Australia ordered by Noel McKenna


Welcome to Noel McKenna’s ‘Map’ series where instinct meets a most personal experience. Born and educated in Brisbane and now based in Sydney, McKenna is one of Australia’s most industrious and idiosyncratic artists. With a busy career spanning more than 30 years, his work is admired for its spare brushstrokes and poignant observations.

McKenna’s maps order Australia’s vast continent and here we focus on the two extremes – deadly snakes, spiders and sea-life and our loved birds, fish and butterflies. Hear from the artist himself as he takes us through his childhood memories, his discoveries, and how he tackled the task of mapping Australia.

Dangerous Australia

Dangerous Australia 2007 posits that, despite having a large number of the world’s most venomous snakes, spiders and sea-life, we are statistically more likely to die by human hands than be taken by any of these. We are more likely to die after a fall, by accidental drowning, by smoke and fire, or even by our own hands, than we are from the bite of a creepy-crawly. We may be afraid of the wilderness, but it is the wilderness that should be afraid of us.

Noel McKenna, Australia b.1956 / Dangerous Australia 2007 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas / Purchased 2010 / Collection: The University of Queensland

Shark and Ray Species

Shark, Ray Species of Australia 2006 is the only work of this group that lists its subject completely. Like wildlife photography, bushwalking and other activities that foster contact with nature, A self-described animal person, McKenna knows the value of a domestic animal’s companionship, but also of communing with natural beauty. His affection for nature evokes the kind of awareness that engenders our instinct to care for and protect it. It seems useful to strengthen this because, as we have seen, we are expert at building infrastructure and encroaching on the natural world.


Noel McKenna, Australia b.1956 / Shark, Ray Species of Australia 2006 / Oil and enamel on canvas / Private collection, Melbourne / Image courtesy: Niagara Galleries, Melbourne

Birds, fish and butterflies

The natural environment is lovingly chronicled in Birds of Australia 2004, Australian Freshwater Fish 2005 and Butterflies of Australia 2010, showing mere fragments of the remarkable diversity of wildlife that occupies the sea and sky around us.

‘I have always liked birds, so why not do all the birds of Australia? I quickly realised that with the number of birds in Australia, I would have trouble getting them all on the size of map I had been doing, so I decided to do just birds that lived in a limited area, as well as endangered ones.’

‘I decided on Australian Freshwater Fish as ones caught in the ocean do live in other parts of the ocean and not just around Australia. Fishing is a big part of Australian life, with many shows devoted to fishing on TV. It seems to be one of those aspects of life where fishermen go to be with their friends or by themselves. When my sons were growing up, we spent many hours sitting on our pier in Sydney Harbour, hardly ever catching anything, but still finding it enjoyable.’

Noel McKenna, Australia b.1956 / Birds of Australia 2004 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas / Collection: James and Jacqui Erskine, Sydney / Image courtesy: Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney

Noel McKenna, Australia b.1956 / Australian Freshwater Fish 2005 / Oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas / Collection: Cornish Family, Melbourne / Image courtesy: Niagara Galleries, Melbourne

Noel McKenna, Australia b.1956 / Butterflies of Australia 2010 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas / Courtesy: The artist and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne / Photograph: Jenni Carter

Big Things

Big Things, Australia 2004 — an outline map of the country populated with images and descriptions of ‘big’ tourist attractions, from the Big Pineapple to the Big Golf Ball —was inspired by a TV documentary.

‘I had seen a film, Big Things of Australia, which got my interest, but I discovered there were a lot more than were featured in the film, and more have been built since I finished my painting.’

Noel McKenna, Australia b.1956 / Big Things, Australia 2004 / Synthetic polymer paint on canvas / Private collection / Image courtesy: Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney

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Feature banner detail: Noel McKenna’s Butterflies of Australia 2010