Polixeni Papapetrou (1960-2018)

Written by: Dr Eugene Barilo von Reisberg
It is with deep regret that we have learned of the passing of our dear friend and talented photographic artist, Polixeni Papapetrou, after a prolonged and courageous battle with cancer. Even in her darkest hour, she remained a source of joy, encouragement, and inspiration with her smile, her kind words, and her art.

Poli’s inherent humanity, concern for the outsider, and the genuine interest in those around her were amply reflected in her art. Her earliest series of works focused on her fellow artists, popular culture, bodybuilding, and the drag scene, the latter still a controversial subject in the mainstream art world of the late 1990s. The probing questioning of body image, gendered stereotypes, and heteronormativity explored within these series, have remained relevant to the present day.

From the early 2000s, Poli’s children became an unending source of inspiration for the artist, who explored through their images issues of childhood, identity, performance, and place. Richly inspired by traditional fairy tales, travel photography, and local folklore, the children in such series as Phantomwise, Dream Child, Fairy Tales, Wonderland and Haunted Country play dress-ups, wear masks, pose against sumptuous backgrounds, or wander in the Victorian countryside. Each work, however, is a carefully considered meditation, balanced cautiously between the joyous celebration of childhood innocence and the darker, subversive, voyeuristic narratives inherent within the images of children.

Poli’s illness had not dampened her artistic imagination. However, some of the later series of works, especially The Dreamkeepers, The Gillies, and Melancholia, address the subject of transience, mortality, and the unknown directly. These themes were amplified in Poli’s penultimate series of works, Eden, which were commissioned by the Centre of Contemporary Photography in response to the Melbourne General Cemetery. The portraits of adolescent girls and young women, adorned with bouquets and flower garlands, and silhouetted against floral backgrounds, engage in the ongoing discourse which has remained perennial popular in the history of art from the Old Masters to the present day: the iconography of youth and flowers as an allegory of impermanence and the cycle of life.

Poli’s significance, legacy, and contribution to the Australian and international art world has been recognised in a number of prestigious awards and prizes, curated survey exhibitions, and acquisition of her works by the National Gallery of Australia and numerous state, regional, and tertiary collections. Inclusion of Poli’s works in the recent exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum, All the better to see you with: fairy tales transformed, which featured selected pieces from Fairy Tales and Haunted Country series, became a fitting coda to her as an internationally recognised contemporary photographic artist, consummate professional, and a caring wife and mother.

We express our deepest sympathies to Robert, Olympia, and Solomon, and to everyone touched by Poli’s generosity of spirit and the heart. We will treasure memories of her forever. One of her works, In the Keilor Plains 1895 #2 (2006), is currently on display in our Melbourne offices.