Tag Archives: Australian art

Not-so-Marvellous Melbourne: Anxiety on the urban frontier in the art of ST. Gill

In July, that State Library of Victoria will be hosting an exhibition of works by the colonial Australian artist ST Gill. The exhibition, Australian sketchbook: Colonial life and the art of ST Gill, is being staged to coincide with the launch of a major new book by Professor Sasha Grishin of the Australian National University. Grishin has been researching Gill’s work for several decades now, so Grishin’s book, ST Gill and His Audiences promises to be a major contribution to the field. Grishin will also be presenting at a one-day conference, along with many other distinguished figures.

I became interested in Gill’s work while curating the exhibition Experimental Gentlemen at the Ian Potter Museum of Art. I included a number of Gill’s works in the exhibition, including a copy of the Australian Sketchbook after which Grishin’s exhibition is titled. I had an idea for a longer piece, which never quite made it over the line to publication, but which I thought I might offer here, more as a series of rough thoughts than a finished argument. I am sad that I won’t be able to be in Melbourne for the conference, because I think that Gill’s work presents a lot of complex questions in relation to how the Australian colonial imagination was formed.

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ST Gill, The Newly Arrived. Watercolour, 21.8 x 14.8 cm. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

The State Library of New South Wales holds one of the largest collections of paintings, prints and drawings by the Australian colonial artist Samuel Thomas Gill (1818-1880). Amongst its collection is a pair of small watercolours designed to be viewed in concert: a technique that Gill frequently used to tease out subtle antinomies across his satirical scenes. The first of these scenes, entitled The Newly Arrived c.1860, shows a group of European settlers dressed in top hats and frock coats, gathering around an Aboriginal family. In the centre, an Aboriginal man in a long flowing fur-skin coat, and his naked son, perform a spirited dance for the onlookers. So enthralled are the new settlers by this exotic performance, that one man reaches into his hip pocket, presumably for some coins to reward his primitive entertainer. In the background, a row of neat brick houses suggests a well-established and thriving colony.

ST Gill,  The Colonized, watercolour, 21.8 x 14.8 cm. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

ST Gill, The Colonized, watercolour, 21.8 x 14.8 cm. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

The second image offers a stark contrast to the genteel pleasantries of The Newly Arrived. Gone are the neat brick houses and gentlemanly finery; in their place, a shanty bark hut and the rough and tumble uniform of the pioneer settler. Likewise for the Aboriginal characters: the life of carefree dancing as exotic amusement is replaced with a heavy burden, as they are roped into the hard labour of empire building. With his characteristically acerbic satire, Gill titles this second work The Colonized c.1860

It is hard not to read these two works as “before-and-after” shots, contrasting the carefree life of Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants before being colonized, with their subjugation under the imperial project. But there is also a charged ambivalence to this contrast: not only does Gill offer a vague sympathy for the plight of his Aboriginal subjects, but he simultaneously points towards the degradation of colonial settler subject-hood: a fall from grace that effects the European on the frontier, himself colonized as part of the imperial process. While the European in The Colonizer is appears to be the “master,” it is a debased mastery, devoid of the fine trimmings of civilized society.

The frankness with which these images explore colonial encounters across the Australian frontier makes The Newly Arrived and The Colonized are remarkable pair of images. Lynette Russell argues, that while the American frontier was lauded by writers like Frederick Jackson Turner as being responsible for the emergence of an American identity, in Australia, “the frontier was essentially ignored.”[i] Ian McLean takes this further, suggesting that the frontier acted as a vital negative component to identity construction, habituating an inability to feel “at home” in the new country. According to McLean, for Australian artists, the frontier could not be pictured because it defied temporal unison. American painting could transcend this, because it was freed from colonial attachment, but in Australia the frontier was too close. The Australian artist was caught on the cusp of two worlds.[ii] As Paul Carter notes, picturing the act of settling became a psychic impossibility for Australian artists, requiring the constant proliferation of boundaries, whose deferral served the “symbolic function of making a place that speaks, a place with history.”[iii]

The Newly Arrived and The Colonized might be seen as both exception to, and proof of, this psychic impossibility. If by setting these two images against each other, Gill draws explicit attention to the passage from settling to settled, from colonizing to colonized, at the same time, it is a passage that occurs in absentia. The precise moment of colonization is never pictured, remaining always an invisible passage; even the transaction of payment alluded to in both works, is never visually realized.

This essay is not an attempt at what Rex Butler has called ‘radical revisionism.’ It does not seek to re-write history from the perspective of the present, in order to show the artists of the past pre-empting the political and social concerns of our current age. In addressing the work of ST Gill, I do not wish to position him as a radical proto-post-colonialist, speaking across “time-like separated’ areas to contemporary issues” or articulating “newer public virtues of beauty, persuasiveness and social justice.”[iv] My ambitions are decidedly more modest: my argument is that the art of ST Gill illustrates a key transitional moment in the development of the Australian colonial imagination, when the temporal strategies of modernity (such as historicism, evolution, and nationalism) emerge to normalise and repress the inherent contradictions and instability of the colonial project. By a fortunate confluence of coincidences (including his genre, audiences, temperament, and historical moment) Gill inadvertently captures this fleeting moment of transition, and in doing is, pictures the ambivalence of colonial discourse before it is obscured beneath the redemptive nationalist fantasy of the Heidelberg school of Australian Impressionism.

If, as Homi Bhabha has argued, uncovering this ambivalence serves to disrupt to destabilize the colonial project, this should not in any way be considered an act of rebellion on Gill’s behalf. Despite the ways in which it is often read, I understand Bhabha’s text as offering a method of interpretation and not a strategy of resistance. As he notes, disclosing the colonial ambivalence is a process that serves to both normalize and disrupt colonial authority.[v] Rather than being actively subversive, if Gill’s work reveals the antinomies and inconsistencies of the colonial mission, it is because it all too faithfully visualizes the colonial frontier without the benefit of the strategic apparatuses that would soon serve to normalize the unstable systems of power relations upon which this mission was founded.

In large part, this disclosure is the necessary result of Gill’s picturing of the urban environment, as opposed to the landscape idiom that dominates the canonical narrative of Australian art history. As Penelope Edmonds argues, colonial frontiers did not exist only in the bush, backwoods or borderlines. Rather, as the site for the emergence of colonial modernity, it was the “urban frontier” in which the realities of colonial authority were most conspicuous.[vi] Despite imperial confidence in the spatial order of the city and its power to produce and discipline subjects, colonial cities were mixed, uneasy, and transformative spaces, shaped by settler-Indigenous relationships. Torn between imperial ambition and colonial anxiety, they were the primary “contact zone” (to use Mary Louise Pratt’s term) in which issues of race, gender and miscegenation were played out. Edmonds notes that colonial cities were charged sites of mutual transformation in which the colonial narrative and identity was confounded and subverted. “Just as Indigenous people were colonized, so too were the newcomers and new spaces indigenized, albeit in highly uneven ways and within asymmetrical relations to power.”[vii]

It was in these urban encounters that the ambivalence of colonial relationships was brought into starkest relief, casting the settler subject as both colonizer and colonized. Following Lefebvre’s edict to reveal the ways in which spaces obscure the conditions of their own production, Edmond’s argues that settler cities have become naturalized and inevitable, concealing the constitutive relationships of Indigenous dispossession and displacement that adhere in their current incarnations.[viii] In examining Gill’s images of the ‘urban frontier,’ I would like to suggest that it was precisely this transactional, transformative nature of colonial cities that made them such heightened sites of colonial anxiety, leading most Australian artists to ignore the city in favor of the idealized bush. By exploring the slippages in Gill’s urban scenes, this paper aims to reveal the motivations and inherent repressions that underlie the development of the colonial imagination, and reveal the ideological foundations of Australian colonial identity.

Gill

It was late in the afternoon of Wednesday 27 October 1880. Rounding the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth Streets, the artist S.T. Gill collapsed onto the steps of the Melbourne Post Office. In full public view, the once famed ‘artist of the goldfields’ died in quiet anonymity from a ruptured aorta: his heart finally broken from years of heavy drinking. As ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ entered its decade of greatest prosperity, one of its most important chroniclers was buried in a pauper’s grave, his passing marked only by an indifferent note in the Sydney Bulletin, commemorating “an artist formerly well known in the South.”[ix] A century later, in his monograph S.T. Gill’s Australia, Geoffrey Dutton lamented, “Even now, Gill is an under-rated artist.”[x] By 1981, however, this seemed a somewhat outdated threnody. As early as 1911, A.W. Greig had begun Gill’s critical resurrection with a lengthy piece in the Melbourne Argus asking, “Are there any Victorian’s alive to-day who, for the sake of his art and the sake of the days that are gone, would rescue the last resting place of poor “S.T.G” from the oblivion to which it has fallen?”[xi] Within a year, the Historical Society of Victoria had relocated Gill’s remains to a private grave with a handsome headstone bearing the inscription: “Samuel Thomas Gill – The Artist of the Goldifelds.”[xii]

There seemed little doubt that Gill had been welcomed back into the Australian cultural canon: his works were acquired by all the major public institutions in Australia, and his reputation as ‘The Artist of the Goldfields’ was reaffirmed in every major Australian art historical text of the twentieth century.[xiii] By 1971, in the very first monograph on the artist, Keith Bowden marvelled, “High prices are now paid for [Gill’s] pictures and his books have become scarce collector’s items, all steadily appreciating in value and all eagerly sought.”[xiv]

For Dutton, however, it was not simply a matter of prestige or prices, but the seriousness with which Gill’s work was inserted into the narrative of Australian art history. As the title of his monograph suggests, this was connected to a peculiarly nationalist narrative, in which artistic development (like colonial settlement) was an unfolding process of acculturation, that Anne-Marie Willis has described as “coming to terms with the uniqueness of the land, learning to love it, leaving behind their European aesthetic framework an seeing the Australian landscape ‘with Australian eyes.’”[xv] This was not simply an aesthetic development, but a psychic process of identity construction. Thus, according to Dutton, it was Gill’s temperamental sympathy for the “Australian” characteristics of egalitarianism and “rough democracy” that attuned him to the “Australian” experience, allowing him to see the landscape as it really was. “As if by osmosis,’ writes Dutton, ‘Gill was at home from the time he stepped off the boat.”[xvi]

His ardent poetic and sympathetic temperament, spiced with a humour that could detect the hidden balances of character and occasions, enabled him to be wide open to the Australian experience … in a few year, he was already the most Australian of the 19th century artists, speaking the instinctive language of Australia’s rocks and trees, wildflowers and light.[xvii]

If these boosterish claims lack a certain level of sophistication (particularly in their evocation of a singular ‘Australian’ experience), they are hardly unique to Dutton: his is merely one iteration of a common refrain in Australian cultural history, in which the landscape is used to naturalize what Willis terms “illusions of identity.”[xviii] According to Willis, in such narratives the landscape is endowed with an inalienable truth, the problem being that of the observer, “needing to remove the scales from their eyes in order to see the land fully revealed.”[xix]

Nature is posited as culture, when in fact, nature itself is a cultural construction and the history of Australian landscape painting is not one of progressive discovery, the building up of an ever more accurate picture, but a series of changing conceptualizations, in which one cultural construction plays off another in ever more complex webs of invention and in which the picturing of the local intersects with other, including imported, aesthetic and cultural agendas.[xx]

Leaving aside for one moment the constructed nature of this narrative as critiqued by Willis, the question remains: why, despite the best efforts of critics like Dutton, has Gill’s work continued to sit so awkwardly within this nationalist narrative? This inexorable quandary confronted Bernard Smith in his pioneering 1945 history of Australian visual culture, Place, Taste and Tradition. Like Dutton, Smith concluded that “the most Australian of all artists, though himself an Englishman, was Samuel Thomas Gill … In many respects he was more Australian than any of the Heidelberg School.”[xxi] Recognizing that this flew in the face of art historical orthodoxy, Smith defends his position in an extraordinarily prescient passage that anticipates Willis’ argument made half a century later:

It will be said that Gill’s work was only Australian in content, that the form was English. But where a racial or national quality is to be found in a work of art, in our times, and belongs to the Western European tradition, such quality almost invariably resides in the content … A prevalent form of aesthetic snobbery has seen fit to use certain qualities of the Australian landscape – the nature of the trees, skies and fields – as Australian symbols. The reason for this is to be found, perhaps, in the Impressionists’ preoccupation with landscape painting, and on the other the squatter’s idolization of his property. There is no such thing as an Australian art-form. Lines and colours have no nationality … Gill used a style typical to the English graphic artists of the early nineteenth century to portray Australian genre subjects; Streeton used the formal qualities popular among the academic Impressionists of the late nineteenth century to portray Australian landscape subjects. Both expressed local subjects with techniques developed abroad, and in doing so both assisted the movement towards a national style, since content always tends to create a pattern suited to its own expression.[xxii]

In Place, Taste and Tradition, Smith offers the first social history of Australian art. In drawing attention to the Heidelberg Impressionist’s use of the landscape as national symbol, he pre-empts the critiques of scholars like Willis and Richard White, who argue that by linking national character to landscape, the Heidelberg artists naturalized Impressionism as a style. “It was a myth invented by the Heidelberg school,’ argues White, ‘that theirs’ was the ‘first truly Australian vision’ – their commitment to naturalism required that all previous versions were contrived.”[xxiii]

By 1961, when Smith set himself to writing the history of Australian painting, his commitment to Gill as an artist of distinctly “Australian character” posed a number of difficulties. Not least of these was reconciling Gill’s work within the dominant trope of melancholy that, following Marcus Clarke, Smith argues defines the Australian landscape tradition. Thus, on the one hand, Smith asserts that Gill’s paintings “form a most valuable commentary upon the life of the time, a commentary which is expressed with great gusto and great humour,” making Gill the first artist to “express the sardonic humour, the nonchalance and the irreverent attitudes to all form of authority, so frequently remarked upon by the students of Australian behaviour.”[xxiv] On the other hand, Smith is quick to remark that this humour is always tempered by the “melancholy of the Australian scene … the dead and fallen timber, the stunted grass-trees … the presentations of the dramatic in a primeval setting.”[xxv]

The dominance of the landscape narrative in Australian art history is tellingly revealed in the subordination of the scene to the setting that occurs in Smith’s account. Equally revealing is his invocation of the primeval quality of the landscape; by 1980 Smith had begun to recognize melancholy as a vital trope occluding the guilt of terra nullius.[xxvi] It was Smith’s student, Ian McLean who would take this idea to its logical limits, framing melancholy not as an ailment, but as a linguistic meta-trope underpinning the thought and imagination of the entire colonial epoch.[xxvii] For McLean, this melancholy created a dialectic narrative of redemption and failure, allowing for the creation of history from loss. If melancholy serves to dehistoricize the landscape, it also finds in it an original landscape that substitutes for the migrant’s actual sense of loss. “A melancholy landscape,’ he argues, ‘is an historical landscape, haunted with memories.”[xxviii]

In pointing to this melancholy, both Smith and McLean draw attention to the challenge that the proximity of the Other on the frontier posed to the structured order of European selfhood. Frederick Jackson Turner would unwittingly point to these antinomies in his influential 1893 treatise, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” For, if Turner’s “frontier thesis” is best know for the proposition that it was the endless space beyond the frontier that forged the aspirational nature of the American character, he also recognized the frontier as the site of encounter: “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.”[xxix] It was through the hardships and adversity of this encounter that Turner believed a truly unique identity would emerge: “the outcome is not the old Europe [but] a new product that is American.”[xxx]

Turner’s evolutionary approach to American history stood in stark contrast to those who saw the frontier as merely a site where culture was replicated over an ever-expanding territorial domain.[xxxi] Half a century earlier, Alexis de Tocqueville contended that the cities of the New World were constructed from the “invisible luggage” of their migrant settlers. The men who travelled to the American wilderness, he argued, brought with them “the customs, the ideas, the needs of civilization” and implanted them in the wilderness.[xxxii] Despite their differences, however, in framing the frontier as a dividing line between civilization and wilderness, both Turner and de Tocqueville cast the frontier as a psychic line demarcating the limits of European identity. As Paul Carter concludes, this required a particularly western logic of property value, in which territorial units were treated as isolated legal and economic units.[xxxiii] Not only did this set the preconditions for the atavistic principles of origin and territory upon which western identity was based, but the endless deferral of the expanding frontier also enabled the developmental drive of capitalist modernity.

While the frontier provided the site for exposure to the Other, thus extending identity, this demarcation allowed a beyond in which the Other could be cast as contrary, maintaining the illusion of a stable identity.[xxxiv] The way of achieving this beyond was temporal.[xxxv] Rod Macneil has argued that understanding the landscape as temporal Other was fundamental to its recreation as a space available for colonization. Cast in primeval terms as the dialectic counter to civilization and modernity, the wilderness was forced to play a psychic role as the baseline against which colonial history could be written in order to stem the tide of ahistoricity. Couched in the terms of progress and redemption, the consequent conversion of the landscape from uncivilized place to colonized space signalled its transformation from the past into the present.[xxxvi] Likewise, by their connection with the pre-colonial landscape, the New World’s Indigenous inhabitants were cast into a temporal condition confined to the prehistoric past. Macneil concludes, “Aboriginality remained defined in terms of colonization’s temporal frontier, as a signifier of the past upon which the colonial nation was built.”[xxxvii] By the late nineteenth century, as artists like those of the Heidelberg school attempted to build a distinct national visuality, Aborigines disappeared almost entirely from Australian art, leaving a melancholy landscape haunted by what Bernard Smith evocatively termed “the spectre of Truganini.”[xxxviii]

And yet, the image of the frontier depicted by Gill in The Newly Arrived and The Colonized is strangely incongruous with this melancholy and empty landscape. Even McLean is forced to note this, offering a curt and unsympathetic dismissal:

If the frontier aesthetic had to first empty the landscape in order to silence it, it also needed to be filled with the figures of the new owners claiming their possession. In this respect, colonial artist S.T. Gill might appear the real precursor of the Impressionist project, as with his The Colonized. However, his satire is in the melancholy vein typical of his time. Gill gives Australia the comic people that he feels it deserves.[xxxix]

While McLean’s explanation seems a considerable development from Bernard Smith’s setting of Gill’s caricature within “melancholy of the Australian scene,” both work on a similar logic, reconciling Gill’s work within what they see as the dominant colonial landscape trope. And yet, it seems to me, that while Gill’s images contain a deep-seated anxiety, this anxiety is markedly different in character to the melancholy of the later Australian Impressionists, or even that of his closer contemporaries such as Eugene von Guérard or Nicholas Chevalier. While Gill moved in the same social circles as von Guérard and Chevalier, he belonged to a markedly different status of artist. The son of a Baptist minister, Gill did not have the benefit of academic training, but rather, was apprenticed as a draughtsman by the Hubard Profile Gallery in London, where he was employed to produce profile silhouettes. After arriving in Adelaide in 1839, he established a studio to produce low cost depictions of humans, animals and houses on “paper suited for home conveyance”[xl] This put him in very different social category of artist from that of von Guérard and Chevalier, who were both academically trained artists who travelled to Australia in search of the exotic and sublime landscape. Unlike the imposing canvases by these artists, Gill’s works were low-cost souvenirs. Tellingly, in 1864 Chevalier’s The Buffalo Ranges 1864 became the first Australian painting acquired by the recently established National Gallery of Victoria; it would be another 90 years before the hallowed institution would acquire a work of ST Gill.[xli]

Nicholas Chevalier, The Buffalo Ranges 1864. Oil on canvas, 132 x 183 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Nicholas Chevalier, The Buffalo Ranges 1864. Oil on canvas, 132 x 183 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Moreover, despite the efforts of scholars like Geoffrey Dutton and Bernard Smith to reconcile Gill with the landscape tradition that dominates the Australian art historical narrative, Gill’s paintings do not seem particularly interested in the landscape. Gill is a genre painter, and his best works are animated scenes filled with energetic figures. While Smith makes much of the “melancholy” landscape in which these scenes are set, this reading requires a decidedly selective vision. More often than not, the landscape in Gill’s works is little more than a hastily rendered background. Even his most melancholy “outback” scenes, such as those that Gill produced while acting as draughtsman to John Horrock’s ill-fated 1846 expedition, are less concerned with the landscape than the dramatic scene occurring within it (see for instance, Invalid’s tent, salt lake 75 miles north-west of Mount Arden 1846 in the Art Gallery of South Australia). Gill’s great skill was figures, and when he paints an empty landscape, such as Flinders Range, north of Mount Brown c.1846 (Art Gallery of South Australia), the overall effect is far too dull and generic to privilege any particular emotion, melancholic or otherwise. If, as Willis argues, in the art of the Heidelberg school “nature is posited as culture,” it is perhaps unsurprising that Gill’s awkward commercial landscapes were not embraced into the national canon.

ST. Gill. Flinders Range, north of Mount Brown, c.1846. Watercolour on paper, 34.0 x 46.2 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

ST. Gill. Flinders Range, north of Mount Brown, c.1846. Watercolour on paper, 34.0 x 46.2 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

More significantly, this comparison is illustrative of the connection between modern aesthetics, nationalism and the idealised bush. As Tony Bennett notes, the discourse of aesthetics, which crystallized around this time (centred on emergent institutions like the National Gallery of Victoria, which was founded in Melbourne in 1861) played a significant role in developing new forms of self-governance. This discourse was an “active component in the eighteenth-century culture of taste and played a major role in the subsequent development of the art museum, providing the discursive ground on which it was to discharge its obligations as a reformatory of public morals and manners.”[xlii] By positing nature as culture, while offering their particular vision as the first truly accurate depiction of the Australian landscape, the Heidelberg school perfectly wed modernist aesthetics to this reformatory apparatus.

Tom Roberts, Bailed Up 1895. Oil on canvas, 134.5 x 182.8 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

Tom Roberts, Bailed Up 1895. Oil on canvas, 134.5 x 182.8 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

Following Marshall Berman, Dipesh Charkrabarty has characterized “modernism” as “designating the aesthetic means by which an urban literate class subject to the invasive forces of modernization seeks to create, however falteringly, a sense of being at home in the modern city.”[xliii] In this context, the retreat from the city by the urbane and educated artists of the Heidelberg school might be seen, as Terry Smith argues, as “ahistorical attempts at ‘universal’ resolutions of conjectures of problems which are threatening the present.”[xliv] Discussing the academic Impressionism of Tom Robert’s Bailed Up 1895 (Art Gallery of New South Wales), Smith concludes:

Roberts’s painstaking realism serves to give to the spectator a sense of being present, at a moment in the past, it gives ‘eyewitness news value’ to history. And it does so [with] the same detachment from the forces of contemporary reality … Conflict between rich and poor, between the rule of law and the rules of the lawless, between the safe system of those who have and the aggressively independent self-seeking of the have-not bushrangers – all this is absent from the painting.[xlv]

ST. Gill, The King of Terrors and his Satallites [sic], c.1880. Watercolour, 31.7 x 22.2 cm. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

ST. Gill, The King of Terrors and his Satallites [sic], c.1880. Watercolour, 31.7 x 22.2 cm. State Library of New South Wales, Sydney.

The bush idealism of Heidelberg was precisely a retreat from the anxiety inducing realities of Melbourne’s urbanized reality. But Gill’s works did not retreat from this reality; indeed, one of his final paintings The King of Terrors and His Satallites [sic] c.1880 (State Library of New South Wales) directly tackles the subject of urban iniquity in a grim portent of the artist’s own imminent demise. But if the image of Gill as a drunkard and an outcast, serves to cast him as the emblematic figure of modern experience, the flâneur, it must be noted that Gill’s experience of modernity was radically different to that of the Heidelberg artists. When Gill arrived in Adelaide in 1839, he landed in a colony less than three years old. Although blessed with an influx of immigrants, South Australia was almost broke, having embarked on an ambitious program of public works. In this tiny and impoverished colony, it was exceedingly difficult to make a living as an artist, and in 1851 Gill appeared in the Adelaide Supreme Court and declared that he was insolvent.[xlvi] Gill’s insolvency coincided with the discovery of gold in north-eastern Victoria. The following year, Gill followed the rush of men to the goldfields seeking his fortune on the diggings.

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ST Gill, A City of Melbourne Solicitor 1866, lithograph, 34 x 26.6 cm, University of Melbourne Art Collection.

When Gill arrived in Melbourne in 1852, the Victorian gold rush had just begun transforming the city from a small, provincial town into one of the world’s richest metropolises. Although he found little success as a miner, Gill made a roaring trade selling images of the goldfields to the influx of men and women who flocked to north-eastern Victoria from across Australia and the world. In his four years in Melbourne, Gill documented life of the goldfields with an unmatched vigour and animation. In 1856, he left Melbourne in order to try and extend his artistic success into New South Wales; when he returned in 1864 he found a city transformed. In the decade since his arrival in Melbourne, the population had risen from 23,000 in 1852 to over 140,000 in 1861. Over 20 million ounces of gold had been mined from the Victorian goldfields, allowing for the construction of grand new buildings, roads, modern plumbing and gas lighting, ushering in the era of “Marvellous Melbourne.”[xlvii]

Suffering from financial difficulties, alcoholism, and venereal disease, Gill was perhaps indisposed to celebrate the city’s new-found prosperity. The images that he produced in his final decades in Melbourne present an unremittingly bleak view of the modern city, lacking the levity of humour of his images of the goldfields; a vision of modernity characterised by public drunkenness, racial degradation, alienation and poverty. This might well have reflected Gill’s internal state, but it should also be seen as an indication of the radical acceleration of modernity that occurred in Melbourne in the 1850s and 60s. As Bennett notes in regards to the slowly unfolding influence of evolution and historicism in Australia, modernity arrived in gradual waves: a “slow modernity” rather than a rupture.[xlviii] Unlike the Heidelberg artists, who were mostly born in the decade after 1865, Gill witnessed firsthand the maturation of modernity in Australian cities; the fully-fledged modernity that characterized the grand metropolis of Melbourne in the 1880s should not, therefore, be assumed to be a naturalized part of Gill’s understanding of the world.

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ST Gill, On the Board of Works 1866, lithograph, 34 x 26.6 cm, University of Melbourne Art Collection.

A simple analogy might be seen in his preferred choice of medium: the watercolour ‘sketch.’ In 1845, Gill had acquired a daguerreotype, the first camera in the colony of South Australia. The purchase was greeted with great enthusiasm in Adelaide, with the South Australian Register noting:

It appears to take likenesses as if by magic. The sitter is reflected in a piece of looking glass, and suddenly, without aid of brush or pencil, his reflection is “stamped” and “crystalised.” That there should be an error is absolutely impossible. It is the man himself. The portrait is, in fact, a preserved looking glass.[xlix]

Gill’s career as a photographer was, however, short lived, and soon after acquiring his daguerreotype machine, he sold it to the publican Robert Hall.[l] The most likely reason for this was financial; it was not until the late 1890s that new printing processes made photographic reproduction an affordable medium of dissemination.[li] On a psychic level, however, Paul Carter notes that the realism of photography – as marveled by the reporter from the South Australian Register – created an “ambiguity of the present tense” that undermined the colonizer’s ontological claims of spatial speculation, as it presented a history of objects (“the man himself”) rather than their conjuration by discovery. This could only be resolved by returning to the picturesque view of the tourist: “The strangest place in this looking glass world is where we stand looking into it but fail to see ourselves reflected there, glimpsing instead the strangeness of our origins.”[lii]

In abandoning the photographic for the painterly, Gill might be seen to be playing precisely into this colonial trope, preempting the Heidelberg artist’s claim to capture the essential truth of the landscape. Indeed, this is not far from Dutton’s interpretation, that in the watercolor sketch, Gill found the medium best suited to his desire to capture the liveliness and spontaneity of colonial life.[liii] And yet, Gill did not abandon photography (the most modern and mimetic mode available) in order to adopt the picturesque stylings of Chevalier of von Guérard; he abandoned photography in favor of the debased popular medium of caricature.

ST Gill, The Provident Diggers 1869. Watercolor, 26.8 x 19.5 cm, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

ST Gill, The Provident Diggers 1869. Watercolor, 26.8 x 19.5 cm, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

While Gill’s first volume of published sketches purport to represent his subjects precisely “as they are,”[liv] the image’s mode as satire offers a markedly different version of presentness to the “eyewitness news value” of the Heidelberg artists. This is most strikingly evident in Gill’s use of paired images, such as The Newly Arrived and The Colonized, or the pair of lithographs The Provident Diggers in Melbourne and The Improvident Diggers in Melbourne which appeared in Gill’s 1852 publication The Victorian Gold Diggings and Diggers as They Are. The folly of reading these images as documentary is illustrated by Graeme Davison, who completely fails to recognize the irony of Gill’s depiction of the diggers, reading them as straightforward morality pieces:

Conservative colonists feared … that the social dislocation of the gold rush might culminate in anarchy and revolution. The arrival of thousands of avaricious young men, adrift from the restraining influence of home and kin, exposed to the hazards and temptations of frontier life and susceptible to the appeals of radicals and revolutionaries, inspired dread among the governing classes. S.T. Gill gave vivid expression to these fears in his contrasting portraits of the ‘improvident digger’, bent upon riot and debauchery, and the ‘provident digger’ contemplating self-advancement and domesticity.[lv]

While Gill’s “improvident diggers” are shown drunkenly staggering past a jewelry store, the “provident” pair soberly concentrate on plans for available freehold land displayed in a realtor’s window. And yet, like many of Gill’s images, the message of this counterpoint is far from straightforward. As most contemporary Australian viewers would have been aware, inflation and land shortages had created a situation in which private real-estate contractors could easily prey upon unwitting diggers, charging highly inflated prices for low quality holdings. In such a situation, gold was a much sounder investment. In this situation, it was the “provident” digger was the one most likely to be swindled.

ST Gill, The Improvident Diggers 1869. Watercolor, 26.8 x 19.5 cm, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

ST Gill, The Improvident Diggers 1869. Watercolor, 26.8 x 19.5 cm, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne.

To read Gill’s images as morality tales, as Davison does, is to quite literally miss the joke. As Geoffrey Dutton rightly asserts, “S.T. Gill was a humourist rather than a moralist.”[lvi] However, as Rex Butler and Ian McLean note”

A joke gets its laughs by momentarily revealing the absurdity of a conventional truth, as in the medieval carnival that turns the world upside down. The secret is not to resolve the antinomy but hold it in suspense; what Žižek calls a parallax view. Thus the successful mimic is always funny because they are two at once.[lvii]

This is particularly significant, considering the dual nature of Gill’s audience; The Victorian Gold Diggings and Diggers as They Are was editioned in both Australia and Britain, and was therefore required to appeal to both colonial and imperial tastes.[lviii] And yet, as Žižek notes, the joke also serves to transform an inherent limitation (that which cannot be spoken, the position that cannot be assumed, the void of what cannot be seen from the first perspective, the space between The Newly Arrived and The Colonized) into something that is only a contingent difficulty that will one day be overcome. Nowhere is this ambiguity more evident than in one of Gill’s most difficult and troubling works: Native Dignity 1866.

Samuel Thomas (ST) Gill, Native dignity 1866, lithograph, The University of Melbourne Art Collection, Gift of the Sir Russell and Mab Grimwade ‘Miegunyah’ Bequest, 1973, 1973.0648

Samuel Thomas (ST) Gill, Native dignity 1866, lithograph, The University of Melbourne Art Collection, Gift of the Sir Russell and Mab Grimwade ‘Miegunyah’ Bequest, 1973, 1973.0648

By the mid-1860s, orthogenetic theories of social evolution were slowly beginning to emerge in Australia.[lix] Aboriginal culture was seen as an earlier stage in the teleological progress of human civilization and likened to an archaeological remnant of primeval man. Once contact was made with the more ‘advanced’ cultures, it was assumed inevitable that this ‘primitive’ culture would disappear. Not only did this lead to a sense of urgency on the part of early anthropologists to record and collect ethnographic data for the information it could shed on the development of humanity, but it inspired artists like Gill to create detailed visual records of Indigenous dress, material objects and cultural practices. He documented these observations in his most lavish publication, The Australian Sketchbook 1865.[lx]

In contrast to the detailed attention paid to traditional Indigenous dress and custom in The Australian Sketchbook, Native Dignity offers a striking counterpoint. An Aboriginal man is shown in a battered top hat, cutaway jacket and shirt, but no trousers. With his cane under his arm he swaggers down the street, alongside a smiling female companion swishing a tattered crinoline and a dinky parasol. It is likely that Gill, like many of his contemporaries saw Indigenous Australians as a dying race, but Native Dignity might also be seen as a critical commentary on the adverse impact of the encroachment of modernity upon both Indigenous and non-indigenous subjects in the colonial city. In making this claim, it is worth revisiting Edmonds assertion that the colonial city was a charged site in which “issues of civilization and savagery; race, gender and miscegenation were played out.”[lxi]

By the 1860s, images of Indigenous Australians in the urban setting were increasingly rare, not because Indigenous Australians were not present in Australian cities, but because their presence was a source of great anxiety amongst non-indigenous Australians. As Patrick Wolfe argues, rather than a fixed site, the frontier was always shifting, contextual and negotiated: always placing the Aboriginal somewhere else.[lxii] Lynette Russell continues, “the spatial coexistence of invaders and indigenes was anomalous making settler colonialism an assertion about the nation’s structure rather than a statement about its origins.”[lxiii] Beyond a simple racist stereotype, by picturing Indigenous people in the present, in such an ambiguous image of the urban frontier, Native Dignity plays upon the full range of urban anxieties of the non-indigenous colonial subject.

Confronted with the realities of the urban frontier, the settler subject is forcibly cast into the role of both colonizer and colonized in a dialectic of domination in which the self and the Other become mutually dependent. Although imbued with all the prejudices of its time, the very act of picturing this violence is, in some small and unintentional way, a form of resistance to the imperialism of silence. As Lynette Russell concludes, “when frontiers and boundaries are examined closely they seem to melt away. Instead of a line or a space or even a contact zone, we find only a concept, a notion that lacks temporal and geographic specificity.”[lxiv] Rather than defining the Australian experience, in Native Dignity, the melancholy nationalist landscape tradition fades into the dust between barefoot dancing feet.


[i] Lynette Russell, ed. Colonial Frontiers: Indigenous-European Encounters in Settler Societies (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 4.

[ii] Ian McLean, “Under Saturn: Melancholy and the Colonial Imagination,” in Double Vision: Art Histories and Colonial Histories in the Pacific, ed. Nicholas Thomas and Diane Losche (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 152-58.

[iii] Paul Carter, The Road to Botany Bay (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 154-55.

[iv] Rex Butler, ed. Radical Revisionism: An Anthology of Writings on Australian Art (Brisbane: Institute of Modern Art, 2005), 9.

[v] Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” October 28(1984): 126-7.

[vi] Penelope Edmonds, Urbanizing Frontiers: Indigenous Peoples and Settlers in 19th-Century Pacific Rim Cities (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010), 5-6.

[vii] Ibid., 9.

[viii] Ibid., 10.

[ix] Keith Macrae Bowden, Samuel Thomas Gill: Artist (Maryborough: The Author, 1971), 103-12; Geoffrey Dutton, S.T. Gill’s Australia (South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1981), 47-50.

[x] Ibid., 7.

[xi] A.W. Greig, “An Australian Cruikshank,” The Argus, Saturday 14 September 1912, 7. Reprinted in The Register, Wednesday 18 September 1912, 11.

[xii] Bowden, Samuel Thomas Gill: Artist, 109.

[xiii] See for instance, William Moore, The Story of Australian Art (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1934), 59-60. Bernard Smith, Place, Taste and Tradition (Sydney: Ure Smith, 1945), 67-70; Bernard Smith, Terry Smith, and Christopher Heathcote, Australian Painting 1788-2000 (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001), 49-53. Gill was also routinely featured in Australian newspapers and art magazines, for instance, E. McCaughan, “Samuel Thomas Gill,” The Australasian, 15 November 1930. Basil Burdett, “Samuel Thomas Gill: An Artist of the ‘Fifties,” Art in Australia 3, no. 49 (1933); W.H. Langham, “Samuel Thomas Gill (1818-1880): Landscape Painter,” Bulletin of the National Gallery of South Australia 2, no. 1 (1940); J.K Moir, “S.T. Gill, the Artist of the Goldfields,” The Argus, 9 December 1944 1944.

[xiv] Bowden, Samuel Thomas Gill: Artist, xi.

[xv] Anne-Marie Willis, Illusions of Identity: The Art of Nation (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1993), 62.

[xvi] Dutton, S.T. Gill’s Australia, 7.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Willis, Illusions of Identity: The Art of Nation.

[xix] Ibid., 62-64.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Smith, Place, Taste and Tradition, 67.

[xxii] Ibid., 67-70.

[xxiii] Richard White, Inventing Australia (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1981), 106.

[xxiv] Smith, Smith, and Heathcote, Australian Painting 1788-2000, 50.

[xxv] Ibid., 50-51.

[xxvi] Bernard Smith, The Spectre of Truganini: The 1980 Boyer Lectures (Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1980).

[xxvii] McLean, “Under Saturn: Melancholy and the Colonial Imagination,” 131-42.

[xxviii] Ibid., 136-7.

[xxix] Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in The Froniter in American History, ed. Frederick Jackson Turner (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1921), 3.

[xxx] Ibid., 4.

[xxxi] Carter, The Road to Botany Bay, 158.

[xxxii] David Hamer, New Towns in the New World (New York: Columbia University, 1990), 65.

[xxxiii] Carter, The Road to Botany Bay, 136.

[xxxiv] The maintenance and hegemony of this identity position is taken up by a number of scholars, for example Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 14-15; Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 16-17.

[xxxv] As Johannes Fabian observes, “there is no knowledge of the Other which is not also a temporal, historical and political act.” Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983; repr., 2002). Similar positions are articulated in Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference; Tony Bennett, Pasts Beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism (New York: Routledge, 2004).

[xxxvi] Rod Macneil, “Time after Time: Temporal Frontiers and Boundaries in Colonial Images of the Australian Landscape,” in Colonial Frontiers: Indigenous-European Encounters in Settler Societies, ed. Lynette Russell (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 48-49.

[xxxvii] Rod Macneil, “Time after Time: Temporal Frontiers and Boundaries in Colonial Images of the Australian Landscape,” in Colonial Frontiers: Indigenous-European Encounters in Settler Societies, ed. Lynette Russell (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), 49.

[xxxviii] Truganini (c.1812-1876) was an Aboriginal woman from the island of Tasmania. By the time of her death, she was widely considered the “last full-blooded Aboriginal Tasmanian.” Smith, The Spectre of Truganini: The 1980 Boyer Lectures.

[xxxix] Ian McLean, “Picturing Australia: The Impressionist Swindle,” in Becoming Australians: The Movement Towards Federation in Ballarat and the Nation, ed. Kevin T. Livingston, Richard Jordan, and Gay Sweely (Kent Town, South Australia: Wakefield Press, 2001), 59.

[xl] E.J.R. Morgan, “Gill, Samuel Thomas (1818-1880),” in Australian Dictionary of Biography (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1966); Patricia Wilkie, “For Friends at Home: Some Early Views of Melbourne,” La Trobe Journal 46(1991).

[xli] In 1954, the National Gallery of Victoria purchased their first work by Gill, The Avengers c.1869.

[xlii] Bennett, Pasts Beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism, 3.

[xliii] Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, 155-56. See also, Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air (New York: Penguin, 1988), Ch. 1.

[xliv] Terry Smith, Transformations in Australian Art: The Nineteenth Century: Landscape, Colony and Nation (Sydney: Craftsman House, 2002), 93.

[xlv] Terry Smith, Transformations in Australian Art: The Nineteenth Century: Landscape, Colony and Nation (Sydney: Craftsman House, 2002), 99. In noting this disconnect from the urbanized reality, Smith notes, “In this sense it is a retrospective creation, celebrating a phase which was passing. And, in this same sense, it is city-based: it imposes the over confident optimism of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ onto a declining rural industry … There is no suggestion here that Roberts is deliberately misrepresenting the situations he is painting: all of them, with the exception of the bushranging subjects, could be witnessed in places throughout Australia. Rather, interest lies in the fact that, unlike much of the popular illustration and public rhetoric of the time, he elects not to show the most progressive aspect of the situation.” 84-85.

[xlvi] Dutton, S.T. Gill’s Australia, 27.

[xlvii] Graeme Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne (Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 2004).

[xlviii] Bennett, Pasts Beyond Memory: Evolution, Museums, Colonialism.

[xlix] South Australian Register, Saturday November 8, 1845, 2.

[l] Dutton, S.T. Gill’s Australia, 18.

[li] Wilkie, “For Friends at Home: Some Early Views of Melbourne,” 64.

[lii] Paul Carter, Living in a New County: History, Travelling and Language (London: Faber, 1992), 36-45.

[liii] Dutton, S.T. Gill’s Australia, 18-19.

[liv] Samuel Thomas Gill, The Victoria Gold Diggings and Diggers as They Are (Melbourne: Macartney & Galbraith, 1852).

[lv] Graeme Davison, “Gold-Rush Melbourne,” in Gold: Forgotten Histories and Lost Objects of Australia, ed. Iain McCalman and Alexander Cook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 63.

[lvi] Dutton, S.T. Gill’s Australia, 28.

[lvii] Rex Butler and Ian McLean, “Let Uz Not Talk Falsely Now,” in Richard Bell: Lessons on Etiquette and Manners, ed. Max Delany and Francis E. Parker (Caufield East, Victoria: Monash University Museum of Art, 2013), 39.

[lviii] As I have argued elsewhere, in Britain, the display of colonial iniquity was a subject of considerable interest, playing up to both Imperial fantasies of domination and colonial anxiety. Henry Skerritt, “William Strutt: Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia, 1852,” in Visions Past and Present: Celebrating 40 Years, ed. Christopher Menz (Parkville, Victoria: Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, 2012).

[lix] Phillip Jones, “Words to Objects: Origins of Ethnography in Colonial South Australia,” Records of the South Australian Museum 33, no. 1 (2000).

[lx] Samuel Thomas Gill, The Australian Sketchbook (Melbourne: Hamel & Ferguson, 1865).

[lxi] Edmonds, Urbanizing Frontiers: Indigenous Peoples and Settlers in 19th-Century Pacific Rim Cities 12.

[lxii] Patrick Wolfe, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology (London: Cassell, 1999), 173.

[lxiii] Russell, Colonial Frontiers: Indigenous-European Encounters in Settler Societies, 2.

[lxiv] Ibid., 11-13.

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Sidney Nolan and the Relativity of Otherness

Inland Australia 1950 by Sir Sidney Nolan 1917-1992

Sidney Nolan, Inland Australia, 1950, Tate Modern collection.

Yikes. It is 1030pm on my 34th birthday and I haven’t even started today’s blog. I knew the daily blog was going to be a tall order, but some days really push you!

In May this year I had the great pleasure of spending a week in London. It was the first time I had been to the UK since visiting with my parents in 1989. Needless to say, I spent my time dashing between galleries and museums, taking in the embarrassment of masterpieces on display. At one point, in the Tate Modern, I rounded a corner and came face to face with a very familiar sight: a Sidney Nolan desert painting from 1950. I haven’t been in Australia for about 18 months, so seeing Nolan’s painting was a bit uncanny; its familiar colors and textures belonged somewhere else entirely. Whether out of familiarity or surprise, it caught my attention; to the extent that I can no longer remember any of the other works in the room. Nevertheless, I approached it with some trepidation, cautious that its allure was nothing more that sentimental parochialism.

Alongside the work was a brief quote from Nolan, describing his motivation for painting these composite desert scenes:

I wanted to know the true nature of the “otherness” I had been born into. It was not a European thing. I wanted to paint the great purity and implacability of the landscape. I wanted a visual form of the “otherness” of the thing not seen.

Nolan’s statement is quite extraordinary, in that it reveals both his desire to escape the “provincialism problem” (so eloquently described two decades later by Terry Smith), while finding himself essentially trapped by his own strategies: his self-othering against the “alien” desert landscape. I cannot help contrasting this to Edouard Glissant’s assertion that the colonized is always the first to recognize the contemporary state that he terms “Relation,” because they are the first to recognise the other within, having been forcefully cast into the role by the encompassing colonial power. As always, Glissant’s description is delightfully rich:

We “know” that the Other is within us and affects how we evolve as well as the bulk of our conceptions and the development of our sensibility … In spite of ourselves, a sort of “consciousness of consciousness” opens us up and turns each of us into a disconcerted actor in the Poetics of Relation.

In the Cave 1957 by Sir Sidney Nolan 1917-1992

Sidney Nolan, In the Cave, 1957, Tate Modern collection.

It is easy to forget that colonization  works in degrees: and as Nolan’s case suggests, the Australian settler subject could occupy both the position of colonizer and colonized. But there is still something worth thinking through about an artist standing at the precipice of this consciousness of Relation. Several scholars have spoken to me about the profound influence of Indigenous art on Nolan, although relatively little has been published on this matter. (Likewise, the incorporation of Aboriginal shield designs in Albert Tucker’s work also demands some critical attention). On the one hand, this is clearly in line with the modernist tendency to use Indigenous art as a trove of primitivist motifs to be raided at will (something clearly evident in Nolan’s In the Cave 1957, also at the Tate). But I think Nolan’s statement hints at a more profound realisation. Nolan’s problem, as summed up in this statement, is that he is looking to replicate the other within through a generalised otherness without… something that can be reproduced as profoundly alien: the outlaw, the desert, the Aborigine and so on. This is why these paintings are ultimately provincial: they pander to the desire of the center for a provincial other than is recognizable, but different. The lesson of Relation is not to try and cast this otherness in understandable terms, but rather, to recognize that it is one part of the infinite diversity of the world. It would take several decades before the true artists of the desert would jolt the Australian art world into consciousness of this.

lg-Tucker-Bushranger-with-shield-1956

Albert Tucker, Untitled (Bushranger with Sheild), c.1956, private collection.

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Aboriginal Art and the Archive

This blog is a new project, intended as a space where unformed thoughts might find their first articulation. Over the 2014 Fall semester I am going to attempt to record a daily thought: just something small that is interesting or troubling me. I welcome your feedback, and hopefully some of these posts can spark further thoughts, debate or critical exchange.

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Brook Andrew, 52 Portrait, 2013, installation view Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne.

Museums are my guilty pleasure. When we go on holiday, I am sure I drive my wife crazy wanting to spend all-day-every-day in museums. I say they are a guilty pleasure, because I completely recognise that museums embody all of the problematic features of western modernity. Critically mining the museum/archive is a pretty popular strategy among a current crop of young, urban based Indigenous artists in Australia (Brook Andrew, Christian Thompson, Danie Mellor et al). This is ostensibly the topic of Emily Cloney’s article in the recent edition of Artlink.

christian_at_prm

Christian Thompson working in the archives at the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University.

All three are highly sophisticated artists, and I have a great respect for their work. But in the past few months, I have been giving a lot of thought to whether the space of the archive really offers the transgressive potential that these artists are looking for. My thinking here is obviously filtered through Foucault and Bennett – so you must excuse the monolithic epistemic power I attribute to the museum. But I wonder if a different way to think of it might be through Hal Foster’s essay on the contemporary arist-as-archivist. Consider Foster’s assertion:

Certainly the figure of the artist-as-archivist follows that of the artist- as-curator, and some archival artists continue to play on the category of the collection. Yet they are not as concerned with critiques of representational totality and institutional integrity: that the museum has been ruined as a coherent system in a public sphere is generally assumed, not triumphally proclaimed or melancholically pondered, and some of these artists suggest other kinds of ordering—within the museum and without. In this respect the orientation of archival art is often more “institutive” than “destructive,” more “legislative” than “transgressive … Sometimes strained in effect, archival art is rarely cynical in intent (another welcome change); on the contrary, these artists often aim to fashion distracted viewers into engaged discussants (here there is nothing passive about the word “archival”)

Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse,” October 110 (Fall, 2004), 4.

Foster is clearly celebrating a different kind of contemporary artist-as-archivist here, but I wonder if we can’t read him against the grain. Being “institutive” than “destructive,” more “legislative” than “transgressive” certainly runs counter to the kinds of critique envisaged by people like Andrew, Thompson or Mellor. To me, it sounds more applicable to the work of Aboriginal painters in Arnhem Land, the Kimberley or the Central Desert, whose works consist of a vast repository of deeply felt experiences, registered in a palimpsest of historical meaning.

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Peter Mungkuri, Ngura (Country), 2012

The type of archive found in remote Aboriginal art differs in one key respect from Foucault’s definition; where Foucault sees the archive as composed of statements existing solely in an exterior space, without dependence on a subjective interior consciousness, the archive of Aboriginal paintings maintains a defiant indexicality to the landscape. All of which makes me wonder, whether in fact, Aboriginal art is always going to be in fundamental tension with the western archive, museum and curatorial endeavor. What kind of archive could possibly be appropriate to mediate the sharing of the archives without absorbing them into an external “law of what can be said?”  I am not sure of the answer to this question, nor do I suspect there is a single answer. Perhaps I will just end where I began, with Foucault:

In this sense, the diagnosis does not establish the fact of our identity by the play of distinctions. It establishes that we are difference, that our reason is the difference of discourses, our history the difference of times, our selves the difference of masks.

Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, A.M. Sheridan Smith, trans. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), Part III, Ch.4.

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Nicholas Chevalier: Buffalo Range from the West [1862]

The following catalogue entry was first published in Christopher Menz (ed.), Visions Past and Present: Celebrating 40 Years, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, 2012, pp.42-43

Nicholas Chevalier: Buffalo Range from the West 1862, oil on milled board, The University of Melbourne Art Collection, Gift of Dr Samuel Arthur Ewing 1938.

It is easy to pinpoint the location of the scene depicted in Nicholas Chevalier’s Buffalo Range from the West [1862]. It is a vista near the town of Nug Nug, approximately 250 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. Nestled between the Buffalo River and the sloping range, it is a beautiful spot, and one can easily imagine the scene, on a still, quiet morning, as the sun slowly rises behind the peaks, bathing the horizon in a luminous haze. It is somewhat harder to ascertain when the artist might have visited Nug Nug in order to experience such an impressive view.

Nicholas Chevalier arrived in Australia in 1854, after studying painting in Lausanne, Munich, London and Rome. In Melbourne, he fell quickly into the company of artists such as Eugene von Guérard, Edward LaTrobe Bateman and S.T. Gill. Alongside von Guérard, Chevalier joined the 1858 expedition to the Dandenong Ranges and Baw Baw Plateau led by Alfred Howitt. Despite the artists’ enthusiasm to find picturesque views, the expedition was delayed when the pair arrived in fashionable, but inappropriate footwear for such a rugged journey. By the 1860s, however, Chevalier was a more seasoned traveller, joining Georg von Neumayer on two explorations in Western Victoria. Unfortunately, neither Howitt nor von Neumayer’s expeditions went anywhere near the Buffalo Ranges, so the source of Chevalier’s inspiration remains unclear. It is even possible that it came from a sketch by another artist, such as von Guérard.

But perhaps this is to miss the point of Chevalier’s Buffalo Ranges from the West.  Amongst critics then as now, Chevalier’s work has tended suffer in comparison to von Guérard’s, being seen as decorative, and lacking in visual tension. But Chevalier’s intentions are markedly different to those of his close companion. Von Guérard sought to capture the picturesque whole of the landscape by close attention to its minute details. In contrast, Chevalier’s paintings are not interested in either natural detail or the picturesque. In Buffalo Ranges the view is deliberately distorted; the vista is greatly foreshortened and is coupled with the delicate play of dawn light in order to present a much more imposing than accurate visage. In 1821, William Hazlitt described the picturesque as a yearning for “ideal deformity, not ideal beauty.” In Buffalo Ranges from the West, Chevalier is not trying to present something particular, but something universally beautiful. Rather than looking for tension or naturalism, we should just enjoy the warm, reflected glow of Chevalier’s vision, and allow it to transport us, not to Nug Nug, but to the arcadia of the cosmopolitan artist’s imagination.   

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William Strutt: Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia, 1852 [1887]

The following catalogue entry was originally published in Christopher Menz (ed.), Visions Past and Present: Celebrating 40 Years, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, 2012, pp.38-39

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William Strutt, Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia 1852 1887, oil on canvas, The University of Melbourne Art Collection, Gift of the Sir Russell and Mab Grimwade ‘Miegunyah’ Bequest, 1973

After an arduous flight from London, the ailing Sir Russell Grimwade was carried off the plane at Melbourne airport. Despite his deteriorating health, he had undertaken the voyage in order to acquire William Strutt’s Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia 1852 [1887]. A systematic and discerning collector of Australiana, the painting would be the jewel in his collection. Within three months, Grimwade had died, making it the definitive culmination of his collecting passions.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887, Bushrangers was based upon accounts of a brazen robbery that occurred near St. Kilda Road in Elwood while Strutt was resident in Victoria. The story had been thoroughly covered in the press, stoked with sensationalist vigour by the Argus. Three decades later, when Strutt came to immortalise the scene, the exploits of the Kelly gang lent it a contemporary currency. At the First Colonial Convention in London in 1887, questions of colonial law and order predominated, and Strutt’s painting spoke directly to the Imperial neuroses that young colonies were being torn between bourgeois respectability and the lure of vice. In Strutt’s tableau, the stricken female figure – an easy stand-in for Queen Victoria – seeks comfort in the arms of her ineffectual consort, while remaining at the tantalising mercy of a handsome rogue. As the rule of God and law are strewn aside, the moral of the story is simple: vigilance was necessary to keep the young colonies on the righteous path.

At the time that Grimwade acquired Strutt’s painting, the figure of the bushranger was making a final, heroic resurgence in the Australian national narrative, via the paintings of Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker. As Grimwade’s final great acquisition, Strutt’s Bushrangers could not have been further from the radical nationalist ideal of swagmen, larrikins and bushrangers that these artist’s embodied. His was a genteel brand of nationalism that celebrated the pioneering efforts of explorers, pastoralists and industrialists, men like his father Frederick Sheppard Grimwade. These were the kind of men pictured on the right of Strutt’s composition, and as sexy as the vagabond figure of the bushranger might be, it was on this side that Sir Russell Grimwade saw himself, and the tide of Australian history.

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Gladdy Kemarre: Anwekety (Bush Plum)

The following essay was first published in the exhibition catalogue Utopia produced by Mossenson Galleries on occasion of the 2010 Melbourne Art Fair. It was later reprinted in both English and Korean in the exhibition catalogue Josie Kunoth Petyarre & Gladdy Kemarre, produced by Mossenson Galleries on occasion of the 2011 Korean International Art Fair.

Gladdy Kemarre, Anwekety (Bush Plum), 2011, acrylic on canvas.

There is a transformative element to the paintings of Gladdy Kemarre. As we stare into their delicate calligraphy of dots, we could be gazing into the night sky, watching the seven sisters be chased across the Milky Way. If we squint, perhaps we can imagine ourselves looking from the window of an aeroplane as it whisks us over the suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney or Perth. Or perhaps is it a more distant, empty landscape that we are viewing from a great height: a landscape that seems to move beneath us as the shifting light of the sun dances across its open plains.

In the paintings of Gladdy Kemarre, the viewer floats into the canvas, just as her delicate skeins of dots shimmer across our horizon. Once immersed, the effect is very literally like that of a dream, the gentle soaring feeling of stepping into the engulfing desert heat, whose thick red winds swelter round the body as though bobbing in a flooded river of extraordinary antiquity. We are transported to places that we have never been, and yet which haunt us with an uncanny familiarity. For in the paintings of Gladdy Kemarre we are transported to her country, a county that she knows intimately; so intimately, that it cannot be expressed in words, but requires a language of intuition and emotion. With a patient refinement, they offer a gentle, motherly reflection on the interconnectedness of all things, a sparkling meditation on the Dreaming as it binds us all together. These are women’s stories, told through generations as part of a contract with the landscape. This contract ensures its fertility, its regenerative power, and its ability to spiritually and physically nourish the Anmatyerre.

Gladdy Kemarre, Anwekety (Bush Plum), 2011, acrylic on canvas.

Gladdy was born around 1950 at Mount Swann in her father’s country. The daughter of Clara Kngwarreye and Kwementyay Pwerle, she was brought up in the Harts Range region with her late sister Ally Kemarre and her brother Billy Benn Perrurle. The siblings grew up learning the traditions of their Anmatyerre people and how to paint through ceremonial body designs. From the 1970s, she was involved in art at Utopia, firstly through the Utopia Women’s Batik Group and later as a painter of considerable acclaim. She was involved in the landmark exhibitions A Picture Story (1988) and A Summer Project (1988-9) and has participated in major exhibitions in Australia, Europe and America. Her works have been acquired by many major public collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In 2009 she was a finalist in the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and was awarded first prize in the both the Mount Buller Art Awards and City of Swan Art Awards. This year, Gladdy’s success has continued to rise through her selection as finalist in The King’s School Art Prize, The Stanthorpe Art Prize, The Albany Art Prize, The Fletcher Jones Painting Prize and The Waterhouse Natural History Prize.

In a career spanning four decades, a single motif has dominated Gladdy’s paintings, continually finding new expressions, just as the rolling seasons bring new life to the desert.  Anwekety or ‘bush plum’ is a Dreaming story given to Gladdy by her grandmother. A type of bush tucker with needle-like leaves and small round edible berries, women collect the fruit into coolamons, to be eaten fresh, dried or mixed into paste. Viewed from above, the changing seasonal colours of the bush plum dominate the flora on the ground in Ahalpere Country. The story of the bush plum is crucial to Alywarre and Anmatyerre women’s ceremonies, and is intricately intertwined with the Dreaming songlines of the whole country. It is a story not only of physical nourishment, but also of spiritual sustenance, being closely connected to the sacredness of Ahalpere Country.

Gladdy Kemarre, Anwekety (Bush Plum), 2011, acrylic on canvas.

Shimmering constellations of fruit emerge in these paintings from tiny points of colour that are meticulously worked into shifting layers that evoke the desert landscape. As a result, they produce a sparkling vision of country that shows the unity of all things – of place, people, flora, ceremony – with the sacred Dreaming.  Through their reference to ceremonial body painting and their invocation of the continuum of the Dreaming, the present both a spatial and temporal circularity that acts as a metaphor for the relationship between the local and the universal. The joyful rhythms of the canvas reflect Gladdy’s pride in passing down the story of the bush plum, just as her grandmother did before her, and her keenly felt joy of renewing her traditions. Just as the changing seasons come to renew the landscape, the paintings of Gladdy Kemarre challenge us to transform the way we see the world, to float upon their Dream into the far reaches of the Eastern Desert to the sacred Ahalpere Country.

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Josie Kunoth Petyarre: Sugarbags

Below is an extended version of the essay, ‘Preview: Josie Kunoth Petyarre: Sugarbags’, first published in Artist Profile Magazine, Issue 15, May 2011, pp.122-123. It was later reprinted in both English and Korean in the exhibition catalogue Josie Kunoth Petyarre & Gladdy Kemarre, produced by Mossenson Galleries on occasion of the 2011 Korean International Art Fair.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Sugarbag Story 2011, acrylic on canvas, 61 x 151 cm.

For many people, Aboriginal art is an impenetrable mystery. Despite its stunning beauty, there is a lingering sense that it will forever speak of a distant world, unreachable to those uninitiated into its sacred mysteries. But for those who take up the exquisite challenge posed by Aboriginal art, the question remains: how do we interpret these works, which speak such an alien visual language? Faced with this problem, many viewers first response is to ask for the story or ‘Dreaming’ that informs the artwork, in the hope that this narrative might offer some entry point into these difficult abstract works.

In approaching the latest body of paintings by the Anmatyerre artist Josie Kunoth Petyarre, this is certainly one interpretative route that we could take. Although best known as a figurative painter, this new body of work represents the most sustained body of abstract paintings in Petyarre’s 25-year artistic career. However, one should be careful not to limit one’s reading of these paintings to a breakdown of their ‘Dreamings’, nor should one make too much of Petyarre’s recent moves into abstraction. For that would be to miss the clear lessons of Petyarre’s career, and to replay the primitivist desires that have sought to continually cast Aboriginal art as part of an arcane, primeval cultural context.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Sugarbag Story 2011, acrylic on linen, 122 x 183 cm.

If we survey Petyarre’s career, we find a marked continuity of concerns. Central to these concerns has been the centrality and adaptability of the Dreaming cosmology that shapes the Indigenous worldview. In his influential 1956 essay, ‘The Dreaming’, W.E.H Stanner described the Dreaming as the guiding principle by which Aboriginal Australian’s understand the universe. It is, he argued, “a kind of logos or principle of order transcending everything significant for Aboriginal man.”[1] While it is easy to conceive this concept in the complex iconographies and hidden spiritual depths that underpin the cryptic forms of Aboriginal abstraction, in the paintings of Josie Kunoth Petyarre we see the Dreaming, not as something distant and mysterious, but something ever present, which runs through all places, people and things, from the past to the present, the sacred and the everyday. In this sense, they are a perfect illustration of the pervasiveness of the Dreaming logos described by Stanner.

The daughter of Polly Kngale, Josie Kunoth Peytarre was born in 1959 at Utopia Homestead. Occupying 1800 square kilometers of the remote Eastern Desert, Utopia Station was been part of the last great push of pastoral expansion into Australia’s wilderness. Its red open plains, dusted lightly with Spinifex and wildflowers, offered the promise of serenity and prosperity. However, scorching hot days and freezing nights, scarcity of surface water and sparse vegetation, untold legions of flies and mosquitoes, all conspired to make conditions intolerable for the new settlers. By the 1970s, only the crumbling Ozymandias-like remnants of the station era remained, paving the way for a successful land rights claim, which in 1980 returned the newly designated Utopia Aboriginal Lands to their traditional owners.

Like many women at Utopia, Josie Kunoth Petyarre began creating art as part of the Utopia Women’s Batik Group that emerged in the late 1970s. In 1987, she was included in the landmark exhibition, A Picture Story, which brought the practice of batik to its sumptuous conclusion. Containing all of the major artists from Utopia, it highlighted the resplendent diversity of approaches to the medium. The following year, she was included in the exhibition A Summer Project, which introduced these same artists to the practice of acrylic painting on canvas, creating the conditions for emergence of one of Australia’s most important painting movements.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Sugarbag Story 2011, acrylic on linen, 122 x 183 cm.

In 1987, Josie Kunoth Petyarre was still a young woman. The catalogue for A Picture Story shows her as a beaming 28-year-old, a young mother with a wistful smile and an unflappable demeanour.[2] It was the older artists in the exhibition who garnered the most attention, in particular, Petyarre’s aunt Emily Kame Kngwarreye (c.1910-1996). With their striking visual affinity to American abstract expressionism, Emily’s grand abstractions opened new possibilities for the understanding and appreciation of Indigenous art. At the same time, they cast a long shadow that has obscured the diversity of artistic practice that has been a continual presence at Utopia.

Whether bold and gestural (such as the paintings of Emily Kngwarreye or Minne Pwerle) or delicate and ethereal (Kathleen Petyarre or Gladdy Kemarre), the art of Utopia quickly became indelibly associated in the popular imagination with abstract painting. However, as the batik created by Petyarre for A Picture Story reveals, abstraction was always only one part of the art tradition at Utopia. Ngayakweneme (The Hungry People) is a vibrant Dreaming tableau in which armed warriors feud over the distribution of food, while tiny ethereal spirits haunt the crevices of the landscape. Twenty years later, this flair for action and detail would culminate in Petyarre’s grand narrative paintings of bush football carnivals and community life at Utopia.

In the shade of Utopia’s celebrated abstractionists, the work of figurative artists has often been dismissed as naïve or ‘inauthentic’ fusions of western and Indigenous traditions. Such criticisms are nearsighted, ignoring the fact that figurative elements were present from the genesis of Utopian art, even amidst the artworks of celebrated abstractionists like Emily Kngwarreye and Kathleen Petyarre. The distinction that is commonly assumed between ‘abstract’ and ‘figurative’ works is a peculiarly western one. In part, this is because western aesthetics does not have the same sense of the inherent sanctity of decoration that is present in Indigenous culture (that is, the power of abstract designs to convey secret or sacred meanings). For Indigenous artists, traditional designs are rarely non-objective in the way that is implied by the categorisation of ‘abstract art’. Historically, when Indigenous art-styles have become more abstract, it has been through either a desire to hide or obscure secret/sacred content, or in an effort to tailor the work to suit market trends. If we move beyond this dichotomy of abstract and figurative, we can begin to see the figurative tradition at Utopia as offering its own peculiar insights into the development of art at Utopia. This neglected movement offers a unique insight into both traditional and contemporary existence at Utopia, while revealing its own internal processes of artistic innovation and development.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Sugarbag Story 2011, acrylic on linen, 91 x 121 cm.

For most of her life, Petyarre has lived on remote outstations, where the production of art is a ubiquitous part of the daily routine. Petyarre, however, remained in the background, producing occasional works, but never really stepping out of the shadow cast by her celebrated elders. This would change rapidly in 2005, when she began working with the art-advisor Marc Gooch. Starting primarily as a carver, Petyarre produced one of the most innovative bodies of carvings to ever emerge from Utopia.

Using wild colours and unexpected forms, she produced works that reflected her life and personality. According to Marc Gooch, “Each one was like a self-portrait, revealing her spontaneity and individuality.”[3] Petyarre’s first body of sculptures contained all the conventional motifs of Utopian carving – there were extraordinary figures in ceremonial dress, feathered birds, and a colourful array of dogs, echidnas and camels. But alongside this wild menagerie, a different picture of life at Utopia began to emerge, as Petyarre produced a series of more contemporary objects including a bright pink Toyota and a meticulously detailed police van.

Soon, Petyarre’s husband Dinni Kunoth Kemarre also began producing sculptures. Together, the pair would ‘head out bush’ with their axes to find the soft-wooded Bean Trees (Erythrina vespertilio). Sometimes these trips would require 100 kilometre long drives to find appropriate trees. After felling the tree, they would bring the trunk back to their camp, where they would carve it using tomahawks, files, sandpaper and a large rasp. Together, the pair would produce 16 football players (one for each team in the Australia Football League) which would be make up the exhibition Centre Bounce held at the AFL Hall of Fame in Melbourne between March-July 2007.

The opening of Centre Bounce afforded Josie and Dinni the opportunity to visit Melbourne. It was an eye-opening event for the pair, never having travelled before to such a metropolis. While older artists often view cities with an unflustered nonchalance, Josie and Dinni were captivated. The scale, the lights, the country and the fauna (including Melbourne’s ubiquitous possums) inspired a new body of works that perfectly captured the meeting of these two very different worldviews.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Melbourne Story 2007, 153 x 122, acrylic on canvas.

Returning to Utopia, Petyarre unexpectedly embarked on a series of paintings that sought to synthesise all of the complex experiences of their visit to Melbourne. They produced several extraordinary large-scale canvases that assimilate the cityscape of Melbourne into a Central Desert sense of geography. These maps of the city incorporate Melbourne landmarks – the MCG, St Kilda beach and pier, Luna Park, the Royal Exhibition Building, Fitzroy Gardens, Swanston Street, St Paul’s Cathedral and Federation Square – into an Anmatyerre spatial logic. In a fascinating and vivid meeting of two visual experiences, the paintings present an engrossing, enlivening picture of the urban landscape as seen from a radically different cultural background.

What was most notable about these paintings, was that for Petyarre, urban and remote were placed in an even and connected system of exchange – in a very similar way to which sites of significance are connected in Tingari paintings. This equality of exchange was made brilliantly explicit in a spectacular diorama that Josie and Dinni created for the inaugural Basil Sellers Art Prize held at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melbourne University in 2008. In this installation, scenes of professional and community football were literally placed side by side as part of a co-joined narrative. The cultural diaspora of football was no longer framed as one-directional, but working along a songline mentality in which all action and places are connected. By this relational logic, travel and movement unites significant places – the MCG becoming just one stop on a football songline that unites Utopia with the capital cities of Melbourne or Perth.

A similar episteme can be seen the series of ‘bush football’ paintings which Petyarre commenced around the same time. Structurally, these works bear a striking visual affinity to the classic ‘circle and grid’ paintings of first generation Papunya Tula artists like Old Walter Tjanpitjinpa or Anatjari No.III Tjakamarra. In the archetypal Tingari painting, a central circular motif is used to represent a significant gathering place, ceremonial ground or waterhole, from which travel lines radiate outwards to other points of connected significance. Just as the circle provides both the visual and narrative focal point in these Tingari paintings, in Josie’s bush football scenes the centre point is provided by the oval football field. From this point in the painting, action radiates outwards in a series of dramas that are both connected and independent of the central event. As Nick Tapper has observed:

In these football paintings, the central motif of the oval as a capacious elliptical space organises two different types of action: the regulated play on the field, and the carnival atmosphere off it. The representation of football becomes not just about the players’ participation, but about the overall participatory spirit enjoyed by sportspeople and spectators alike.[4]

The result is a vivid tableau of all-over action. Although it acts as pivot to this action, the football match itself is not exclusively preferenced, and in some works is completely overwhelmed by the scale of events going on around it. In this way, the whole world is absorbed and united within this immutable and adaptive cosmology of the Dreaming.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Bush Football Carnival 2010, acrylic on canvas, 151 x 151 cm.

How then, might we extend this logic to a reading of Josie Kunoth Petyarre’s most recent paintings of ‘Sugarbags’, which explode across the canvas like fireworks of brilliant colour? Dr. Diane Mossenson, who has represented and championed Petyarre’s work since 2005, and knows her paintings intimately, has described these paintings as an artistic breakthrough for Petyarre. Mossenson is undoubtedly correct; in these works, there is a clear sense of an artist refreshing herself, finding liberation with a representational form that is both tradition, but open enough to allow for considerable personal expression. Bruce McLean of the Queensland Art Gallery has noted:

Josie and Dinni are true innovators within their tradition, effecting change and integrating it into everyday practice. Tradition and change are intrinsically linked. Change is inevitable in all living cultures, and the form that change takes relies on the vision of the instigator. In the [art] of Josie Kunoth Petyarre and Dinni Kunoth Kemarre we get a sense of past, present and future.[5]

This fusion of innovation and tradition is clearly evident in Josie’s Sugarbag paintings, where the recognisable forms of desert paintings are flung together with a compelling joie de vivre that shows an artist clearly relishing the experimental possibilities of the motif. After several years of mining the world around her for inspiration, the openness of this format is clearly vivifying.

Josie Kunoth Petyarre, Sugarbag Story 2011, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 200 cm.

However, it would be wrong to overstate the extent that this expressive freedom is derived from the ‘abstract’ nature of the sugar bag motif. In Indigenous Australian parlance, the term ‘sugar bags’ is used to describe the sweet honey made by one of around 14 species of native stingless bees found across Australia. As a visual motif, it is one of the most variable and iconic in Australian Indigenous art. For thousands of years, sugar bags have adorned the faces of rock-art sites in the Kimberley, Arnhem Land and the Central Desert. With the dawn of the Indigenous art movement, the sugar bag emerged as an emblem of seemingly endless iconic possibility. In the paintings of artists as diverse as Bardayal ‘Lofty’ Nadjamerrek, Jack Britten, Barney Ellaga, Jimmy Wululu and Lucy Ward, it has provided both a source of sweet inspiration and potent formal potential.

In most instances, the sugar bag is a symbol of tripartite significance. On the one hand it refers directly to the bush honey collected from the hollows of trees or crevices of rock shelters. On a more abstract level, the sugar bag usually refers to a particular Dreaming associated with a specific place. Lastly, the painting of sugar bags is often used to assert a totemic or ancestral connection to that particular place. In this sense, therefore, it is a visual metaphor of physical, personal and spiritual dimensions. According to Petyarre, these paintings contain ‘all the sweetness of the bush’ – not just the sugar bags themselves, but also the colourful bush grevillea and corkwood flowers that produce the honey, the changing colours of the season, and the travel of the bees across the landscape. In Petyarre’s case, this is landscape of her father’s Alhalkere country of Utopia in the eastern desert, to which the sugar bag Dreaming is associated.

In Petyarre’s sugar bag paintings we can see an artist using a stored cache of visual ideas – circles, dots, dashes – and twisting them in order to find new ways to depict the overlap of country and culture; to represent the shifting metaphors of the physical, geographical and spiritual. What could be waterholes or sandhills, winding rivers or desert blooms all come together in a personal experiment in colour and form. This is not a form of experimentation structured along modernist lines of non-objectivity, but rather, one structured around a particularly Anmatyerre reasoning, in which the sugar bag as bush tucker is as much a lived reality as the ancestral connections that it connotes in both the spiritual and everyday environment. If we see Josie Kunoth Petyarre’s sugar bag paintings, not as a break from her figurative works, but as a parallel articulation of the same episteme, we can begin to see them as two different, but complimentary articulations of a world is absorbed and united within the immutable cosmology of the Dreaming. The alchemy of Petyarre’s innovation is her ability to continually find new ways to express this ancient cosmology.


[1] W.E.H. Stanner, “The Dreaming,” (1958) reprinted in The Dreaming and Other Essays (Melbourne: Black Inc. Agenda, 2009), 58.

[2] Annemarie Brody, A Picture Story: 88 Silk Batiks from the Holmes à Court Collection (Perth: Heytesbury Holdings, 1990)

[3] Marc Gooch, personal correspondence with author, 2010.

[4] Nick Tapper, “Bush Football: The Kunoth Family,” exhibition room brochure, Mossenson Galleries, Melbourne, 18 August-5 September 2009.

[5] Bruce McLean, “Dinni Kunoth Kemarre and Josie Kunoth Petyarre,” in Xstrata Coal Emerging Indigenous Art Award, exhib. cat., Queensland Art Gallery, 11 July-12 October 2008.

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