Thirteen: Portrait of a Teenager.

Exhibition Opening Speech by Rev. Anneke Oppewal

Kinross House, Uniting Arts Toorak, June 29th to July 29th, 2006.


Look how beautiful you are! Flicking through the book Neil has put together with the pictures and bodyscapes he created from those pictures that was the thought that hit me first. A beautiful girl, at a beautiful age looking at herself, discovering herself, growing body awareness, growing confidence in who she is and what she looks like. Me being a minister, I could not but connect that back to a Bible story. I thought of the Garden of Eden, pictured in the Bible as a place where people lived in innocent happiness, unaware of their nakedness, their vulnerability, of the dangerous and terrible world that was out there. Jewish interpretation sees that part of the story as the equivalent of childhood. We grow up, in our families, and if all is right we are protected, cherished and nourished, and mainly unaware of some of the more nasty things that can be out there.


Until there is a moment where it is time to cut the apron strings and venture out on our own, and discover the world outside that safe and blissful place. We start to perceive ourselves as a separate entity that could do things differently, could be different from the environment we grew up in, and we become aware of who we are, what we look like, what we desire for ourselves in our own right, and in our own way. That's where the mobile phone cameras come out and the mirrors appear on every wall, especially with the female of the species. We start looking at our reflection in shop windows, we hesitate before a mirror, and we begin to notice the little imperfections here and there, and appreciate the parts that are good and attractive about our bodies.


We become self aware, and we start to carve out our own path, and travel our own journey through the world, and we start to experiment with and discover things that were previously outside our experience. In the story of Genesis Two that is where reality starts to hit: Not all of what is out there is good, not all of what is out there will be positive and wholesome. Some in fact, can be pretty nasty. I think what Neil has done with those beautiful pictures has captured that moment of truth. Where self-awareness and realisation of being a separate entity starts to dawn, and the big wide world opens up. Here am I, this is me, I am beautiful, I am a person in my own right with my own funny little thingies, twists and turns, and I am ready to venture out and be me outside of the safety of home.


When we talked about the exhibition, Neil and I talked about the anxieties that go with that. For parents as well as their teenagers. Suddenly there seems to be so much out there that could harm and do damage to that innocent beauty captured in the pictures. Suddenly memories come flooding back and we might feel the world was such a much safer place when we were growing up. I am sure that is only a matter of perspective by the way. My parents were as daunted by drugs and sex back in the seventies as I am now with my children entering teenager-dom. And I was as naive about them as most teenagers would be now. When you are that age it simply doesn't feel like anything could ever do any serious harm to you.


Neil's exhibition is about all that and more. It is a political statement about the world teenagers are growing up in. A world where there is a lot that is interfering with that growth in self-awareness and self-appreciation; a lot that could interfere with a positive body image and an innocent appreciation of who and what we are. The sexualization of body, the peer pressures that are around, the body imagery that is promoted by girls magazines, a lot of that isn't helpful when you're 13 and looking to grow into a healthy and strong woman. But it is also a moving statement of beauty, of looking at perfection as it comes out through the camera of a 13 year old, and taking those images further into bodyscapes which take the pictures to another level where art communicates some of the more profound truths and insights of  life.


And last but not least there is a statement here about the spiritual aspect of being thirteen, of growing into a person in your own right, of coming to the point where, what you are and what God has intended you to be, is starting to show and to bloom like a flower opening itself up. It is all there and I thank Neil and Jessica for making those beautiful images available to us.

Anneke Oppewal, Minister Uniting Church of Toorak, July 1st 2006.