Debbie Symons is a multi-disciplinary Australian artist whose practice emerged out of a concern with species loss and environmental changes. A child of mixed cultural heritage (Sri Lankan and English descent), Symons grew up in one of Victoria’s biodiverse hot spots, Bunurong Country/Cape Patterson, and in her lifetime has witnessed the rapid disappearance of non-human animals.
Symons’ works explore humanity’s complicated relationship with the natural environment, the dynamics of the global political economy, and consumer culture’s effects. Her works tease the links between colonialism, globalisation, and species demise. With a solid research base in contemporary science and species, Symons utilises databases to investigate the connections between these themes and collaborates with scientific organisations such as the IUCN Red List to facilitate the statistical data pertaining to her works.
Drawing is central to Symons’ practice though she is best known for her video works exhibited globally, including an 80-screen exhibition of World Species Market in 2012. Her recent work has explored the loss of non-human animals in poetic and emotive installations, for example, Sing or The Butterfly Effect. Her upcoming exhibitions feature intimate oil paintings of taxidermy animals reflecting on colonial documentation of species during the “great discovery period” of 1500 to 1800 centuries”.
Symons has undertaken several artist residencies, including Billilla Historic Mansion, James Cook University, Cairns, and Lab-14, Funded by the City of Melbourne for CLIMARTE’s Festival: Art + Climate = Change 2015. The most profound of these experiences was LABVERD, an Art Immersion Program in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest in Manaus. During the residency, Symons experienced living within both marine and land environments of one world’s most biodiverse habitats. Works produced from this residency include Sing, featuring 100 hand-woven bird nests crafted from palm oil fronds.
Symons has exhibited extensively throughout Australia and overseas, and her works have been shown in many prestigious group exhibitions, including Floating Land, Noosa, The Nature of the Future, Leu Art Gallery, Belmont University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA, Beyond Words, Streaming Museum and World Council of Peoples for the United Nations, Online Exhibition to mark COP 26 UN’s Climate Change Conference, Glasgow, and Ocean Imaginaries, RMIT Gallery, Melbourne as part of ART+CLIMATE=CHANGE, 2017
In 2014, Symons completed her PhD, Anthropocentrism, Endangered Species, and the Environmental Dilemma, at Monash University with the assistance of an Australian Postgraduate Scholarship. She has received Development and Exhibition Grants from the Australia Council for the Arts, the City of Melbourne, and the Copyright Agency Create Cultural Fund. Symons’ New York and Paris exhibitions during the COP21 Earth Summit talks were funded by Creative Victoria and Bank Australia grants.
Symons has received international and national recognition for her work, including Highly Commended in the 2022 Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize and the Northern Beaches Environmental Art & Design Prize of 2021. Symons won the 2014 MARS Gallery Linden Art Prize and was a finalist in the John Fries Award and Ravenswood Australian Women’s Art Prize. Her work has been featured in Artlink and Vault magazines, plus international journals, Public Art Magazine (Korea).
A lecturer at both RMIT and Monash University, Symons has been a keynote speaker and presenter in several symposiums, including the 2022 Fragile Earth: Extinction Symposium, Gippsland Art Gallery, Sale, MPavilion MTALKS, Asialink, and for the Institute for Culture and Society Digital Life research program at Western Sydney University.
Debbie lives and works in Narrm/Melbourne. She acknowledges the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the lands she works in and pays her respects to Indigenous Elders past, present and emerging. Sovereignty has never been ceded; it always was and always will be Aboriginal land.