Broken Hill City Art Gallery, Wagga Wagga Art Gallery and the Ipswich Art Gallery.

The government funding came after the gallery applied to the Visions of Australia program, a government program that assists "the development and touring of cultural material across Australia".

As part of this application, the gallery was required to submit a list of the artworks it intended to exhibit, she said,.

"And of course the Bill Henson [photographs] were a small number in a larger collection," Ms Finnigan said.

In storage

The exhibition concluded in February this year and Henson's photographs were now in storage at the Newcastle Region Art Gallery, she said.

Nick Mitzevich, who was director of the Newcastle Region Art Gallery at the time of the Strange Cargo exhibition, said the timing of the current controversy surrounding Henson's work was "curious" considering his photographs had been known about and exhibited for many years.


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