Kate Gorringe-Smith’s love for shorebirds began as a metaphor. For the Melbourne-based printmaker, her parents’ experience as English migrants in Australia suggested that whilst the meaning of home is not simple for any of us, it is especially complex for the migrant. Where is one’s true home? Is it where you were born, or where you move to? Following the passing of her father, Kate noticed her mother’s desire to return to England, but understood that it was not necessarily the place itself that was home to her mother – ‘it was my father who was her true home.’
This idea resonated strongly with Kate, encouraging her to ‘reflect on a whole lot of stories about when you leave home and what you leave behind… and the strands that tie you to the place that you came from – your possessions, but also the people you love.’ She realised that in many ways, the experiences of migratory shorebirds could be compared to those of her parents and other migrants: where was their home and how were they able to cope with a new one?
It was then that Kate decided to launch her collaborative art project The Flyway Print Exchange, involving ‘twenty artists, from nine of the twenty-three Flyway countries [who] created prints inspired by the idea of the Flyway.’ This project was a means for people to reflect on ‘how such tiny creatures can travel so far, so often, and endure so much’.
So what is the Flyway? Kate explains that ‘it links countries from New Zealand to Alaska and Siberia with the journeys of these birds that… spend seven months of the year in Australia and New Zealand… and then they travel up the Flyway and they breed in Alaska.’ Migratory shorebirds inspired Kate and the other artists to create works based on the idea of a journey, and of finding a place of belonging in more than one location. Also known as the East-Asian Australasian Flyway, the route is travelled by Australia’s migratory shorebirds twice a year, making the art created by the Print Exchange a reflection of both the human and non-human experiences of changing homes.
More recently, however, Kate has collaborated with fifteen artists to collectively portray ‘human refugee experiences and migrant experiences through the…universalising lens of shorebird migration.’ The exhibition entitled From A Home to a Home: A Story of Migration displays these works in the wonderful space of Brunswick Street Gallery, mixing the diverse talents of various artists so that the public can immerse themselves in the different meanings of home. The artists, many of whom are migrants and refugees, come from a range of countries. Kate explains how their work will hopefully draw in ‘people who haven’t really thought about the migrant experience’, allowing them to ‘begin thinking about how hard that experience can be.’ For her, ‘the birds serve to remind us that none of us can survive alone’.
Humans indeed need to help both each other and the non-human in order to foster tight-knit, safe and happy homes that seem so rare in our busy, modern age riddled with the fear of the other – whether that be humans who are different to us in race or upbringing, or creatures completely outside of our species. ‘So many bad things come out of fear’, Kate believes, and it is through portrayals of hopefulness, beauty and imagination that she thinks art can be more engaging.
The exhibition itself, however, is not didactic in nature, but is rather a way to provide stories so that visitors can come to their own understandings of the migrant experience. As a fifth-generation Anglo-Australian, I am personally interested in how such art will challenge my own perception of belonging, and the influence that my seemingly non-existent English-Irish heritage has perhaps had on my understanding of home.
The range of artworks is impressive, from a fiery display based on a traditional Vietnamese long-dress embroidered with a phoenix, to bowling skittles with models of shorebirds placed atop. Stereoscopes, weaving, prints, and animations represent just a small portion of the variety of mediums to be experienced at this eclectic exhibition. In addition to these amazing pieces, Kate has also included a community aspect within the gallery. She explains how ‘we’ll have [laser-cut paper birds] hanging up [and] we’re going to ask people to write one word on a bird that defines home for them’ - a beautiful idea that will hopefully encourage visitors to engage even more so with this theme of belonging.
But in regards to the shorebird species themselves, is this exhibition revealing anything? Although Kate admits that the art is based strongly on migrant experiences, she reminds me as we discuss ecology ‘how everything is interconnected.’ By learning about migrant experiences or simply accepting the perspective of someone different to ourselves, can we also learn to understand those animals through which our experiences are mirrored? Kate hopes that ‘this exhibition might make people think about shorebirds’, but also believes that ‘there’s a difference between knowing something and believing it’.
In this sense, exhibition visitors may be encouraged to take more notice of the people, places and wildlife around them via an emotional response to the art, rather than simply being told what is right or wrong. ‘Once you know about a thing,’ she explains, ‘you feel this ownership for it. You start looking for it.’ Believing is perhaps what comes later, from a more poignant connection with a bird or person. With a background in science and experience working for Birdlife Australia, Kate is not without her fair share of scientific knowledge; however, she perceives that it may be ‘easier to respond to art if you’re not an artist… than it is to respond to science if you’re not a scientist.’ The art of nature can therefore be a bridge for those who may not engage as well as with the science of it.
As so often seems the case, our natural environment and human experience converge in these stories of migration. In this unique and inspiring exhibition, the work of Kate and her fellow artists will hopefully encourage more people to perceive this idea, if not to understand the migrant and shorebird experiences, but to think about the interconnectedness within the spaces we inhabit. In my mind, From a Home to a Home truly demonstrates this reality that ‘none of us can survive alone’.
For more information on Australian shorebird species, visit the website of Birdlife Australia.
Rachel Fetherston is an Arts and Science graduate who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She recently completed her Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is an editor and the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.
Find her on Twitter at @RJFether.
Banner image courtesy of Kate Gorringe-Smith.