Deb Mostert’s convergence of birds and people

Deb Mostert, Australien Future – Arctic Terns, 2017 (DETAIL), 88 x 126 cm, oil on canvas

An expert on migratory shore birds, Professor Richard Fuller (who you can hear at spoke at Deb Mostert’s opening at Redland Art Gallery, Cleveland on Friday, 7 December. Such is the power of his words, their meaning, and their poignancy, there was no other discernible sound in this packed room. He is a hard act to follow; the text of my speech is below. Deb’s exhibition is pertinent, powerful and timely, particularly given the other news this week from David Attenborough’s address to the UN and the ABC expose of the journey of the Toondah Harbour (Cleveland) development

Deb Mostert: Australien Future: tales of migration: opening address, 7 December 2018

The Quandamooka People are the traditional owners of the place we know as Redlands and I acknowledge too their care for this country, their methods which are sophisticated and sensitive. Their methods stand in contrast to the environmental approach that has been so damaging in the last two hundred years. It is important to note too that art plays a significant role in Aboriginal communities. Art is used by Aboriginal people to tell their stories, to explain natural phenomena, and artists are often the leaders, with work patently political even when it may also be beautiful.

In contrast, art galleries in Australia, places like Redland Art Gallery in Cleveland, are rarely seen as hotbeds of activism. Galleries are seen as a place that we experience the heart and soul of an artist, expressed by their hand, but so often the work is perceived as standing outside the real issues of our lives.

In Deb Mostert’s exhibition, there is no sense of shouting, or hectoring or any of the behavior that often characterizes activism, but I think you may glean the ideas that have driven this work. They are deeply felt, poetically expressed, with their power discernible in the tension of these painted surfaces. It is in them that Deb’s empathy, her feelings about important environmental problems, is so powerful. One clear example is her grief for the fate that still threatens the shore birds whose RAMSAR wetland habitat is endangered just down the road at Toondah Harbour. I think you get a sense of a potent mix of her themes, underpinned by a political sensibility, expressed in the paint itself and her subject matter.

There is a family story that takes hold in this exhibition, a gentle way in to some tough issues. Deb was born in 1967 in Brisbane. Her parents, travelling as young children with their parents, were part of a migration push in 1955, encouraged to leave their native Netherlands for other places. Each set of families independently made their way to Australia. Footage taken by her Mostert grandfather en route to Australia records most of the journey including birds that travelled alongside the ship.

Deb’s interests in the meaning of collections and objects have extended into science in recent years, specifically new research on the global and environmental changes that impact bird populations. Birds are, in some ways, the quintessential migrants. Global transience experienced by her family is evoked beautifully to converge with shared thematic strands in these migratory patterns.

Since 2016 Deb’s art has documented, recorded and created an aesthetic agenda around environmental threats. In this work, the plight of migratory birds draws parallels with her concern for human migrants and refugees. Australien Future speaks to the unrest causing global migration, to environmental responsibility and stewardship, and the importance of preservation of habitat of birds and other animals, all of which are being significantly impacted by human behaviour. The exhibition is a visual and poetic distillation of Mostert’s family migration story that, I believe, simmers with a request to welcome other people from other parts of the world whose needs are pretty desperate.

This project has absorbed Deb for two solid years, and I think what we see around us tonight is a tour de force that will be remembered. I also want to acknowledge Deb’s generosity in working with the locals to create the Shorebirds Community Project. I love its capture of how it might be to stand in a bird colony (perhaps without the noise, and the smell). She has engaged locals young and old in this pressing environmental and local story.

I think what it shows us is that lyrical paintings and sculpture can take the temperature of our times with beauty and power. This exhibition has the capacity, and the urgency, to engage everyone.

Redland Art Gallery, Cleveland, open Friday 7 December 2018 until 20 January 2019.


Deb Mostert: Australien Future Catalogue, 2018