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Urszula Szulakowska and the Brisbane Art Scene in the 1980s | Institute of Modern Art | Talks | Saturday 25 May 2024 2.00PM–3.00PM

Art historian Urszula Szulakowska died last year. In the 1980s, she was a big player in the Meanjin/Brisbane art scene—a key teacher, critic, and curator. Join friends and fellow travellers—including Michele Helmrich, Jeanelle Hurst, Luke Roberts, and Nancy Underhill—to discuss her impact on the scene.

Born in England in 1950 to Polish-refugee parents, Szulakowska spent her early years in Husbands Bosworth Polish Resettlement Camp in Northamptonshire. In 1977, after completing her master’s in art history at Oxford, she headed to Australia, to work as a tutor at the Power Institute, at the University of Sydney. In 1982, she jumped ship to teach art history at the University of Queensland, while still completing her PhD at Power.

Back then, Brisbane was a different place, still under the thumb of police-state premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. It was culturally isolated, with little of the arts infrastructure we now take for granted. The Institute of Modern Art (IMA) was well established but was criticised for turning its back on local artists.

Queensland Art Gallery only just opened its dedicated Robin Gibson building and the APT was over a decade away.

Along with two other key British-born, Brisbane-based academics—Graham Coulter-Smith and Nicholas Zurbrugg— Szulakowska was a catalyst. She became immersed in the scene, frequenting the IMA; grass-roots artist-run initiatives John Mills National, That Space, and One Flat; and dealer galleries Michael Milburn, Roz Macallan, and later Bellas. She was a founding member of the Eyeline editorial committee and a regular contributor— indeed, the magazine was named after her own use of eyeliner. At the University, her students included Paul Andrew, Barbara Campbell, Sarah Follent, Michele Helmrich, Peter MacNeill, Louise Martin-Chew, Michael Milburn, David Pestorius, Ted Riggs, and Lynne Seear.

Szulakowska was critical of the idea that Brisbane should be measured by the standards of Sydney and Melbourne. She championed Luke Roberts in Art and Text. With Hiram To, she curated Belles Lettres for John Mills National in 1987, and she curated (I)magical Poetics at the IMA in 1988. But, by the end of the decade, Szulakowska was homesick. In 1990 she returned to England, taking an art-history position at Leeds University. Coulter-Smith and Zurbrugg would also return to England. In 1998, Szulakowska published Experimental Art in Queensland 1975–1995: An Introductory Study—her attempt to map the emerging Queensland art scene.

Szulakowska would go on to write books on historical European art and architecture. Her main subject would be alchemy and art, with enticing titles such as The Alchemy of Light and The Sacrificial Body and the Day of Doom. She also wrote a book on Husbands Bosworth Polish Resettlement Camp.

Institute of Modern Art

SAT 25 May 2024