Bonita Ely’s first exhibition was in London in 1972, but recognition of her artwork in Australia effectively started at the Mildura Sculpture Triennial of 1975, where she exhibited a close and complex examination of Mount Feathertop, a location in the Victorian Alpine region that tested the tensions between observation and interpretation in visual representation.
Her interdisciplinary installation, C20th Mythological Beasts: at Home with the Locust People (1975) had its beginnings in New York where Bonita Ely lived from 1973 to 1975. Sunset Video’s poignant sound, and images of working boats on the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty, the shore line of New Jersey, shrouded in pollution, drew the viewer into the installation’s spatiality as an active participant rather than passive observer. This corporeal engagement of the viewer characterises Ely’s practice.
Exhibited in institutions such as Chisenhale Gallery, London, Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, Harbourfront, Toronto, and the 18th Street Arts Centre, Los Angeles, USA, Bonita Ely’s experimental artwork is in international collections, such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and has been selected for significant contemporary art events such as Fieldwork, the opening of the Ian Potter Centre for Australian Art, Federation Square, Melbourne.
She has produced three public sculptures for the City of Hue, Vietnam (1998, 2002, 2006), Sydney Olympic Park (2010 - 2012), and Broken Hill (2012).
Bonita Ely’s performances of the 1970s and 1980s explored our relationships to the natural environment, other species, and each other, such as the cultural clashes surrounding Aboriginal Land Rights enacted in Jabiluka UO2 (1979). Womanhood and pregnancy were celebrated in her performances, Breadline (1980), Dogwoman Communicates with the Younger Generation (1982), and A Mother Shows Her Daughter to the Universe (1982). Examinations of complex environmental issues used the device of invented personas, for example the cheerful cooking demonstrator performing Murray River Punch (1979, 1980), the methodical secretary photocopying an exponentially degenerating photograph of Tasmania’s Lake Pedder in Controlled Atmosphere (1983). Dogwoman Makes History, (1983) explored our anthropomorphised fascination with another species alongside the gendered construction of history, using images of dogs depicted in the artefacts of Berlin museums. These were documented whilst artist in residence at Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin in 1981, 82, and 1985.
During the 1990s she drew attention to genetic engineering and climate change. Her snabbits, half snail/half rabbit, raised in agribusiness regimes, become a feral monoculture embattled in the extremes of global warming in the series of paintings and installations, We Live to be Surprised (1989 – 92).
Installations such as Histories (1992), 1968, sited in Sydney’s colonial residence, Elizabeth Bay House (1997), and Inside Mawson’s Sleeping Bag: the Poetics of Heroism (2000), interrogate our cultural histories at the interface of ontology and systems of knowledge. For example the latter expounds the courage expressed in the Aboriginal oral history of the children of the Stolen Generations as they struggled with fear, depredation, alienation, loneliness. The works align their courage with that of Australia’s archetypal hero, Sir Douglas Mawson.
Her exhibition, World Wild Life Documentary at Performance Space, Sydney (2006), was an installation of works on paper and video. Produced over thirty years the artworks take the viewer behind a fascinated eagle eye, a curious mind, an obsessive collector and recorder of imagery, transformation and culture. For example, Chinese brush and ink paintings spontaneously capture the artist’s imaginative responses, over a period of twelve years, to a singular place on the South Coast of New South Wales. Southerly captures the South Coast’s stiff breeze, straight off the Antarctic whereas Manning Clark’s Brain was executed mid morning when the bushland, drenched in direct clear sunlight, each eucalypt tonally set against its shadow, conjured the late Manning Clark’s brain thinking, thinking about Australia over there in his family holiday shack… These works on paper accompany the videos as equivalent time based mediums, combining frozen time, real time and time lapse so we witness the detailed metamorphosis of a particular natural environment.
A narrative video, Wild Life Documentary, composed of a bricollage of ten years’ footage of natural phenomena and cultural indices alludes to the intimacy of the human animal intent on social interaction, and significantly, a compulsive desire for inter species communication. Aesthetic, disjunctive and subjective interventions overlay acute observation to define our delusional stance when confronted with the hard facts of consequence.
The Murray’s Edge: a River in Drought (2007 - 2009), is a series of photographs of the Murray River documented from the headwaters in the Mount Kosciusko National Park to the Coorong in South Australia. The narrative sequence refers back to earlier works creating a comparative study of the Murray River from 70s and 80s to the present.
In 2010 the Cambelltown Regional Art Centre commissioned an artwork focusing on the Georges River for the international exhibition, River. A series of photographs contrasting remnants of the natural beauty of the river’s environment contrasted with the destructive of long wall coal mining on the riparian environment.
Bonita Ely has a diverse practice, her methodology based on the premise that a particular idea requires the deployment of particular mediums, contexts and technologies. Her artwork of the 70s was a warning of environmental issues that now are in full focus, and continue as the focus of her practice as one of Australia’s important artists concerned with environmental, socio-political issues.
Bonita Ely is Head of the Sculpture, Performance and Installation Department of the College of Fine Arts (COFA), the University of New South Wales, Sydney where she is a founding member of the Environmental Research Institute for Art (ERIA).