10 November 2023

Riverina photographer shares a lifetime of reflection and challenges us to surrender to the mystery

| Chris Roe
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Joel Markham is an institution on the Wagga arts scene.

Joel Markham is a staple of the Wagga arts scene. Photo: Chris Roe.

If you’ve ever done anything with the arts in Wagga, you would no doubt have encountered Joel Markham’s smiling face welcoming you to the Civic Theatre or a Wagga Art Gallery event.

In addition to his public roles in the creative industries, Joel is also an accomplished photographic artist with a remarkable ability to capture a glimpse of the transcendent within the mundane.

He is currently exhibiting a collection of 16 photographic works at Wagga’s The Curious Rabbit Cafe under the enigmatic title ‘Mysteres‘ [pronounced miz-tair].

“One thing I’ve learned through this is don’t ever give your show a title from another language,” he said with a weary grin over a coffee at the Johnston Street cafe.

“The number of times I’ve explained that mysteres is the French word for mysteries, it has become a necessary tagline for the show!”

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Joel was born and bred in the Riverina and said he was fortunate to have had his interests in visual and performing arts nurtured at school.

“I grew up and was educated in Junee and it was survival of the fittest,” he recalled.

“It’s one of those old-fashioned tales where, even if you’re in the middle of nowhere, if you have good teachers, it can be life-changing.”

Joel Markham at a previous exhibition at the Wagga Wagga Art Gallery. Photo: Tayla Martin

Joel Markham at a previous exhibition at the Wagga Wagga Art Gallery. Photo: Tayla Martin.

After building a career in the arts on the NSW North Coast and in Sydney, Joel returned to the Riverina in the late 90s to be close to his aging parents.

“The issues with my folks were a little bit more complex than I had expected, and when it became obvious that this was how it was going to pan out, I thought, OK, I’m going to stay and I’m going to make the most of this,” he said.

Taking full advantage of the education opportunities at Charles Sturt University, Joel embraced photography and began “making a life” in Wagga.

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Despite working in a medium that is often associated with documenting reality, Joel’s work explores more abstract issues such as the human condition.

“The show is divided up into four quadrants of four [photographs], and each of the quadrants is built around a particular theme that I’ve been looking at in my work for a number of years,” he said.

“The first one is the ‘Big Picture’. The second one is the ‘Human Experience’. The third one is the ‘Theatre of Life’, or Le Theatre de la Vie; and the fourth one is ‘Travellers All’.”

Joel Markham's signature high-contrast black-and-white images features heavily among the four quadrants of Mysteres

Le Theatre de la Vie: Drive-by. Photo: Joel Markham.

As Joel walks through the small exhibition, the care with which he has chosen and placed each image is clear and stands in sharp contrast to the deluge of disposable digital pics that fill our 21st-century lives.

The collection begins with a high-contrast, black-and-white cloudscape called ‘Flux‘.

“I like this idea of a show called mysteres starting with nothing formed, nothing defined,” he explained.

“It’s out of that state of flux that things begin to emerge.”

From primal earth and sky to stark brutalist structures, empty locations and faceless forms, the images ask challenging questions and a sense of Joel’s own wrestling with life’s mysteries takes form.

But it is the final image, ‘Surrender‘, that is the key to unlocking the journey.

Travellers All: Surrender. Photo: Joel Markham.

The black-and-white photograph of a coffin stands in stark geometric contrast to the formless clouds where we began.

“I knew it was the last time that I would photograph my dad,” said Joel, reflecting on the loss of his father in 2022.

“It was my last portrait of him, even though he’s not visible, he’s in the photograph.

“I cared for him. I was with him when he died. So losing him was significant in its own right, but it was also the end of family life for me. The impact of that loss didn’t stop because it was also the loss of that physical connection with family.

“This is terrain that I’m still in the thick of and it’s everywhere through the show.”

The Human Experience: Underbelly.

The Human Experience: Underbelly. Photo: Joel Markham.

After engaging with some of life’s more abstract ideas like spirituality, faith and ‘the journey’, and by reflecting on his own place in the world, Joel’s final image becomes something more than a moment of grief.

“We go through a kind of dark night of the soul and then there is an opening up, so rather than ending with a blow to the gut, the show actually ended on a note of peace and grace,” he said.

“Rather than it being a thing of heartbreak and loss and grief, instead, it’s about surrendering to the mystery.”

Mysteres is on display at The Curious Rabbit until 23 November and you can get a preview of the exhibition here.

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