Wilma Tabacco hosts me in her art studio, where she has breathed life into works that have been displayed in over 200 national and international group exhibitions and 38 solo exhibitions.
Before becoming an artist, she completed a degree in economics, a master’s degree and a PhD.
She went on to teach at university while her works were gradually acquired by museums such as the National Gallery of Australia and the NGV, as well as private collectors in the United States and Europe.
Her name features a letter that doesn’t exist in the Italian alphabet, “W”, but her roots are undeniably Italian: she was born in Fagnano Alto, in the central Italian region of Abruzzo, and lived there for the first four years of her life.
She grew up surrounded exclusively by women, while her father had already travelled to Australia in search of a better life.
“My father left Italy when my mother was already pregnant with me,” Tabacco explains.
“I met him for the first time when I arrived in Melbourne, but it was he who chose my first name.
“During World War II, my father was an Alpino [mountain trooper]; he was captured in Crete and was transferred to Germany as a prisoner.
“For this reason, there’s been a running joke in my family.
“My mother would always joke: ‘Surely you wanted to call her that because you met a girl in Germany!”
“It’s always been a myth, a family legend.
“Today I often think that we should ask questions when our parents are still alive; I should’ve asked them about the origin of my name.
“I took it for granted and now I’ll never know, but I’ve accepted that.”
Of her early years in Italy, Tabacco only remembers the hills of the Subequana Valley, influenced perhaps by the black and white photos from the family archives.
She also remembers the bright colours of her formative years, and the strength she drew from the women around her.
“My mother and my two grandmothers inspired my big dreams and my quest for freedom,” Tabacco says.
“On my trip to Australia, I remember having measles; my mother told me that I cried the whole time and was in solitary confinement on the ship.
“More than anything else, however, the colours of my childhood come to mind: a blue coat with a fur collar, an olive skirt and a brown top.
“I thought my clothes were wonderful, while my classmates found them ridiculous, constantly making fun of me.
“Colours were already a great source of inspiration for me but as a child I didn’t understand that they represented a sort of cultural construct that a person can use almost like ammunition.
“When I started to paint, they unconsciously blossomed on the canvas.”
Art had intrigued Tabacco since she was a child, always her unconscious companion.
“My parents had a grocery store in North Melbourne and not far from their street, there was a refugee originally from Czechoslovakia,” Tabacco recounts.
“He was an artist and always left the doors of his studio open during the summer.
“I constantly went to peek at his works, which were predominantly inspired by religion.
“I was scared, but fascinated at the same time.
“My father used that man as an example: ‘You’ll become poor like him if you’re an artist!’
“Dad’s gentle opposition spurred me.
“Mum tacitly supported me but she soon passed away.”
Tabacco graduated in economics, teaching for three years at Broadmeadows High School.
A trip to Italy in the 1980s to return to her roots forced her to finally pursue her passion for art.
“After art school, I started teaching at the University of Melbourne; in that same period I’d already started working on my personal projects at an art studio in Northcote that I shared with a friend,” she says.
“It was the end of the 1980s; we took part in exhibitions but our works were met with scorn.
“One afternoon, an art expert visited our premises; he had an appointment with my friend to evaluate her works, but to reach the room, he had to go through my studio first.
“He saw my works and asked my friend about me.
“It was he who offered me my first exhibition and since then I haven’t looked back.”
Different, dissimilar, art to combat stereotypes, in the ‘90s Tabacco armed herself with a brush to express a “state of difference”, while her artistic progress appears to have come full circle today: lines, shapes, even the colours return to her canvases in more mature structures and compositions.
In an art world thirsty for innovation, Tabacco also created the Langford 120 gallery complex with her friend and colleague, Irene Barberis, in 2011.
The aim was to redefine the commercial and institutional models of the sector, to be able to exhibit the work of prominent artists who had never received proper recognition.
Wilma Tabacco in her studio
“We were completely crazy,” Tabacco laughs, recalling eight years of work in the gallery.
“However, that place gave us the opportunity to host extraordinary exhibitions that otherwise wouldn’t have received exposure elsewhere.
“And back then, there was no well-defined place for female artists: we basically created our own opportunities.
“My husband has always been a great support and I’ve been able to give voice to my creative life.”
During the long months of isolation in 2020, Tabacco managed to reconstruct more than 20 years of art in a personal archive and participate in online meetings to discuss colour and vision.
Meanwhile, Gold Mine, her latest work for the collective ‘Parallel Visions’, is still on display at CO.AS.IT. in Carlton.
“I hope that going to the museum or gallery can become a habit again,” she concludes.
“Art is a perceptive experience that takes time; it’s not an image on a mobile phone or computer screen.
“It’s observing the lines, the hues, the movement ... to find what can’t be seen.”