BY Helen Hughes in Reviews | 18 JUL 18
Featured in
Issue 197

Keg de Souza’s Sense of Community

The Australian artist’s first institutional show at Artspace Sydney includes a library, a meeting place and workshops on ‘mindful eating’

BY Helen Hughes in Reviews | 18 JUL 18

‘Common Knowledge and Learning Curves’ – Keg de Souza’s first institutional solo show in Australia – strips back many of the elements familiar to the artist’s practice to reveal something innate about her underlying methodology: the idea of common knowledge, held by communities and maintained across generations. It bears many of the hallmarks of the work for which the Sydney artist has become renowned: temporary architectural structures sutured together from readymade materials and site-specific events that draw on the knowledge pools of local residents. (De Souza often pays particular attention to the oldest and newest arrivals, such as those from Indigenous and migrant communities.) However, for this exhibition, the topics that usually preoccupy her work (the politics of food or gentrification, for instance) were ushered into the background and the methodology of knowledge production foregrounded.

Keg de Souza, ‘Common Knowledge and Learning Curves’, installation view, Artspace, Sydney, 2018. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Zan Wimberley

To make the show, De Souza re-purposed readymade objects associated with formal education systems. These include blackboards and chalk in ‘Chalkboard Studies’ (all works 2018), a series of diagrams emphasizing non-hierarchical teaching and learning models.  Ribbons awarded to the kids who arrive first, second and third in a schoolyard race are inscribed with ‘feminism’, ‘lived experience’, ‘spirituality’, ‘diaspora’, ‘inclusive’, ‘resistance’ and ‘collaborative’ in Circular Questioning. Overhead projectors scattered with wooden and coloured perspex building blocks beam abstract images onto the white venetian-blind walls of the temporary architectural space Marginal. In a nod to de Souza’s training as an architect, she used everyday materials to divide the two galleries into a series of intimate zones. The yellow ribbons of Circular Questioning are pinned to a curved purple curtain enveloping a room with a spinning blackboard and seats. Columns of blue netball skirts sewn together produced the two Reading Rooms, which are intended for solo readers and each contain a single lamp and stool. Meanwhile, a longer curtain wall made from blue gingham – a generic fabric used for school uniforms in Australia – titled Uniformity, produced another alternative classroom. Throughout the run of the exhibition events are taking place inside these spaces, all of which can be modified according to the demands of the occasion: local primary school students will host tours of the show, Bigambul Elder Uncle Wes Marne will conduct a deep listening exercise attuned to Country and the artist herself will run workshops including a ‘guided mindful eating exercise’.

Keg de Souza, ‘Common Knowledge and Learning Curves’, installation view, Artspace, Sydney, 2018. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Zan Wimberley

But perhaps the most striking work in the show is the small library of books offered under the title Fundamental. Though the presence of curated libraries has become an increasingly familiar trope under the aegis of contemporary art’s ‘educational turn’ (Emily Floyd’s radical pedagogical libraries is a local example), De Souza’s library is characterized by lack: it comprises a single shelf that runs around several walls of the gallery like a horizon line, punctuated here and there by a dip in which a single book is placed. Titles include The Undercommons (2013) by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, and Yearning (1990) by bell hooks, alongside a handful of books by critical educational theorists such as Paulo Freire and Laura I. Rendón.

Emptiness is also iterated across the scaled-up blank notebook pages traced onto whiteboards that form a perforated partition through one of the spaces (Learning Barrier), and across the six white walls of Marginal, which are receptacles for the overhead projections. In each case, this emptiness can be read as being redolent with potential and futurity – perhaps not unlike like the figure of a school child conjured by the materials of the show. This returns us to the emptying out of ‘content’ that ‘Common Knowledge and Learning Curves’ enacts, in a way, on the artist’s own practice. De Souza has a background as a squatter activist – she was a co-founder of the art collective and Squatspace in the early 2000s. Squatters don’t ask not what a space is, but what it could be used for. What some might see as an empty shell for De Souza is full of prospects.

 Keg de Souza, ‘Common Knowledge and Learning Curves’ runs at Artspace, Sydney until 12 August.

Main image: Keg de Souza, ‘Common Knowledge and Learning Curves’, installation view, Artspace, Sydney, 2018. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Zan Wimberley

Helen Hughes is a lecturer in art history and curatorial practice in the department of Art, Design & Architecture at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.