You know what we don’t talk enough about here on No Award? ART. Actual art, hanging in galleries! Here is Hayley to fix that problem, with a three part review of Hannah Gadsby’s OZ, which recently aired on Our ABC. Hayley has a degree in art history, and we occasionally play ‘who knows more about art’ at NGV (she usually wins). What with the art, and with the birds, Hayley is gonna have to have her own tag on No Award!
Recently comedian Hannah Gadsby made a three part series on the history of Australian art for Our ABC. Hannah has a degree in art history (like me!) and has for years been taking jokes to art in the form of her guided tours of the National Gallery of Victoria during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
I greatly enjoyed the series, to the point that I started to get fretful about the fact that it didn’t seem as if many got around to watching it. That concerned me, because Gadsby’s series was not just about art. You can take it from the title alone: this a series about the Australia she sees reflected back to us through our popular conception of art history, and the things about Australia that aren’t the dominant narratives within Australian cultural identity. It is an unapologetic exploration of the art of women, indigenous artists, and those who portray ignored Australian perspectives. It’s WELL POLITICAL, and even just in the context of art history it covers a lot of really clever, important stuff that isn’t even touched on in university art history courses (believe me, I know).
This episode looks to white Australia’s first artistic expressions in the form of colonial art, what these artists were saying about the new colony, what they weren’t saying, and how various contemporary artists are dealing with reinterpreting these colonial images in their own works.
Australian cultural identity is for the most part very one-note, and doesn’t allow for multiple viewpoints. As Hannah says “If you’re not a white man in a hat, you may struggle to see yourself in the Australian art story.” And if you’re not any of those things, you tend to struggle with feelings of belonging and displacement within Australian society. This is a dichotomy that has been present since colonial settlement, and the art of this period can shed light on how the first settlers viewed Australia, how they wanted the colony portrayed, and how we ended up with these stringent ideas of what constitutes Australia.
The biggest thing to address is how white settler artists viewed the indigenous people who had been living in the country for thousands of years. The “subjective baggage” of first contact art such as that produced by the Port Jackson Painter – one of the first western painters in the first years of the colony of New South Wales, now thought to be the work of several unidentified artists – shows that throughout these visual narratives only one (white) perspective is given, and in elevating these works in the narrative of Australian art, indigenous perspectives are knowingly blotted out.
Hannah talks to Daniel Boyd, an indigenous artist who has been the artist in residence at the Natural History Museum in London, where many of the Port Jackson Painter’s works are kept as part of their First Fleet collection. Boyd’s work challenges Western viewpoints in terms of the first contact with indigenous Australians, and the way museums have historically been complicit in the theft of indigenous culture and the dehumanisation of indigenous peoples. His art is also a means of challenging the accuracy of these first colonial works – whose story are they telling?
The work that Boyd has put together at the Natural History Museum, called Tracing the Past, incorporates old boxes that the museum used to store human remains – it’s interesting that it seems that Boyd got a hold of these boxes as the museum was upgrading its curatorial practices, not that the remains were being repatriated back to their communities and descendants. Indeed the Museum still holds Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander remains in their collection, so there’s a disturbing thing for you to ruminate on. This work is a refusal to allow the Museum and similar institutions forget their complicity in harming indigenous peoples, and opens the conversation in terms of reassessing how museums view their collections, ensuring that there is a dialogue rather than the imposition of a one-sided interpretation.
Boyd also remixes paintings from the white tradition of Australian art. Emmanuel Phillip Fox’s 1902 painting The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770 becomes We Call Them Pirates Out Here (2006) (at the top of this post), with Cook reimagined as a pirate complete with eyepatch and a skull and crossbones Union flag. I would hope, dear reader, that the subtext is obvious to you. The piece is also a reminder that much of the art produced during the colonial period was a deliberate ploy towards “flogging Australia as a prime piece of real estate.”
Take the work of Joseph Lycett, a convict painter who created deliberately false images of Australian landscapes in order to increase its appeal as a thriving colony to British settlers. His pictures include white settlers and indigenous people co-existing, although the indigenous people are invariably shown leaving the picture, while the white folk gesture expansively over the vistas, indicating ownership and expansion. The images could then act as evidence to potential settlers that, not to worry! We have this native population in hand, and isn’t it a nice coincidence how European Australia looks?
Gadsby then shifts focus to Tasmania, where she grew up and, as the most concentrated arena for the eradication of indigenous Australians in colonial times, a place that holds particular significance in terms of white settler and indigenous dialogues.
Bea Maddock’s panoramic work that depicts a topographical circumnavigation of Tasmania’s coast, Terra Spiritus… with a darker shade of pale (1993-1998), is an exploration of both English and indigenous geographical names. Particularly haunting is the presence of Aboriginal place names that directly confront the wholesale genocide of Tasmania’s original inhabitants and the theft of their land. “For a Tasmanian, that is a fact that is too easily forgotten.”
John Glover was one of the first free settler artists, and settled in Tasmania. The intriguing thing about his work is that he insisted on painting pastoral scenes of “Aboriginal arcadias of a people untouched by Western civilisation,” some 20 years after the genocide of Tasmania’s indigenous population began. Yet despite his apparent fascination with indigenous people, like Lycett’s work his paintings edit out some very sobering truths that problematises his art. He could not have witnessed the scenes he depicted, and what is shown is idealised imaginings of what indigenous life was like prior to white settlement.
Julie Gough, a Tasmanian Aboriginal artist, offers indigenous insight into how Glover’s paintings can be viewed – they are important for the fact that a white artist depicted Aboriginal life at all, but troubling as he was nostalgic for a period that he did not bear witness to, and also concurrently produced works that depicted farming and the land forging enacted by white settlers. Glover was interested in an indigenous past, but the present depicted in his works is resolutely white.
It’s interesting that when talking of Gough’s own artwork, which directly tackles the uneasy colonial relationship between indigenous peoples and white settlement, Gadsby makes note of the fact that while Glover’s work at the National Gallery of Australia is housed in the mainstream Australian art section, Gough’s work is displayed on a separate level with the specifically designated indigenous art. Is this is a deliberate curatorial decision to avoid these sort of dialogues from occurring among gallery patrons?
Ben Quilty – as Hannah says possibly Australia’s best known contemporary artist – is obsessed by identity, and how the past shapes an individual’s self-expression. Fairy Bower Rorschach (2012) depicts a beauty spot near Quilty’s home that was also the site of a massacre of indigenous people during colonial times. The wholesale murder of indigenous people is a shameful secret among non-indigenous Australians – we acknowledge on a basic level that killings occurred, but the full extent remains shrouded and unacknowledged. Gadsby makes the pertinent point that when the Port Arthur massacre occurred in 1996, it gained immediate recognition and memorialisation, whereas the hundreds of sites across the nation of indigenous genocide for the most part remain unmarked.
When asked how he reconciles living a privileged life adjacent to a place that was a scene of horror for indigenous people, Quilty baldly replies that he cannot. The spectre of white guilt, the fact that in mainstream Australian education we are still taught that ‘real’ Australian history began when Cook stepped off the Endeavour, is highly troubling to him. Quilty’s piece becomes about being born Australian, loving Australia, yet constantly questioning one’s belonging and the white-washed construction of our history in “a haunted landscape.”
The colonial view of Australia as painted by the likes of Lycett, Glover and their ilk are “devoid of scar tissue.” When we look at colonial art, we need to be consciously thinking of the voices they omit, what values they are espousing, and how we ourselves may have benefitted from a nationhood construction that leaves so many without representation. The past is not only behind us; it is constantly impacting on our present, something that contemporary Australian artists, both indigenous and white, are keenly aware of. Like Gadsby, I’m pleasantly gratified that so many contemporary Australian artists are willing to grapple with these issues and actively interrogate our colonial past.
Next time! Hannah looks at the history of women artists in Australia, and how they offer an alternate vision of the extremely masculine Australia that our art history narrative has popularly pushed forward. Watch out, blokes in hats, we’re coming for you.