In Conversation with Stephen Zagala

Senior Curator, Monash Gallery of Art.

I was born in Vanuatu and lived the first few years of my life on a small volcanic island in the north of the archipelago. But I’ve spent most of my life based in Melbourne, involved in the arts in one way or another.

My professional life is grounded in a traditional humanities degree; I studied philosophy, social anthropology, musicology and art history at an undergraduate level before focusing on art history and theory as a postgrad student. I worked as an academic for a number of years, teaching and publishing on art and visual culture. I’ve also spent some time back in Vanuatu working on cultural heritage projects and advocating for indigenous artists.

For the last 10 years I’ve been employed as a curator at MGA, working with a specialist collection of photography and developing photographic exhibitions.

Who or what inspires you?

I take inspiration from a range of things. What those things have in common is that they all draw my attention to life being a creative material process; a process that I participate in rather than control. So, I take inspiration from things like gardening, parenting and making music; things that embed me in the duration of my lived experience but allow me to fashion things that ultimately move on in their own way. If that sounds a bit metaphysical, it’s because I also draw inspiration from philosophical discussions about creativity and aesthetics. At the moment, I’m particularly inspired by the writings of the French art historian Henri Maldiney (1921-2013).

How did you get your first break?

I think I might still be waiting for my first break … so far the journey feels pretty organic to me. I’ve really just followed my nose, acquiring knowledge and skills around things that interest me, and finding contexts in which I can elaborate those interests further. I’m the tortoise, not the hare.

Tell us what you are currently working on?

I’m working on a survey of Wesley Stacey’s photography, which will be launched toward the end of summer at MGA. Wes was a trail blazer of Australian photography during the 1970s and 1980s but he dropped out of the ‘rat race’ to go and camp in the bush outside Bermagui about 30 years ago. It’s time to bring the wild man back to town.

The other large project that I’m working on is commissioning of a new body of work from Bill Henson. In the mid-1980s Henson produced a series based on the suburban landscape of Glen Waverley where he grew up. He has maintained a personal connection with the area, which is within the City of Monash, and he’s now working on a new suburban series that will be unveiled at MGA in 2018.

What is your advice for someone wanting to work within the gallery world?

I might just quote Charles Wright on this one: 

“It’s not what you look like when you’re doing what you’re doing, it’s what you’re doing when you’re doing what you look like you’re doing”.

Share it around…