As an island continent flanked by deep waters, the ocean holds a firm place in the Australian psyche as a symbol of freedom, pleasure and awe. But a deeper look by a group of Australian artists reveals our oceanic ties are far more complex than first meets the eye.

Presented in association with Perth Festival, Undertow charts the social and cultural histories of our oceans, exploring their role as places of arrival and departure, pathways to freedom, economic highways, sites of colonial terror and vessels of deep ancestral knowledge.

Angela Tiatia, Holding On (detail), 2015, single-channel high definition, video, 16:9, colour, sound, 12:11 minutes, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney | Singapore © Angela Tiatia. Image courtesy: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.

Glenn Iseger-Pilkington, Fremantle Arts Centre’s Curator Visual Arts, commented, “Undertow is about what sits below, what can’t always be seen, but is always felt. It is about going against the current, about deep reflection upon our worlds and lives and more than anything, it is about not resting comfortably in any truth which is not our own.”

Corresponding with Perth Festival’s 2022 theme of wardan (ocean), the exhibition brings together eight artists with strong personal and familial ties to Australia’s coastline and the oceans that surround us, including Amanda Bell (Yued & Badimia People, WA), Sam Bloor (WA), Ron Bradfield (Bard People, WA), Elisa-Jane Carmichael (Quandamooka People, QLD), Sonja Carmichael (Quandamooka People, QLD), Garry Sibosado (Bard People, WA), Soul Alphabet (WA) and Angela Tiatia (Samoan/Australian, NSW).

Working across varied mediums, including large format cyanotype, glass neon, installation, photography and film, their works plumb the depths of our relationship to the expansive waters that surround us, bringing to the surface tales of hope, betrayal, and transformation.

Ron Bradfield, Off Caps, 2019, installation of RAN service cap with HMAS Westralia tally band, boomerang and red ochremarked pearl shell (Guwan). Image courtesy the artist.

“From the evocative filmic works of Angela Tiatia to the delicate pearl shell installations of Garry Sibosado, the exhibition submerges audiences into a deep ocean chasm of layered stories, offering reflections on identity and family, alongside more universal concerns of migration, dispossession and the exploitation of natural resources,” Glenn Iseger-Pilkington continued.

Quandamooka mother and daughter Sonja and Elisa-Jane Carmichael will present Dabiyil Bajara, a new commission and their most ambitious installation to date which honours the waterways of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) as an enduring source of healing, sustenance and wonder. Translating to ‘water footprint’, the installation comprises six epic-scaled cyanotypes which will be draped from the gallery ceiling, featuring ancient Quandamooka stories, plants and animals.

Extending upon her recent creative exploration, Badimia and Yued artist Amanda Bell will present a new installation which employs sound, glass neon and sculptural form to approach the theme of wardarn (ocean) through a lens of personal and collective trauma, while Angela Tiatia’s poetic filmic work Holding On offers a poignant and timely reminder of the imminent threat of a changing climate upon Pacific island communities, and low-lying island communities globally.

Over 270 shimmering pieces of pearl shell and crystal comprise Garry Sibosado’s Oongoonorr, his most elegant comment on the contemporary world to date. His personal reflection on the Milky Way, or the ‘ocean in the sky’, Oongoonorr creates a space to reflect on the interconnectivity of all living things, the wonders of the natural world and the insidious speed of corporate development in Western Australia.

The work of artist and storyteller Ron Bradfield explores the confluence of two seemingly opposing salt-water experiences – the first of being a Bard from the Kimberley, and the second of being a member of the Australian Navy. This significant body of work documents the interplay of these worlds and Bradfield’s deep affinity with saltwater Country.

Exhibited both on-site at Fremantle Arts Centre and at Fremantle Esplanade, Sam Bloor’s newly commissioned text-based works offer highly considered text provocations and design treatments, to interrogate Australia’s hard-line stance on border protection at a time when our border has never been so ferociously defended.

Soul Alphabet, an organisation committed to amplifying the voices of People of Colour, will present At the Ridges of Our Hands, a photographic series capturing the hair braiding practices of African diaspora living in Boorloo and Walyalup. Travelling across the seas with the movement of people, this important cultural practice is also an arbiter of connection, belonging and community, as revealed in Soul Alphabet’s intimate portraits.

Perth Festival Visual Arts Program Associate Gemma Weston said: “The genius of bringing together such a varied group of responses to the ocean in Undertow is how, in conversation, they remind us of what we have in common as people. It is hard to think about the vastness of the ocean and not to be reminded that we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves. Undertow will be as beautiful as it is rich – and these artists share an understanding of how beauty can help us to confront some difficult truths.”

Undertow opens 6:30pm Friday 4 February and is then open daily from Saturday 5 February to Monday 25 April 2022. A series of accompanying public programs and events will be announced soon, with full details available at

Undertow is presented in association with Perth Festival.

Media Contact: Rosamund Brennan, [email protected], 08 9432 9565

Artwork details: Sonja Carmichael and Elisa-Jane Carmichael, Balgagu gara (come celebrate) (detail), 2020, cyanotype on cotton, 278 x 274cm. Image courtesy of the Artists, Onespace Gallery and the Art Gallery of South Australia. Photography by Grant Hancock