Telling the Story of Australian Art in new and innovative ways
Swedish-born artist Oscar Friström’s Duramboi 1893 depicts James Davis, a young convict sent from Scotland to Australia. Davis escaped from a Moreton Bay penal colony in 1829 and lived with several Indigenous groups in the area, particularly on Fraser Island (where he was known as Duramboi), until he was found in 1842. During this time, Davis learned many languages and customs, and was treated as an honoured guest. He later worked as a guide for settlers and occasionally as a court interpreter.
Sidney Nolan, on the other hand, imagined and mythologised the experience of Scottish woman Eliza Anne Fraser, who was shipwrecked off the coast of Queensland in 1836. Accounts of Mrs Fraser’s experience, steeped in colonial assumptions and elevated to the status of legend through multiple and contradictory tellings, effectively demonised the island’s inhabitants, and the stories have since been contested. Nolan’s evocation of an outsider in an unfamiliar landscape is closely tied to his own emotional state at the time (he visited Fraser Island in 1947 at the end of a dramatic breakup with Sunday Reed).
The story of Mrs Fraser gave rise to the naming of the island, which is called K’gari by the Indigenous people of that land. Here, Nolan’s works appear alongside the black-and-white photographs of Fiona Foley’s Badtjala woman 1994 — portraits based on ethnographic photographs of an unnamed ancestor held in museum collections. Foley counters the tale of Eliza Fraser: her self-representation as part of this lineage serves to restore a sense of her people’s dignity, power and agency.
Transformative works also feature in the display, including Arthur Boyd’s Sleeping bride 1957–58 — an acquisition from Boyd’s important allegorical series titled ‘Love, marriage and death of a half-caste’, otherwise known as ‘the Brides’ series. Resulting from the artist’s travels to central Australia in 1953, it is considered one of the most significant achievements in Australian modernism, akin to Sidney Nolan’s ‘Ned Kelly’ paintings from the 1940s.
Your reimagined Australian Collection brings together art from different times and across cultures. After 120 years of building the Collection, there are many stories to tell of traversal and encounter, we focus on this theme as we continue with our series on Australian art.
Scottish-born artist Ian Fairweather’s Lights, Darwin Harbour 1957, generously on loan from a private collection, recalls the moment he left Australia in 1952 on a homemade raft. The journey — after 16 days on the open sea — ended on a beach on Indonesia’s Roti Island and inspired New Zealand artist Michael Stevenson to create The gift (from Argonauts of the Timor Sea) 2004–06, a ‘replica’ of the raft based on various accounts, including written descriptions.
Fairweather’s goal was to return to Britain, which he eventually did, but in 1953 he came back to Australia, finally settling on Bribie Island. There, he completed some of his greatest works, including the religious painting Gethsemane 1958, recently gifted to the Collection by Philip Bacon AM. Stevenson’s raft is a touchstone for the many journeys and encounters in this display. It resonates not only with Fairweather’s singular mission, but also with Australia’s place in the world, and the complex, continuing history of those who have arrived on and departed from its shores.
Connections across the water date back further than colonisation. For hundreds of years, Macassan traders from Sulawesi, Indonesia, travelled to Australia over the Timor Sea to trade and share knowledge with northern Australian Aboriginal people. The influence of this exchange can be seen in works such as Ngaymil/Dathiwuy artist Larrtjanga Ganambarr’s Balirlira and the Macassans c.1958, and Anindilyakwa artist Gulpitja’s Bara, the north-west wind 1948.
Continuing our series on the Australian Collection reimagined, we can observe the changing nature of portraiture – the shift from democratic modes such as the nineteenth-century photograph, to oil paintings produced after a number of sittings and preparatory sketches. These portraits tell stories of contact between cultures, including colonial and immigrant experiences. Many of these stories connect to the history of Queensland, through the artists and their chosen subjects.
Swedish-born artist Oscar Friström, a professional artist working in Queensland in the late nineteenth century, was known for his portraiture, including those of Aboriginal subjects. Friström’s Duramboi 1893 depicts James Davis, a young convict sent from Scotland to Australia. Davis escaped from a Moreton Bay penal colony in 1829 and lived with several Indigenous groups in the area, particularly on Fraser Island (where he was known as Duramboi), until he was found in 1842. During this time, Davis learned many languages and customs, and was treated as an honoured guest.
These Nineteenth-century portraits of European settlers sit alongside those from the twenty-first century, including William Yang’s ‘About my mother’ portfolio, from 2003, which accounts for the life of this second-generation, Chinese–Australian woman, who raised the artist in Dimbulah, in far north Queensland.
William Dobell’s The Cypriot 1940 and Michael Zavros’s Bad dad 2013 both tell tales of migration. Dobell’s painting of Aegus Gabrielides, a Greek Cypriot waiter the artist knew in London in the 1930s, is juxtaposed with Zavros’s contemporary self-portrait, in which the artist – the son of a Greek Cypriot father and Australian mother – floats idly in a backyard pool. Gabrielides is an imperious figure in his buttoned-down shirt and tie, regarding us with a direct stare; Zavros, on the other hand, makes playful reference to the mythical Greek Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection.
The Australian Collection reimagined brings together art from different times and across cultures, we trace narratives of geography — as country, as landscape, as the place we live and work — and we share stories of traversal and encounter, of immigration, colonisation and the expatriate experience. After 120 years of building the Collection, there are many stories to tell; in doing so, we acknowledge that we live in a country with a complex history.
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Dr Kyla McFarlane, Australian Art, QAGOMA
Feature image detail: Auschar Chauncy’s Portrait of Richard Edwards 1874
Highlighted in our third post on your Australian Art Collection reimagined are works which are included in the chronological ‘spine’ along the back wall of the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Galleries. Adjacent to Dale Harding’s wall commission view works from both the European landscape tradition and representations of country by Aboriginal artists.
Conrad Martens’s Forest, Cunningham’s Gap 1856 is an early Queensland watercolour depicting the steep track from the Great Dividing Range’s tropical rainforest to the Darling Downs plains below. An English-born colonial painter, Martens arrived in Australia after working on the HMS Beagle as the ship’s artist. Nearby are Judy Watson’s sacred ground, beating heart 1989 and Gordon Bennett’s Untitled 1991. Watson produced sacred ground before visiting Waanyi country in north-west Queensland, the home of her matrilineal family; the natural pigment and pastel work reflects the artist’s deep connection to her ancestors. Bennett’s painting depicts a ship adrift on a stormy sea, amid images of Aboriginal heads. Referencing the Raft of the Medusa 1818–19 by French artist Théodore Géricault, Bennett asks us to consider the effects of the upheaval caused by colonisation, specifically the separation of people from their homeland.
These paintings join other treasured works by artists such as Russell Drysdale, Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, Rosalie Gascoigne, Eugene von Guérard, Rosemary Laing, Daphne Mayo, Jon Molvig, Fred Williams, and of course, R Godfrey Rivers, whose Under the jacaranda 1903 holds many stories. Rivers was an important figure in Brisbane — an artist, teacher and champion of the Queensland National Art Gallery (which opened in 1895) — and he, like the tree in his painting, and like so many people living in Brisbane today, came here from elsewhere. (In the jacaranda’s case, on trading ships from South America.) Under the jacaranda has a history with our audiences, who have admired it for many years — some even lay jacaranda flowers under the painting when the trees bloom in spring.
We also explore our physical involvement with the land through agriculture and mining, so central to the history of the state, along with the development of the country’s labour movement and working women. The Queensland climate, which has shaped ideas of ‘the deep north’, also features here, with works by celebrated artists Margaret Olley, Max Dupain, Tracey Moffatt, Kenneth Macqueen and others. Moving back in time, George Wishart’s newly restored A busy corner of the Brisbane River, painted in 1897 (since identified as the Eagle Street Wharves), is a rare depiction of the river’s bustling commercial activity around the turn of the century. Charles Blackman’s Stradbroke ferry 1952 brings us to Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), where contemporary Quandamooka weaver Sonja Carmichael is based. The Ngughi artist’s commission is an installation of jewelcoloured bowls woven from natural, commercial raffia and discarded nylon fishing nets, materials found on the shoreline of her island.
As visitors enter and leave the end gallery, near the Gibson entrance, they will encounter Anmatyerre artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s timeless Utopia panels 1996, a major commission completed by the artist at the end of her brief painting career and in the last year of her life. Among her boldest pieces, the multipanel series is one of the Gallery’s great works.
The second in our series on your Australian Art Collection reimagined, we focus on the major commission from Dale Harding, descendent of the Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal peoples of central Queensland, who has been inspired by the significant galleries of rock art around his country near Carnarvon Gorge. One of five exciting commissions for the re-presentation of the Australian Art Collection, four of which are by contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists,1 Harding’s work reminds us of the existence of thousands of years of Aboriginal art history. As curator Bruce McLean noted during the planning of the new display:
Aboriginal painting represents at least 99 per cent of the timeline of Australian painting, and Harding’s works have attempted to address that fact through an engagement with contemporary art . . . The work also highlights the existence of [rock art] galleries as epicentres of cultural reverence for millennia throughout the Australian landscape, many of which are today concealed from our view.
The commission also points to post-European contact, in terms of trade, ingenuity and adaptation: working with family members, the artist has used a bright blue pigment reminiscent of the Reckitt’s Blue pigment originally used to brighten white laundry. One of the first introduced products highly valued by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Reckitt’s Blue was traded widely along the colonial frontier. Used as a paint, the pigment was quickly adopted by many who previously only had access to an earthy ochre palette. Today, shields, clubs and boomerangs featuring the vibrant blue colour can be found in museums throughout the country and are a reminder of this moment of early exchange. At the same time, Indigenous peoples were being forced from their lands, and an involuntary shift into domesticity on pastoral stations occurred: Harding’s wall painting highlights the complexities of these early points of contact through his blue-stencilled images of tools.
Dale Harding’s work was commissioned with funds from anonymous donors through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation.
Endnote 1 Harding is joined by Alick Tipoti (Kala Lagaw Ya people), Daniel Boyd (Kudjla/Gangalu people), Sonja Carmichael, and non-Indigenous artist Helen Johnson.
The Australian Art Collection reimagined brings together art from different times and across cultures, we trace narratives of geography — as country, as landscape, as the place we live and work — and we share stories of traversal and encounter, of immigration, colonisation and the expatriate experience. So, how do we tell the story of Australian art? — over the following weeks we will delve into this question. After 120 years of building the Collection, there are many stories to tell; in doing so, we acknowledge that we live in a country with a complex history. And then we let the works speak for themselves.
Telling the Story of Australian Art
After 18 months of closure to enable a much-needed Collection Storage upgrade at the Queensland Art Gallery, the Australian art collection is set to reopen in late September. Our curators, along with Director Chris Saines, have taken this rare opportunity to re-present the Gallery’s Australian art holdings, collected for more than 120 years, in new and innovative ways.
The Australian Collection reimagined is our first step towards returning the Queensland Art Gallery building, as closely as possible, to the intended vision of architect Robin Gibson AO, an expansive, open space with clear sightlines throughout, lending each gallery a beautiful sense of connectedness to the whole. The plan to open up the building enabled us to think of the space in an expansive way. Passers-by in the Whale Mall outside the Queensland Museum will again be able to look down into the Gallery through our reopened windows and see works designed for suspension, such as Yvonne Koolmatrie’s Hot air balloon 2006, hanging from the high ceilings. Inside, works that are firmly grounded, such as Rosalie Gascoigne’s Overland 1996 and Aleks Danko’s DAY IN DAY OUT 1991, act as counterpoints.
Artist and activist Richard Bell’s Judgement day (Bell’s Theorem) 2008 and Robert MacPherson’s National art: A simplistic view ‘Queensland series’ 1978 hang side by side. A patchwork of brightly painted circular and
linear forms alluding to Western Desert painting with splattered paint, Bell’s work states in bold white letters: ‘Australian Art Does Not Exist’. MacPherson’s serial work repeats a familiar form, the outline of the state of Queensland as it appears on a map. In their repetition, the variations suggest mass production — the work delivers a playful but pointed reference to the building of a state and, by implication, the broader conceptual construction of a nation.
Bell and MacPherson’s works challenge us to think deeply about how we might approach and understand the idea of Australian art. They confront us with the notion that ‘Australian art’ is somewhat problematic. One of the disguised texts found in the background of Bell’s work states: ‘You don’t have a culture’, a statement that points to the tenuous nature of art histories built on narratives either borrowed or imported. in the twenty-first century we recognise that Indigenous cultures underpin some of this country’s most compelling contemporary works.