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Creative Paddington: William Yang

By Lola Pinder


William Yang’s photographs pepper Sydney’s cultural identity over the past 4 decades. He is synonymous with Sydney’s queer and art communities through the 70s, 80s and 90s for his candid and casual portraits. Yang has pointedly harnessed the photographic medium to reflect on narrative, history and identity politics. For Yang, his work makes up a diary in which the public, political become personal expressions for the artist. His work is constantly filtered through the lens of autobiography, although often voyeuristic he documents worlds he is part of, from the bohemian underground of Sydney to portraits of cultural identity, in particular Yang’s Australian-Chinese heritage.

Yang has experimented with the photographic medium in order to portray his stories. In the 1980s he developed his practice as a performance artist. He has transformed his photographs into multimedia performances, of slideshow and storytelling, where theatricality and documentary realism blend.  His work also pushes the visual narrative of the photograph by augmenting handwritten text over his image. This adds to the personal nature of his work as Yang’s handwriting intimately associates the image with the artist. His photography becomes discursive in the layers of image and notes. His work slips between styles, evading traditional photographic codes. His work is intuitive, he is considered in his study of character, both in his social interactions and through his photographic portraiture.  

I was able to get snippets from the master storyteller of his memories of Paddington for this profile. Yang’s first solo exhibition Sydneyphiles, was held at the ACP in 1977. He expressed how the show had a big impact, launching his career as a photographer. He went on to exhibit in the group show Complicity, in 2000, and then again in his exhibition Claiming China in 2008. 

Yang has strong connections to Paddington and fond memories of the arts history in the neighborhood. In the early 70s he co-wrote The Dreamers with Andrish St Claire that was put on at the church hall on Oxford Street, also, at this time he recounts an opening of Brett Whiteley’s work he attended at Paddington’s Bonython Gallery, that made a huge impression on the photographer. Furthermore, both Stills, Yang’s main gallery and Barry Stern Gallery that shows his work, are situated in Paddington.  

Most fondly, Yang remembers the parties and events at the Paddington Town Hall. He described some of the events stating ‘I went to my first gay dance there in the early seventies and I’ve never forgotten it’.  In reference to this time, in 2013 the Town Hall hosted the launch of The Pride History ‘100 voices’ a collection of oral histories of the development of the queer community in Sydney, for which Yang photographed.

During the 1970s and 80s the Paddington Town Hall was a hub at the height of the gay and lesbian scene and home to the early RAT parties of Jac Vidgen, and Yang consistently chronicled this era, capturing the mood and documenting the wild and wonderful events surrounding queer liberation and pride in the building. The legendary drag-theatre troop Sylvia and the Synthetics performed at the town hall on numerous occasions. Yang captured the crowds, the glam and the outrageousness of their performances. Included here are images from a performance of the Synthetics, with the Diamonds and Wendy Saddington (see images below).

Yang is currently promoting the screenings of his film adaptation of his performance piece Blood Links in Sydney and Melbourne 

This post is part of the Art Month event Creative Paddington taking place on March 7th in conjunction with Metro Screen and UNSW Art & Design.



Images courtesy and © William Yang