Gunditjmara woman and contemporary photographic artist Hayley Millar-Baker has a distinct visual style that draws on family narratives and scenes from nature, to reveal layers of history embedded within Country long after the original barbaric acts of dispossession and massacre. The land is still healing many generations later, and the plants, animals and people within Millar-Baker’s digital assemblages are carefully placed to awaken the viewer to this fact. While each work appears to be of a singular existing scene, the artist has meticulously cut, layered and repositioned a multitude of images to create unique composites, encouraging us to look beneath the surface to seek out details that may not be immediately apparent. Storytelling is at the core of Millar-Baker’s work, and she does so on her own terms.
Millar-Baker has packed a lot into her thirty years revolving around the sun. To name just a few of her achievements, the artist’s work has been featured in Primavera: Young Australian Artists (2018) at the Museum of Contemporary Art; TARNANTHI: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at Art Gallery of South Australia (2019, 2017); and for those of us lucky enough to have seen it snaking around the city, a public commission for 2018 Melbourne Art Trams (which was located by entering the tram ID into the tramTRACKER app – art on the go). Millar-Baker was awarded the 2019 Darebin Art Prize, a $10,000 acquisitive award which means she now has a work in the Darebin Art Collection.
Hayley Millar-Baker, Untitled 5 (I’m the Captain Now), 2016, inkjet print on paper, 20 x 20cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
I am a huge fan of Hayley’s practice, so it made perfect sense to reach out to her during a time when cultural output has been forcibly (but necessarily) stalled during the global health pandemic. I wanted to touch on how COVID-19 has impacted on the artist, while also thinking beyond a topic that has dominated public discourse (and all of our lives) over the past few months. We find ourselves living in an unprecedented reality, but it is important to remember that we are more than this present moment, as claustrophobic and absolute as it may seem. While it has caused monumental disruption to the ways we work and socialise, it will pass. I hope you enjoy this Q&A – I have aimed for it to be as accessible as possible, avoiding overly theorised vocabulary. This, after all, is how we expand the conversation around contemporary art, and develop a language that everyone can speak!
Hayley Millar-Baker, Untitled (So he mixed arsenic with half the flour and a raging thirst was created), 2018, inkjet on cotton rag, 80 x 100cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
Which mentors have been fundamental in supporting your creative development?
My first thought of a ‘mentor’ goes straight back to my very first primary school teacher Miss Atkinson. She was the first person outside of my family to give me opportunities to showcase my artistic passion and she really believed in me. Deep down I truly believe that had I not had her in my life so young, such a pivotal point in life to learn how to believe in yourself, then I wouldn’t have had the confidence to work towards my dream of being an artist.
I consider myself to be a lone wolf. I tend to isolate myself when I work (and when I don’t work) but I have a small selection of trusty people that I continuously go to during my creative development stages, be it preliminary ideas or works in progress. These people range from my gallery (Vivian Anderson Gallery) who I feel sometimes knows me better than I know myself; curator friends, and then my family, because they know nothing about art so they can share the most pure and basic criticism, which I find can sometimes be the most important.
I guess my mentors change depending on what I’m working on, where I’m at personally in my life, and what exactly I need to learn.
In this time of unprecedented global health crisis and the resulting detrimental financial impact on artists, what keeps you going?
Oof, I’m not really ‘going’, haha. I’ve been in isolation for four weeks now, and for the past two weeks, the night before I say to myself “tomorrow is the day I’ll stop being a lazy sack of potatoes and actually do work.” And then I wake up and I don’t do anything all day. And that’s been on repeat. But in saying that, I think I am really hard on myself; I don’t ever give myself breaks, and if I classify something as a break it’s usually a trip somewhere to photograph something for work. So really, it’s not a break. This time has really forced me to do nothing. When I say nothing, I mean nothing physically. Mentally, I have been sorting through this new project I started working on prior to lockdown. I think about it every single day, I think about who I ultimately want to be in the future and can my work back that up. So, my brain is working full-time, but my body is a sack of potatoes on the couch.
How are contemporary artists uniquely placed to respond to the two major existential threats of our time: climate damage and pandemics?
I feel like creatives (of all fields) really stood up and financially held Australia down during the bushfires. We all went above and beyond. And then in this pandemic crisis, it’s like Australia (the government) has thrown it back in our faces, making us ineligible for income such as the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments. The arts bring in more money than air travel does in a year tenfold, yet we are always left out. It’s been making me think a lot lately about our true value versus what the government willingly and happily takes from us, yet doesn’t give back.
Art is way more than art.
Anyway, that’s just my personal feelings after being cooped up in my house for four weeks straight with no one around bar my two-year-old daughter who only wants to talk about Moana and Frozen.
Who gives you strength on a personal level?
My Nan. When I’m not feeling it, I can always count on her to tell me to suck it up and get on with it. With all the things she’s had to deal with in her life she has this ‘no sooking’ attitude, even when the sooking is warranted. She will say ‘oh well that’s life, get over it’. And it’s true, nowadays our luxury to linger on unproductive emotions and attitudes is beyond anything that my mother had, or my nan, or her parents, or their parents.
How do you like to care for yourself outside of your practice?
I get this question A LOT. The honest truth is that I watch junk TV. That is the only way my brain will stop thinking so I can get some downtime. My brain doesn’t need to think, and I get the simple joy of watching someone else’s bonkers life. My favourite shows to switch off to are Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Grey’s Anatomy, Riverdale, and then whatever reality TV junk is on at the time.
You have an adorable toddler in tow. What have you enjoyed most about motherhood?
Motherhood is hectic! I really love Maeve, she’s like a grandmother in toddler form. She’s relaxed, yet judgmental, loves a joke but is super critical. She’s my small sidekick. I don’t know what I enjoy most about motherhood apart from the (mostly) cool person who now hangs out in my house that wasn’t here before. Motherhood is hands down the hardest thing I have ever taken on and will ever take on. So, we are just doing what we can each day! Every day changes!
Tell us about your plans for the future, once we come out on the other side of COVID-19.
Post-COVID-19, I will have a new body of work coming out which is super exciting. It’s a bit of a new direction in terms of the way I use storytelling in my work. I’ve also outsourced people to work on specific parts of the project with me, which I’ve never done before.
Work-wise, the exhibitions that were planned for 2020 will now be scheduled for 2021, so there will be a few big shows and projects on which should push me back into the swing of things post-isolation.
Other than that, I’m super keen to get out and see some animals and head up to my healing spot under Gariwerd!
Image credit: Jade Florence.
You can check out more of Hayley’s beautiful work via her website.