I loved the way the masks gave the children a new identity which could speak in a more universal way about the condition of being human.
Polixeni Papapetrou was an artist, and she was a mother. Unusually, she wove the journey of parenthood directly into her art practice. Not only this, she empowered first her daughter Olympia and later her son Solomon to be collaborators in this process, and so bring the child’s imagination directly into the grown-up world of art.
A collection of party masks based on nineteenth-century designs became the inspiration for the first series of work, ‘Phantomwise’. Despite the simplicity of the disguise, it is curiously convincing. The series takes its title from a short poem at the end of the children’s story ‘Through the Looking Glass’ (1871). The story is by an Anglican deacon, academic mathematician and amateur photographer called Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832–1898), better known to us now under his pen name of Lewis Carroll.
The exploration and reinterpretation of the images and literature of childhood imagination became the central theme of the next two bodies of work. In ‘Wonderland’ Polixeni Papapetrou recreated scenes from Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ (1865), specifically the illustrations created by John Tenniel (1820–1914) for the first editions of the book. The photographs were staged as tableaux and did not involve digital manipulation. Olympia, in the role of Alice, was photographed against a painted backdrop created by Olympia’s father, Robert Nelson, which employed trompe l’oeil effects that make it appear that the child is inside the painted fantasy world.
The real landscapes of Australia were the background to the next two series, which remind us just how much the endless arid interior of the island-continent disturbed the European immigrants who founded their colonies here in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is a disquiet that lingers today.
‘Haunted Country’ staged scenes from tales of children lost in the Outback. Some true, some fictional, these stories constitute a rich settler folklore that reflects upon their uneasy relationship with the harsh Australian environment; an environment that was also the setting for the following series of works, ‘Games of Consequence’. Polixeni Papapetrou rendered these scenes with a sweeping cinematic aesthetic, using sophisticated lighting and framing to elevate each to the exemplary. Daunting though they may be, these vast natural landscapes become places of discovery, where imagination can flourish.
In 2007 two things happened: Polixeni Papapetrou completed her PhD and she was diagnosed with cancer. Her work once again changed direction. Now, the photographs were no longer based on a pre-existing story or picture, but sprang directly from the artist’s imagination and from the process of working with the children.
In ‘Between Worlds’ the children wear animal masks to create curious tableaux that echo the changeling space between infancy and the adulthood. Even so, the hybrids are strangely familiar, because the traditions of folk narrative often project human characteristics onto other creatures, anthropomorphising their behaviour as though it were humanly motivated.
Masks are also used in ‘The Dreamkeepers’, where a troupe of grotesques journeys though the landscape. Though old and ugly, these characters are nonetheless touching. They remind us not to judge character by appearance but by the inner qualities of the individual. There strange employment – ‘wave counter’ or ‘mystical mother’ – seems to make perfect sense to them in their own special world.
The final body of work covered in this interview features the artist’s son, Solomon, wearing whole-body camouflage. Developed for hunting and for military use, these camouflage outfits are called ‘ghillie suits’ and come in a number of colours to blend into various environments. Although the work began with a game where Solomon wanted to hide in the landscape, Polixeni Papapetrou’s artistic and maternal intuitions wanted to ensure he was not completely lost in the photograph. The result was a series of eerie images of variously shaded shaggy humanoid creatures inhabiting the peculiar landscapes of the Australian Bush and coastline.
This interview took place towards the end of 2012. It was at this time that she discovered, following a five-year period of remission, that she was in the advanced stages of cancer. Nonetheless, she went on to create a further four substantial bodies of work. On 11 April 2018, she passed away.
Looking back, I am deeply impressed by the way in which Polixeni Papapetrou created this work with her family. It was a collaborative exploration undertaken with an open mind and generous heart, drawing on her experiences as a mother, on the insights of her children, and on her understanding of the power of human imagination.
Polixeni Papapetrou’s photographs take us on a journey that is personal and universal, familial and public. They recount fables of childhood perspicacity and of adult frailty; of the light and the dark that make us human. Complex, beguiling and perceptive, these are not scenes from the adult ‘here and now’, they are tales from elsewhere.
Alasdair: What attracted you to photography as a medium?
Polixeni: When I was studying law at university, an artist asked if he could paint my portrait. In his studio, he had the Diane Arbus monograph [Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph, 1972]. The people in the book intrigued me. I could identify with them because I’d always felt that I didn’t fit in. Being the daughter of immigrant Greek parents, I had difficulty in identifying as either Greek or Australian; I felt like an outsider of both camps. The Arbus monograph had a profound effect.
You began by photographing subjects that I can see were a bit like those of Diane Arbus: bodybuilders, drag queens, Marilyn Monroe impersonators. But, when your daughter Olympia was born, there was a marked change in your work. One that initiated the eight major series for which you are now best known.
It began after we had been watching the Disney movie ‘Pocahontas’. Olympia asked me if I could photograph her as the Indian brave from the story. She wore a reproduction nineteenth-century paper mask from a set that I had collected years earlier, and she became a [male] Indian brave. Olympia liked the photograph and asked to be photographed in all the different masks. That is how ‘Phantomwise’ came about.
You then began to make work based on the stories and photographs of Lewis Carroll.
I had a book of Lewis Carroll’s photographs that Olympia loved looking though. She wanted to be photographed like the girls he had photographed. This is how the ‘Dreamchild’ project started. Both ‘Dreamchild’ and ‘Phantomwise’ grew out of Olympia’s ideas.
Then you made ‘Wonderland’.
Yes. And that series was mostly driven by me. The first time I read Lewis Carroll’s book, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, was to Olympia. I was fascinated by the illustrations John Tenniel made for the original publication. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to restage these illustrations using theatrical scenic backdrops against which Olympia could perform as the heroine, Alice. I was interested in the way Carroll and Tenniel had worked together, and wondered how this would translate as a collaboration between Olympia and me.
The two series that followed – ‘Haunted Country’ and ‘Games of Consequence’ – developed in a very coherent way. The series were distinct from the others, but one could see the connections.
In the early years, I was looking at the children’s inner imaginative space. But, as they got older, I thought it was important to explore how they expressed themselves in relation to the world outside. In ‘Haunted Country’ I looked at the experience of the settler children in Australia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and how they had negotiated an unknown landscape, sometimes with disastrous consequences. From that followed ‘Games of Consequence’. But the two bodies of work are quite different in that ‘Haunted Country’ looked at how the land took the children, but ‘Games of Consequence’ looked at how the land is now lost to the children.
How do you mean?
When I was growing up, I was allowed to play and explore beyond the family garden; to roam free. But today children live more confined lives because their parents are anxious about their safety. The freedom I experienced as a child is lost to many children today.
Then, in your next series – ‘Between Worlds’ – you returned to using masks. What prompted that change?
I was first diagnosed with cancer in 2007 and, while I can’t really explain what changed in me, I began to make the pictures that I saw in my head. These new images were not based on stories that I had read or anything that I had seen.
The first picture I made in that series was called ‘The Players’: two girls as horses. When I made it, I did not know what would come of it. But, when I looked at it, there was something I didn’t quite understand. Perhaps it was my unconscious at work… I decided to buy more animal masks and develop a series.
How do you direct a shoot like that?
Working with children is very different to working with adults. I tend to look at how the children are relating to one another. For example, in ‘The Debutants’, where the children are dressed as Dalmatians, they started playing, curtseying and bowing. I thought “That’s it!” and asked them to hold the pose and do it again and again … until Solomon decided to lie on his back and kick his arms and legs in the air the way some dogs do.
In the next series the masks changed from animal to aged human…
It felt like a very natural progression. Again, I was working with something I did not fully understand, but I loved the way the masks gave the children a new identity which could speak in a more universal way about the condition of being human. The Dreamkeepers live in a world of their own, where everything seems normal to them, but probably appears nonsensical to other people. I see this as a metaphor for the world in which many artists work, as well as having comic echoes among the ambiguities of adolescence.
The final series we will discuss features your son Solomon in whole-body camouflage.
Solomon had been playing a video game called ‘Call of Duty’. He kept talking about a ‘ghillie suit’; he wouldn’t stop talking about it and wanted me to buy him one.
When we got it he asked me if we could go to some bushland for me to take pictures of him. Solomon loved the results, as did the rest of the family. I recognise that I was onto something, or that they were onto something. I sat with those pictures for about year. In the meantime Solomon had discovered more types of ghillie suit: for snow, grassland, desert, woodland and so on. I had the idea that it might be interesting to photograph him in terrain that matched each ghillie suit … So I decided to put aside what I was planning and focus on this project.
This year  you returned to the series ‘Between Worlds’ to make three new images using animal masks. This was shortly before you found out that your cancer had returned.
There were three new pictures. The last portrays Olympia as a rat wearing in nineteenth-century mourning dress and holding a mourning fan. One of the reasons that I decided to photograph Olympia as a rat is that I was born in the Chinese astrological Year of the Rat, as was Olympia 36 years later. I wanted to photograph ‘us’ as rats. But it feels rather spooky now that the last picture I will make of Olympia is her as ‘The Mourner’.
Do you have any advice to a young artist?
It is vital to find your ‘voice’ and work hard at making photographs. That may take up to ten years. But, once you have found your voice, I think that the pictures begin to speak for themselves. And, when they do this, they speak to other people. You really have to look inside yourself and consider how you relate to the world outside. It’s hard, but that’s it.
Polixeni Papapetrou was born in Melbourne in 1960. She received bachelor’s degrees in both art and laws from the University of Melbourne (1984) and practiced as a lawyer from 1986 to 2001. In 1997, she was awarded a master’s degree in media arts from RMIT University, Melbourne, and a doctoral degree from Monash University in 2007. She began making photographs in 1987, maintaining a focus on costume and performance throughout her career. Her work has featured in over sixty solo exhibitions and 150 groups shows nationally and internationally, and at major festivals in Australia, Canada, China, Colombia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Republic of Korea, Netherlands, and Slovakia. Her photographs are held in many prestigious public and private collections including the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; the Art Gallery of Queensland/GOMA, Brisbane; Fotomuseo, Bogotá, Colombia; the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida; Landstinget, Gävleborg Kulturutveckling, Sweden; Tokyo Photographic Art Museum (TOP Museum), Tokyo; and the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA), San Diego, USA.
Her work won many awards including the William and Winifred Bowness Photography Prize (2017), MAMA Art Foundation National Photography Prize (2016), Windsor Art Award (2015), the Josephine Ulrick and Win Shubert Photography Award (2009), and the Albury Regional Art Gallery National Photographic Award (2003). Her photographs have been widely published in books, catalogues and magazines including the monographs ‘Polixeni Papapetrou’ [Thames & Hudson 2019], and ‘Olympia: photographs by Polixeni Papapetrou’ [NGV 2019]. Polixeni Papapetrou died in Melbourne in 2018.
photo: Robert Nelson
A version of this article was initially published in Chinese, in the January 2013 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.