Samantha Everton

Samantha Everton’s hyper-real, colour-saturated, photographic tableaux are remarkable for their elaborate construction and creation entirely in-camera. They zero in on a place between the familiar and foreign, the seen and unseen, while exploring cultural and social identity, isolation, and heightened mental states such as dreams and fantasy.

After an initial period as a cadet newspaper photojournalist, Everton studied photography at RMIT where she realised she was a maker rather than a documenter. Based in Melbourne, many of her series have been created in domestic spaces, some semi- derelict, or in a large studio space.

This survey show includes works from six series, bookended by ‘Catharsis’ in 2005 and ‘Indochine’, made in Vietnam in 2018, both of which explore one of Everton’s key preoccupations – the intersection of Eastern and Western culture and identity – driven by her heightened awareness of people’s different backgrounds through her own experience of growing up with three adopted siblings from South-East Asia.

In ‘Catharsis’ the central placement of furniture, curtains and archways; the directed lighting; formal costume and separation between the Asian and Western women within the photographic frame, all work together to build a sense of colonial cultural containment. The characters slowly close off, interchange and eventually transform within the narrative of the series. Everton often uses birds and butterflies as a counterpoint – or in this case a parallel – to human actions. Here the lacewing butterfly, found in South-East Asia and Australia, is a catalyst and symbol of transformative change.

The key image Continental Drift, with its subversive reference to Manet’s Olympia (1863), shifts the power balance to reveal a literal drift and interchange of roles. It is the only occasion a character looks out of the mise-en-scene to offer a statement of intent and break the containment.

In ‘Indochine’ the images have become lush, movie still portraits that directly engage the viewer. With the roomed mise-en-scene gone the focus has moved to costume, physical expression, wallpaper backdrops and symbolic props. Rather than traditional personality portraits, one model plays a collection of Asian femme fatale characters, exploring how women change and alter their appearance in order to present themselves within morphed east/west culture.

The series begins with an Elizabethanesque, fragile whitened character with eyes closed and ends with a contemporary pink-haired, casual woman who looks out at us defiantly. Individual images like Khan Dong present a confident relaxed figure in front of a westernised eastern garden wallpaper design, looking directly at the camera. The elegant outdoors style English velvet dress with white neck ruffle contrasts with the woman’s strong Asian features, two-toned lipstick and modernised Vietnamese wedding headdress. Behind the cavalcade of characters, ‘Indochine’ reveals a newfound feminism and post-colonial merging of cultural heritage.

‘San Tong’ (2014), an ambitious series based on a Thai folktale about identity and adoption, made prior to ‘Indochine’, draws on Everton’s own upbringing and extensive work with adopted Thai children in Melbourne. Everton faithfully represents each child’s unique personality and the broader idea of dual cultural identity in an imaginary and layered setting.

‘Vintage Dolls’ (2009) uses the vehicle of children’s dress-up games and re-enactment of adult roles to examine complex concepts of race, culture and womanhood. Here the domestic interior is a ghostly and unlived-in space like an oversized adult doll’s house in which Everton introduces rich referential elements. In the work Black Forest, the wolf, Ophelia allusion and the brightly lit miniature home under the bed prefigure a female adult world of complexity and struggle.

Domestic interiors in other series are presented in strong colours or bathed in greenish aqueous tones with the obligatory white outside light present but unreachable. Figures are stiff, static or frozen floating in space, exhibiting little emotion. Women are alone in their homes or adolescents re-negotiate space as they come to terms with their impending adulthood. In these works, innermost thoughts and emotions are played out with the addition of animals and touches of surreal comedy. The characters, while emotionless, are demonstrative forcing us again to confront broader social themes rather than individual circumstance.

In Fear of Understanding from the ‘Childhood Fears’ (2007) series, the birthday party is anything but a birthday party but more a reflection on origins, adult life and the future. Separation is everywhere – between the balloons, the parents and children, between the parents, and between the children. They all are looking but the gaze drops away and is overwhelmed by the foreboding world outside and an uncomfortable stillness.

Despite the constant dialectic of capture, escape and transformation within a constricted world, Everton’s works confront us with an abiding sense of stillness or of a moment captured that puts the onus back on us to animate. She moves beyond photography’s time restrictions, building meticulous mise-en-scenes sculpted with light to create powerful tableaux vivants.

This essay originally appeared in Artist Profile, Issue 47 (2019).

Samantha Everton: Survey Exhibition
27 July to 10 August 2019
Anthea Polson Art, Main Beach, Qld

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