By Jane Albert

Gerwyn Davies’s “Vaucluse House” (2021). Says the master costumier: “I think I’ve shifted into myself, which is reflected in the costumes: they’re the spectacle, but it’s actually impossible to see me.”Credit:© Gerwyn Davies, Image courtesy of the artist

There is always a sense of anticipation meeting someone you’re about to interview, but when it comes to Gerwyn Davies that feeling runs hot. Countless images of the photographer exist in the public domain, but they tend to show Davies in disguise. Look! There he is dressed as a giant prawn. And there! Costumed as if the contents of a tin of Heinz spaghetti suddenly stood up and walked towards you, a faceless tangle of orange pasta tubes. And who’s inside the giant topiary balls, looking as if they’ve wandered off the set of Edward Scissorhands? The photographs all feature Davies’s heavily tattooed legs comically sticking out the bottom.

I’m half-expecting this master costumier to appear, Sia-like, with a complex headdress cleverly concealing his features. Exactly who is behind the masks? Davies’s photographs are so outlandish, so colourful, so extravagantly fun, that when a tall, rangy, frankly nondescript man ambles towards me in casual jeans and sweater, friendly face only partly obscured by a regulation face mask, I mistake him for Good Weekend’s photographer and continue my quest to flush out the real Gerwyn Davies.

Over the next few hours, the real Gerwyn Davies will emerge in a conversation that canvasses tragedy, joy, creative inspiration – and everything in between. The second we finish chatting, however, he’ll scurry away and climb into an over-sized, kooky chequerboard costume resembling a motor race flag on steroids that will completely conceal – you guessed it – his face.

He’ll then trigger the camera and lights he’s spent hours painstakingly setting up, taking photographs for an exhibition planned to open at Sydney Living Museums – 12 historically significant museums, homes and gardens across the city and state – in December.

The photographs will be set in and draw inspiration from each landmark, which is why we’re meeting today in one of them: Vaucluse House, the stately 19th-century former home of the explorer, barrister and writer William Charles Wentworth and his wife Sarah, nestled within the lush greenery of Vaucluse Park in Sydney’s affluent east. With his wacky, cartoonish photographs, Davies and historic homes may strike you as an unlikely combination, but the reasoning will emerge.

“”I’m looking at the idea of being invisible, visibly.”

The photographer is juggling this commission with creating life-sized sculptures of his work to feature in the Melbourne and Sydney store windows of French luxury house Hermès in February next year; a series of new photographs for Brisbane’s Jan Murphy Gallery the same month; and another exhibition there later in 2022 inspired by boutique Brisbane hotel The Calile that will also be exhibited at the hotel.

“Gerwyn is not an artist who pushes himself to the foreground; despite what he does he’s quite shy and retiring,” says Jan Murphy, his gallerist since 2017. “I think he’s a very grateful person. He’s grateful that people buy his work, and that humility in an artist is a beautiful thing.”

Shy and retiring is completely at odds with the extravagantly attired black-and-white character before me, now reclining melodramatically on a red velvet settee as his camera shoots off frame after frame.

Won’t the real Gerwyn Davies please stand up?

Gerwyn Davies: “For every image shot, there are twice as many failures.” Credit:Dominic Lorrimer


Gerwyn Davies was born in Ipswich, Queensland, but his story begins in Darwin. Now 36, the self-professed “army brat” had moved homes more than half a dozen times by the age of five, including to Point Lonsdale in Victoria and Gosford on the NSW Central Coast, until his army pilot father was posted to the Northern Territory. The family – mother Anne and older siblings Roland and Jessica – moved to Darwin the day Davies turned six, an event defined in his young memory by “a very sweaty birthday cake”. “Darwin felt very extreme at the time, vibrant and a bit unusual, the kind of place that attracted people from the fringes of society,” he says.

His parents separated not long after, his father ultimately remarrying and returning to Queensland while Davies and his siblings stayed with their mum. When Roland left for boarding school in regional Queensland and Jessica to Adelaide for university, Davies, still at primary school, was only too happy to remain in Darwin. “It was just my mother and me and we quickly developed a really nice bond.” The young boy was conscientious and risk-averse, so when Anne, a nurse, began lecturing in nursing at local Indigenous communities, he was trusted to look after himself until she returned each evening.

“I had a lovely childhood, it was technicolour, lots to see and do,” he says. “I had a dog I was obsessed with and would rollerblade around Darwin in tiny bike pants with a tape recorder interviewing the neighbourhood dogs. I gave them all names and would diagnose them with illnesses, then check up to see how they were going.”

That idyll was diminished when he followed Roland to boarding school at Toowoomba’s Downlands College, a coed Catholic school known for its rugby prowess. As a young gay man still learning about his sexuality, Davies kept a low profile. “There wasn’t a lot of queerness at Downlands at the time but I had a lot of good friends and felt comfortable within myself, so it didn’t traumatise me,” he says, conceding, “It’s not ideal, it limits you from developing relationships to their full extent because you’re constantly withholding.”

When he finally mustered the courage to come out to friends and family at 17, the experience was somewhat anticlimactic. His mother and his grandmother, Beryl, embraced him, saying they’d known all along. Roland’s reaction, his favourite, was less overt. As Davies recalls: “We were very different, he was very sport-driven and very manly, so I went surfing with him – well, I sat on the sand – and had built up to this moment to tell him, and he erupted with laughter. He said he’d been planning this for so long, and he was going to pretend to storm off in shock, but when the moment arrived he felt ridiculous. It was really lovely, delivered with his sense of humour and a really positive experience. Afterwards we became really close.”

When I ask if the family remains tight-knit, Davies tells me his brother took his own life in 2015, just months after their mum succumbed to pancreatic cancer. That must have been a difficult time, I venture, but in his haste to make me feel comfortable, Davies simply responds, “It wasn’t a lot of fun,” before laughing awkwardly and apologising for the melancholic turn the conversation has taken. “Not a good start to the interview, sorry,” he says, laughing again self-consciously. “But there’s no one else, so you’re good, got that out of the system!” He reassures me he wasn’t alone. “I was surrounded by really good friends and my sister, whom I’m very close to, and my grandmother. People go through a lot worse.”

It wasn’t long after Roland’s death that he fell in love with his current partner, Andrew Henderson. Davies was living in northern NSW and lecturing in photography at the Queensland College of Art, from which he’d graduated with a bachelor of photography in 2012. He met Sydney-based Henderson, an advertising creative director, on a dating app and they decided to meet in Lismore, where Henderson had travelled for a New Year’s Eve party. The attraction was immediate and mutual. “It was only six months after my brother died, so I was shocked by the intensity of feeling, but also how comfortable and safe I felt around him,” Davies says.

In early 2017, when it became clear things were serious, Davies relocated to Sydney for his PhD in photo media at the University of NSW, where he began lecturing, too. The couple live in Sydney’s east and were due to wed last year but the pandemic had other ideas. “We’re still going strong and we have a dog, so that’s helpful: Peggy, a totally indulged black Labrador,” Davies says with a smile.

Davies reveals only his tattooed arms and legs in “Hedge” (2017).Credit:© Gerwyn Davies, Images courtesy of the artist


It was during the four years of his doctorate that Davies created his singular body of work. Back in his uni days in Queensland, he and his housemates would enjoy a few bottles of cheap wine before creating outrageous costumes and playing up for the camera. Those flatmates have since gone on to “sensible” careers like medicine and law, but Davies took up where they left off, exploring the performative potential of photography in more depth. Completed this year, his PhD thesis studies the excessive aesthetics of camp, using exaggerated characters and artificial, plasticky backgrounds to distract the viewer from the fact he is upending the usual outcome of a photograph – to reveal the subject to the viewer. “I’m looking at the idea of being invisible, visibly,” he says.

“I feel quite vulnerable in the costume because I can’t see anything, and I get self-conscious if there are people around.”

The 89 images in the nine series that make up his thesis were shot both here and in Japan, the latter during a two-month Australia Council residency in 2018. Every element of the photograph is obsessively controlled by Davies, from the sourcing of everyday materials such as Chux wipes and cheap plastic bowls to crazy sequined fabrics that inspire the costumes; to the sewing (he is self-taught); finding locations, dressing and photographing himself using an interval timer; and post-production.

“For every image shot, there are twice as many failures,” he says. “It’s awkward and I feel quite vulnerable when I’m in the costume because I can’t see anything, and I get really self-conscious if there are people around.” What might initially seem odd – these extraordinarily flamboyant characters concealing Davies – begins to make sense the more you understand him. Gregarious in his youth, Davies has grown to be more introverted. He enjoys his friendships but craves time alone in his Paddington studio, sometimes for days at a stretch.

“I think I’ve shifted into myself, which is reflected in the costumes: they’re the spectacle, but it’s actually impossible to see me. I really enjoy the transformation process of dressing up, that idea of escaping into the image and out of reach, and when I reflect on the images I don’t look at them as images of me, they’re characters.”

“Prawn” (2016).Credit:© Gerwyn Davies, Images courtesy of the artist

He puts on a “costume”, too, for situations like this. “I’m trying to be open with you but it’s not a natural state for me, it’s a bit performative. Same as when I’m doing artist talks, it takes a lot of energy to get up there and pretend to be confident.”

“If they’re drawn to investigate further, to think about the construction or the politics I’m interested in, that’s fantastic. But if they’re not, that’s fine, too.”

If the viewer chooses, they can explore the queer art theory behind Davies’s works and the way he uses the aesthetics of camp to undo the camera’s ability to reveal the subject to the viewer. But he says any response is welcome. “Often people say they’re nervous about the fact they laugh at them, but I think that’s a lovely response. If they’re drawn to investigate further, to think about the construction or the politics I’m interested in, that’s fantastic. But if they’re not, that’s fine, too.”

As well as being held in a number of public collections, many of the prints Davies created during his doctorate have sold out (at up to $2000 a print, they’re relatively affordable, but the price is likely to rise as the number of editions become smaller), while in 2019 his work was picked up by Australian art dealer Michael Reid for his Berlin gallery. “Photography now makes up 50 per cent of the international contemporary art market because it translates literally across smartphones so easily, there’s no need to contemplate painterly brushstrokes or texture,” says Reid. “It’s all about the emotional hit you receive.”

“Photography now makes up 50 per cent of the international contemporary art market because it translates across smartphones so easily.”

The gallery hosted Davies’s Utopia exhibition earlier this year, selling 15 prints. “We put a major work [Fountain] in the window and Berliners used to stop and stand around it like it was a heater and they were basking in its warmth,” says Reid, who has represented Australian contemporary photographers, including well-known figures Trent Parke and Tamara Dean, since the early 1990s. Reid puts Davies’s success down to the work being “gentle”: “There’s something there but he’s not finger-wagging in terms of what that theory is, no ‘Let me tell you’.”

“Justice and Police Museum” (2021).Credit:© Gerwyn Davies, Images courtesy of the artist


Adam Lindsay had just begun his job overseeing the vast archival collections of the NSW State Archives when he came across Davies’s work. He remembers the exact image that caught his attention – part of Davies’s solo exhibition, Fur, at the Australian Centre for Photography – as it featured Davies concealed in a comic explosion of silver spikes and holding a basketball. “The image of someone dressed like that in a sporting setting was so disarming, it took me a long time to make sense of it and think what he was trying to say,” recalls Lindsay. He took a shot on his phone, looked further into Davies’s body of work, then sent him a “gushing fan message” on Instagram.

The artist remained in the back of Lindsay’s mind. In 2019 NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin appointed him to the newly created role of executive director overseeing both Sydney Living Museums and the NSW State Archives. Part of his brief was to breathe new life into the historic houses, and entice more people to visit. He instantly thought of Davies. “We have a huge range of diverse professionals at Sydney Living Museums – archivists, curators, historians – but often it takes someone outside the organisation to bring a fresh perspective to the properties, to make people aware of them in ways we wouldn’t,” says Lindsay.

The Sydney Living Museums exhibition, Iridescent, will feature 12 photographs, about 150 centimetres by 100 centimetres, that will be displayed for six months at the Museum of Sydney alongside the costumes themselves, a first for Davies, then housed permanently where they were shot. Last year Davies and Lindsay spent two long days travelling between each of the 12 properties, from Rose Seidler House in Wahroonga to Elizabeth Farm in Sydney’s west.

“It was intense but exciting,” says Davies. “I’d been to Elizabeth Bay House for a wedding and obviously I knew the iconic architecture of Rose Seidler House, but I was starting from a clean slate.”

A fastidious researcher, he delved deep into the history of the sites, looking for interesting characters and events that wouldn’t necessarily be well known, to spark an idea.

His attention was drawn to Sarah Wentworth, who bore two children to William Wentworth out of wedlock and, despite them marrying and having a further eight, was subsequently shunned by the social elite. The Vaucluse House courtyard where we’re chatting is ringed with arresting flower-fringed fountains, but it is the interior black and white tiles that inspired Davies’s costume, so incongruous are they against the mansion’s Gothic Revival architecture. The resulting monochrome costume, created from spandex and automotive foam, reflects that. “There’s this desperation to Sarah’s story, about living in opulence surrounded by tropical arcadia but being socially ostracised. It’s sad.”

His costume for the Justice and Police Museum in Circular Quay was inspired by the story of 1870s chaplain turned bushranger Captain Moonlite (Andrew George Scott), who fell in love with fellow bushranger Jim Nesbitt. The pair exchanged locks of hair before the Wantabadgery siege at which Nesbitt was killed. Scott would be caught, tried and convicted at the site of the museum, before being hanged at Darlinghurst Goal in 1880.

“I like the idea the photographs will inspire people to think more laterally and engage with history, start to question what else might have happened.”

Davies, who has had a Captain Moonlite image tattooed on his bicep, created a costume of golden rings, referencing both the lock of hair Scott wore to his death and the chains that shackled the prisoner. Another ingenious creation, the costume is made from pool noodles encased in gold spandex that are knotted into new forms and sewn together, worn over a gold body costume, complete with golden boots.

“When I’m approaching these spaces that I don’t see myself reflected in, I like the idea that the photographs will inspire people to think more laterally and engage with history, start to question what else might have happened,” he says. “But on a more accessible level, I’d like to invite new people to explore these spaces and have new conversations.”

“Basketball” (2017).Credit:© Gerwyn Davies, Images courtesy of the artist;

Davies is taking his photography in new directions, too. Float, a director’s choice winner in the Olive Cotton Award and a finalist in the 2021 Sunshine Coast Art Prize, highlights his experimentation with layering, moving away from impossibly perfect backgrounds to a deliberately blurred kaleidoscope of colours to disguise the figure even more. On the professional front, Michael Reid is bringing Davies into his prestigious Sydney stable, which Reid feels Davies has earned, while the Calile Hotel and Hermès collaborations take him into the fashion and luxury spheres.

“There’s definitely commercial momentum but there feels like a real personal momentum, too,” Davies says. “I’m really ready to do new things, bring the image away from the wall and play with photography and other forms.”

No matter what direction his art moves in, you can be sure the real Gerwyn Davies will always be happiest in the studio, hidden beneath layers of Astroturf and red sequins. “While I’m making the work, there’s an uncertainty as to how this character is going to reveal itself; it’s thrilling, and that’s addictive,” he says. “But once I’ve brought it to life, I’m already moving on, that endless cycle of bringing an image to life then moving on.”

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