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Since haunting galleries as a teenager, David Sequeira’s art has been driven by awe of human expressiveness. By Andy Butler.

Artist and curator David Sequeira

Artist and curator David Sequeira.
Artist and curator David Sequeira.
Credit: Stephen McCallum

Twenty-nine years after his first solo exhibition, I’m talking to David Sequeira about his newest exhibition at Bunjil Place in the outer Melbourne suburb of Narre Warren. The title, All the things I should have said that I never said, is a line from a Kate Bush song. “I’ve been carrying around those words with me since the ’80s,” Sequeira tells me in his warm, gravelly voice.

For three decades Sequeira has dedicated his life to art, with a sense of wonder that expands beyond his own artistic practice. As well as exhibiting paintings, installation works and performance, he’s an academic, curator and gallery director. He spent two decades in senior positions in national cultural institutions and museums before landing his current role as the director of the Fiona and Sidney Myer Gallery at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). His practice is driven by an awe at our human capacity to project meaning, emotion and ideas into material forms.

Sequeira’s Melbourne home studio is lined with Song Cycle, his intensely coloured geometric diagrams on paper, as well as small works by other artists and different objects he’s picked up along the way. He excitedly shows me two plastic plates with concentric circles of bright monochrome colour emanating from the centre that he found in an op shop.

He picks up some works from Song Cycle. He’s done 400 so far. Each is a meditation on emotion and colour with the title written in pencil at the bottom. It’s an ongoing project informed, as his work always is, by repetition, iteration and contemplation.

“I find the languages of colour and geometry are incredibly useful for considering the world and its messiness and complexities,” he tells me. “There are infinite combinations of colour and geometry, just as there are an infinite range of contextualised moments in our experiences from day to day.”

Every time a viewer sees a colour, a shape, an artwork or an object, he says, it holds the possibility of a deep internal response. Even though the object itself remains static, our response can change from day to day or minute to minute, whether the object is thousands of years old or was made yesterday.

Sequeira is an avid collector. Over the years he has accumulated thousands of discarded vases from op shops, all monochrome and symmetrical in form. I’ve seen them displayed in various places, and encountering a vast number of repeated forms is an overwhelming experience.

“I became interested in these vases after one of my first trips back to India,” he says. “I saw these Mogul and Rajput palaces decorated with these vases and vessel motifs, and I began to think about the idea of these objects as a witness – as witnesses of whatever took place in those buildings.” The vases that he has obsessively collected have witnessed the mundane and intimate details of people’s lives in their suburban homes.

There are no vases in his studio: they’ve all been moved to Bunjil Place as part of a 50-metre installation around the perimeter of the gallery that has more than a thousand elements. Called History and Infinity, it’s a circular time line of art and decorative objects, “high” and “low”, arranged according to the inner world of the artist. A shelf that snakes the length of the gallery is filled with countless monochrome vessels, punctuated by paintings that range from 17th-century works to op shop finds to the work of close friends. The vases are arranged according to the colour palette of each painting.

Sequeira picks out a couple of artworks by other people. “I like to be surrounded by work by other people who feel like they’re on this journey of art with me,” he says. One is a small photorealist painting of weaving. “That one’s by Tia Ansell,” he says. “I love that it’s bringing an ancient technology like weaving into a contemporary painting. I met her while she was a student at the VCA.”

He points out another small work from the ’90s by well-known and reclusive artist Diena Georgetti, with the word “Veloura” in the centre surrounded by drawings. He tells me about the process Georgetti goes through in responding to found words. “You can see that this is a tiny little work, similar to Tia’s, but I’m so drawn to small works with big ideas.” He is especially excited about the word veloura, a word related to fashion: Sequeira is always impeccably dressed.

Sequeira is an autodidact. He attended art school only to complete his PhD, more than a decade after he began to practise. His family landed in Essendon from Delhi in 1970, with all the aspirations that come with a South Asian migrant family, and he originally trained as a primary school teacher.

“I had this artist inside of me with zero outlet,” he says. He spent his young adulthood in Melbourne, a migrant Indian kid going to the National Gallery of Victoria, having quiet moments with the major Australian and international artists of the day. He had no one to share his passion with. “I used to write to artists. Senior artists,” he recalls. “I cringe at it now, but I wrote to Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan and James Gleeson via aerogramme. I even wrote to Francis Bacon. I’d write them fan mail!”

His deep desire at that time was to find a community of people dedicated to art. He wanted to have a voice and contribute in some way to the collective labour of culture-making. “It was a different time then,” he says. “The art world could be very cruel. I’ve managed to get a job at an art school now, but I doubt whether in the ’80s and ’90s they even would have taken me as a student.”

I try to imagine a young Sequeira, full of optimism, earnestness, hope and creative energy – the brown kid from the ’burbs navigating a profoundly white contemporary art scene with no training or networks through art schools, and a day job as a primary school teacher. “I’d come home from some openings feeling very small. Quite a few people were like, ‘What are you doing here?’ ”

After a trip around Europe, David packed in his job as a schoolteacher. He learnt to paint through community classes and gained a qualification that enabled him to work in museums. His first job was in the education department at the National Gallery of Australia at the end of 1994, taking school groups through the collection and writing teaching materials. “I took a significant pay cut for that,” he says. “But look, I thought I’d stay in Canberra for two years and I stayed for 20.” He ended up working in some of Australia’s major cultural institutions, including the National Gallery of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

The layers and questions of the later artistic phase of Sequeira’s work, expressed in the exhibition about all the things he’s never said that he wishes he had said, comes from a deep understanding of the contradictions of the way we make culture together.

“I do believe in the possibility of art and museums. And I don’t want that to sound like a bumper sticker or gooey or anything like that. But it’s all unbelievably magical for me,” he says. “You know, in education at the NGA, I got to be with these kids for their first encounter with a Jackson Pollock, for their first encounter with a 12th-century Buddha, for their first encounter with a Monet. I never took it lightly that I got to be this man who opened children’s eyes to the power of art ... like while you are in front of it, while you’re breathing the same air as it. It’s pretty privileged work.”

Sequeira is deeply conscious of the existential crisis many museums are now facing. The world outside art institutions is changing and they aren’t keeping up. “I don’t think in my lifetime we’ll actually ever get to the heart of what a monolithic, Eurocentric art history has cost us,” he says. “I don’t think we can really fathom how much poorer we are because of the singularity of that history that we’ve chosen to elevate.

“I’ve always been interested in the values, questions, problems and possibilities that arise out of the process of selection and display, and particularly how those questions are compounded within a colonial structure like a museum. Looking back on all my time around museums and art and galleries and the artistic community, sometimes I wish I’d stood up for complexity. For more than a two-dimensional understanding of the culture I’ve inherited through migration and my parents.”

Sequeira has been working on a series, Untitled, India, a runway performance featuring 56 kurtas – one for every year of David’s life. Kurtas are long collarless shirts worn in southern Asia that fall just below the knee. In our earliest conversations about this work, he said he was hoping to make garments that a boyfriend could wear when you introduce him to your aunties.

Many of the garments feature bright blocks of monochromatic colour, in line with David’s longstanding interest in repetition and form. Others feature images that speak to Indian history – to the British Imperial era that his parents still remember and the currents that have led him to where he is.

I catch opening night of All the things I should have said that I never said at Bunjil Place, when 56 models from the South Asian community model the kurtas on a fashion runway. As they move down the catwalk, a camera captures and projects an infinite repetition of their images on a screen. Sequeira’s blocks of colour cover many of the kurtas, while others display various images from the complex history of India that follows many migrants of his parents’ generation. Sequeira describes it as an embodied history.

The youngest participant is 12, the oldest a great-grandfather – Sequeira is too polite to ask his age. There are multiple generations from different families walking the catwalk, with live music performed by Hari Sivanesan, an unassuming South Asian veena legend living in the outer Melbourne suburbs who has performed with George Harrison and Ravi Shankar. Sivanesan brings a large crowd. The place is packed out with family and friends of Sequeira and all the performers.

At the end of the performance, Sequeira appears with a kurta that has an image of himself as a three-year-old on it, a year before his family migrated to Australia. He’s emotional. He thanks everyone, especially his extended family and his mother who’s in the front row. He recounts an anecdote about the kurta – that aunties would always bring them over from India when they came to visit his family in Essendon. He remembers that the thought of wearing one as a kid in the ’70s and ’80s was horrifying.

In the 21st century, the South Asian families live in Narre Warren instead of Essendon. Sequeira hopes that the next generation of migrant kids can feel empowered to express their whole, messy and complex selves.

In the final part of the evening the crowd makes its way into the gallery. Kurtas are now hung in the centre of the space, interspersed with Song Cycle works, while around the edge the countless monochrome vases are punctuated with paintings. The viewer is greeted by an image of Sequeira’s mother and father, pre-migration, printed onto a kurta.

“I never think of time as linear,” says Sequeira of his latest work. “Things always come back around in unexpected ways. We’re at a point now in the art world where we can locate ourselves in different and divergent histories.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 as "Saying the unsaid".

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Andy Butler is an artist, writer and curator.

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