‘Swags and Swamp Rats’ is the seventh Children’s Art Centre exhibition developed in collaboration with a contemporary Australian artist. It takes children on a journey with Robert MacPherson and introduces them to the people, places and objects that inspire him. Need some inspiration for these school holidays?
We are thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with Robert MacPherson, one of Australia’s most revered senior artists, on the latest project for the Children’s Art Centre. Through interactive, hands-on and multimedia activities young visitors can explore MacPherson’s interest in the overlooked or forgotten aspects of Australian history, language and local characters.
The Children’s Art Centre first worked with MacPherson in 2008 to develop The swamp rats drawing project. This activity invited children to draw a picture in response to the various words in MAYFAIR: (SWAMP RATS) NINETY-SEVEN SIGNS FOR C.P., J.P., B.W., G.W. & R.W. 1994–1995. The artwork, dedicated to a group of fishermen who lived by the Brisbane River, references handmade road signs often seen on the side of the highway that call the attention of passing motorists to food, fuel and frozen bait. We are fortunate to be able to reprise this activity for ‘Swags and Swamp Rats’ and for the first time display it alongside the artwork, which is in the Gallery’s Collection.
Robert MacPherson has drawn many pictures in the guise of his alter ego, Robert Pene, a ten year-old schoolboy at St Joseph’s convent in Nambour, Queensland. Pene’s curiosity, humour and sense of wonder about the world provide a delightful connection for children to MacPherson’s artworks. A favourite subject of Pene’s is the boss drovers, who were responsible for moving thousands of livestock across vast distances, over often inhospitable and remote landscapes in Australia from the early 1800s.1 He not only celebrates the drovers as heroes in their own right but also brings to life many individual characters and their stories, including female and Indigenous drovers.
The Gallery’s major acquisition 1000 FROG POEMS: 1000 BOSS DROVERS (“YELLOW LEAF FALLING”) FOR H.S. 1996–2014 is comprised of 2400 drawings of boss drovers and is nothing short of a labour of love. This significant artwork is the inspiration behind the multimedia activity Drover Muster, in which children can learn about the drovers and create their own character by assembling different facial features. Displayed nearby is the artwork DRY RIVER: 20 FROG POEMS, IN MEMORY OF ALEX WILSON MASTER HORSEMAN 1996–1998, comprised of 20 canvas swag covers that are stencilled with the names of stock routes and landmarks, memorialising these places and their histories.
Young visitors to the exhibition are also introduced to the distinctive dialect of the drovers. MacPherson has said, ‘I’m ever-dismayed by the loss of language, the sayings, the terms I used in my childhood’,2 and has sought to record in his artworks aspects of Australian vernacular no longer in everyday use. The word-based activity Learn the Lingo was developed especially for this exhibition and encourages children to be creative with language and discover how it has changed over time.
‘Swags and Swamp Rats’ gives children an insight into the art practice of Robert MacPherson and encourages them to connect with less well-known aspects of our history. MacPherson’s incredible eye for detail and interest in everyday experiences will also inspire them to see the world around them in new ways.
1 Darrell Lewis, ‘The bush has friends to meet him’, in Alan Mayne (ed.), Beyond the Black Stump: Histories of Outback Australia, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, South Australia, 2008, p.277.
2 Robert MacPherson, quoted in John O’Brian and Trevor Smith (eds), Robert MacPherson [exhibition catalogue], Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, 2001, p.55.