Leyla Stevens: Labours for Colour

Leyla Stevens' most recent video work runs in the space at Mosman Art Gallery alongside the historical objects whose stories it seeks to revise. To these objects, Stevens weaves a counterpoint tale through and about the production process of cepuk textile objects, documenting the spectral traces of submerged and sublimated Balinese histories.

Leyla Stevens makes moving images of ghosts. Working in both speculative and documentary modes of filmmaking, she finds and tells alternative histories, tracing the spectres and remnants of forgotten or willfully erased stories, most often about Bali’s colonial and diasporic past (and present). Her new video work, Labours for Colour, 2021, is the next development in this extended, reparative, history project. It tracks the labour process of specialist textile workers on Nusa Penida, as they produce the cepuk style woven artefacts for which the island is known. In this way, the project inherits both its thematic concerns and its poetic, oblique mode of documentation from the ouevre that Stevens has been developing in recent years, which includes the 2021 Blake Prize-winning Kidung/Lament – an exploration of political violence in Bali, and its manifestations in contemporary social life. 

Stevens’s works treat film as an archival scaffold, within which data often takes the form of gesture. This is certainly the case in Patiwangi (the death of fragrance), 2021, her work for ‘The National 2021: New Australian Art’ earlier this year. Here, a pair of Balinese dancers bring into the studio space, through their ritual movements and gestures, an embodied history of Balinese cultural practice – and, particularly, the legacy of women artists in the province’s modern art history –  which is absent or often mis-told in our dominant depictions and accounts. As Ruby Arrowsmith-Todd writes, in an exhibition text for this work, ‘small gestures and otherwise unremarkable countryside pulse with a hallowed charge’ in this video. Labours for Colour, too, locates storytelling power in the body’s gestures. Hands move through the intricate, technical processes of textile production; fingers finely negotiate thread; the movements of eyes, and twitches of facial muscles, speak compellingly of her subjects’ lives. These gestures are instance and evidence of the counter-history that Stevens is interested in documenting: her archive shifts, glimmers, flickers. 

An alumnus of the National Art School, Sydney College of the Arts, and doctoral candidate at the University of Technology, Sydney, Stevens weaves the process of research deeply into her work. Her reappraisals of archiving, storytelling, and documentation – as well as the potential relationship of all these practices to a speculative poetic – have been shown at Firstdraft, Campbelltown Arts Centre, West Space, the Queensland Centre for Photography, and the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne. Labours for Colour responds to the exhibition ‘Upcara: Ceremonial Art from Southeast Asia,’ which shows works from the collection of Dr John Yu AC and the late Dr George Soutter AM in the Mosman Art Gallery’s main space. Taken together with the exhibition it accompanies, then, this show extends Stevens’s existing practice of revisionary history-making, by situating it physically alongside the object remnants of the stories Stevens seeks to tell anew. What images or insights may come to light in the interstices of these shows? 

Leyla Stevens: Labours for Colour
19 June – 24 August 2021
Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney


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