Anton Kannemeyer 's "Untitled"(soccer) and "Untitled "(rugby)

Taboo ... Anton Kannemeyer 's "Untitled"(soccer) and "Untitled "(rugby). Photo: Kate Geraghty

It's hard to believe the unknown artist who created the watercolour of a smiling golliwog and his crying blonde bride intended the image to be educational.

Painted in the early 20th century, the image was designed to warn English children about the dangers of inter-racial marriage and miscegeny, says artist Brook Andrew.

He recalls writing a note about the image that read, in part: ''The bride is overwhelmed with emotion, probably grief and upset at being married to a golliwog. Maybe she thinks he's going to eat her all up?''

It is one of the works that Andrew has selected for Taboo, a group exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia that features historical material as well as recent artworks exploring issues of race, ethnicity, politics and religion.

No less confronting or bizarre is a glass specimen slide from 1870 that purports to show a virgin's vagina.

Of course, historical material dealing with racism and sexism reflect different social times. Yet a 1975 poster of a woman dressed in what appears to be a burqa with the words ''Avoid Rape Dress Seriously'' suggests archaic attitudes are not just in the distant past.

Andrew says artists should have the freedom to explore their own taboos, which ''might reveal new ways of seeing a history or subject that would otherwise be shut down as too upsetting or controversial''.

Taboo will also feature screenings of controversial films such as Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo and debates on topics including sex, disability and prostitution.

The museum's director, Liz Ann Macgregor, says the exhibition builds upon the blakatak series of talks and performances about controversial issues that Andrew curated for the gallery in 2005.

Macgregor says Andrew's brief for Taboo was simple: ''I want this to be like a really rowdy dinner party where people say the wrong thing and other people correct them.''

Yet even open-minded hosts like Macgregor draw a line somewhere. ''There's no children. He hasn't gone and looked at paedophilia, thank goodness,'' she says. ''There are limits. We all have our limits, even the MCA.''

However, Andrew says the exhibition is not intended to shock audiences. ''If anything, I just felt that there are certain stories that artists tell that have a very serious position within their own personal life.''

Andrew says many of the issues tackled by artists stem from personal experiences, such as Anton Kannemeyer, a white South African artist whose cartoon images include white rugby players using a black head as a football. ''He really wants to unpack the difficult issues white men in South Africa deal with in a post-apartheid era; i.e., they're not the centre any more,'' Andrew says.

''Kicking around heads and using golliwogs is one way I think he kind of redresses racist stereotypes.''

The main exhibition space is painted in slashes of fluorescent colours that seem at odds with the confronting images mounted on the walls.

Andrew says he did not want a white-walled display area that looked like a doctor's surgery: ''It makes it a bit more fun, in a way, or even approachable.''

There are no labels next to the artworks either because, Andrew says, he did not want the exhibition to look ''museum-like. I just wanted people to experience it.''

However, audiences are warned that several exhibits, especially in the black-walled Vitrine, show upsetting scenes including mass war graves, Aboriginal men in chains and a Papuan woman suckling puppies.

Andrew describes these images as the ''traumatic legacy of the colonial gaze, anthropology, genocide, science experiments, extreme political and religious views and conflicts''.

Taboo opens on Wednesday at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.