National Art School Graduate Shows 2021

The National Art School's graduate shows for 2021 – both for postgraduate and BFA students – open through the coming months, commencing with the Postgrad Show this Saturday, 22 January. After every imaginable obstacle, including Australia's Omicron outbreak delaying the planned grad shows at the end of 2021, a resilient cohort demonstrates the enduring value of tertiary arts education on this continent.

At the close of 2021, the National Association for the Visual Arts’ I Lost My Gig survey reported that some 32,000 lost work opportunities had represented a collective income loss in the arts sector of $94 million AUD, due to our ongoing public health crisis, since July 2021 alone. According to NAVA’s research, as many as four in five artists and one in two arts workers earned less than $25,000 in the past financial year. These findings came at a time when the arts in tertiary education have also been in protracted strife, with the termination of visual arts degree programs, the dissolution of departments or schools, and increased student fees for arts degrees – in some cases, doubled from the pervious year’s rates – as university education is neoliberalised. Why would young artists, or those with more established practices, looking to further develop their work, go to school in conditions like these? 

The thoughtful, scholarly, and stridently inventive work in the NAS graduate shows provides many possible answers to this problem. Students from the BFA and MFA programs are now joined by the School’s first cohort of DFA graduates in presenting work characteristically committed to form and its histories, to materiality, and to conceptual and technical rigour. 

Students in the BFA and MFA programs have their degree award in specific media; there are, for instance, graduates of the BFA and MFA in Painting, in Photomedia, in Sculpture, Ceramics, and Drawing. This committed focus on media has produced works which are resplendent of their form’s history. See the engagement with both hard-edged abstraction and its manipulation in the hands of Australian textile artists like Nicole Ellis in the work of MFA graduate Nina Walton, for example, or the unreal fluorescence and lively disruption of Justine Varga lurking beneath BFA graduate Samantha Gregory’s arresting photomedia work. An immersion in the study of both Australian and global art histories, with an emphasis on specific media, evidently catalyses work which is deeply aware of its own place amongst its predecessors, with students often inverting influence and inventing new formal futures.

A sense of a cohort, or community, is so often what is enlivening about graduate shows. In some moments, it seems that the opportunity to work together – or even together apart, as the case often has often been these past two years – may be the most generative offering of tertiary art education. There’s a secretive delight to be had in apprehending connections and points of convergence, be they actual or accidental, amongst a group of artists who have been practicing in proximity for an extended period of time. The trenchant red of Helen Zhu’s Tomorrow appears like contraband in the lip of Sibylla (Billie) Robertson’s Relic. Perhaps it’s fanciful to imagine a passing of this colour between the works, or between the artists. Perhaps, though, it’s essential to do this imagining almost because it is fanciful: the opportunity to think outside of the logics of productivity, efficiency, and employability remains a vital gift given to us by art education, even in the most demoralising of circumstances. These shows are cause for celebration – for standing with the gifts given to NAS students by their time spent in education, and the gifts they now offer us as exciting new artists, both.

Images courtesy the artists, and National Art School, Sydney.

Postgrad Show 2021
22–30 January 2022
National Art School, Sydney 

Grad Show 2021
11–20 February 2022
National Art School, Sydney

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