In 1988, the year of Australia’s bicentenary, the Golden Wattle (Acacia pycnantha) was officially gazetted as Australia’s national floral emblem, enjoying a popular acceptance as the national flower long before then.
We’ve been celebrating the Wattle for different reasons over the last century, and in 2020 for the first time, Brisbane is lighting up in yellow the Kurilpa, Victoria and Story Bridges to celebrate National Wattle Day, however, it wasn’t until 1 September 1992 that our National Day has been celebrated together in all of Australia’s States and Territories, before then, it was recognised on different days between July (in Queensland) and October depending on its peak flowering season.
So, with the start of the Australian spring on the first of September, wear a sprig of the flowers and leaves to celebrate the day with us. Alternatively, you could go all out and decorate your car in blooms as they did in Brisbane a century ago.
Selling sprigs of Wattle Flowers, 1914
Wattle Day Procession, 1917
Vida Lahey ‘Wattle in a yellow vase’
Vida Lahey (1882-1968) is one of Queensland’s best loved artists, establishing her national profile with her modernist paintings of flowers in the 1920s and 30s.
Australian floral subjects have been popular since the 1890s, and after Australia attained nationhood through the federation of its six states in 1901, sentiments of national pride, and patriotism soon developed with the Wattle a favourite floral subject and emblem of Australia.
In Lahey’s lifetime, the Wattle flower was a favourite subject, with the Wattle Day League founded in Sydney in 1909, and a Queensland branch of the Wattle Day League established in 1912 by Mrs Josephine Papi. Her husband, Ferdinand, was an associate of the Queensland Art Society, of which Lahey was a member, and it is possible that Lahey contributed Wattle in a yellow vase c.1912-15 to a promotional event at the time, which is one of Lahey’s earliest flower studies.
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Daphne Mayo as a wattle maid
Daphne Mayo and Vida Lahey
Besides Vida Lahey’s link to the Wattle Day League in Brisbane with her painting Wattle in a yellow vase, her contemporary Daphne Mayo (1895-1982), another celebrated Queensland artist and one of the country’s leading sculptors of the twentieth century, also had a Wattle connection.
Educated in Brisbane, Mayo received a Diploma in Art Craftsmanship from the Brisbane Central Technical College in 1913, and during her time at the College, Mayo was influenced by L.J Harvey who initiated her interest in modelling. She further developed her skills when she was presented with an opportunity to go to London in 1919 (her departure from Brisbane being delayed for some years by the First World War) where she was accepted into the Sculpture School of the Royal Academy. Mayo had been awarded the Wattle Day travelling art fellowship in 1914, provided by the Queensland Wattle League .
In the above picture, we can see Mayo at the (old) Town Hall on Brisbane’s second Wattle Day in July 1914. Mayo is dressed as a wattle maid in the centre foreground. The Mayoress of Brisbane and the Central Committee of the Queensland Wattle Day League accompany her.
Mayo and Lahey were active in Queensland art affairs over a long period, both were involved with the Queensland Art Gallery in various capacities and helped to establish the Queensland Art Fund (founded in 1929) with the aim of acquiring major works for the Gallery’s collection.
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Delve into our Wattle themed works
‘White and yellow wattles in flower’
An elder of the Putch clan and a cultural leader of the Wik and Kugu people of Aurukun, Mavis Ngallametta (1944–2019) was one of the most well-regarded senior community-based artists in Australia.
Ngallametta depicted her community’s riotous scenes of post-wet season abundance, a climatic phenomenon well known to people who live their lives just feet above the swamp line. Many of Ngallametta’s works were bold and celebratory — such as swamps with brightly coloured waterlilies, and people collecting flowers.
Referring to the painting, Ngallametta said in 2015:
White and yellow wattle flowers are all around starting in the Easter month of April with white ones and then finishing with the yellow ones around June.
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‘Country with Acacia Wattle’
Nellie Ngampa Coulthard is a nationally significant contemporary painter whose colourful representations of her Country is shaping stylistic movements and traditions within her community. Her home is roughly 300km south-east of the APY Lands, the community of Indulkana. Coulthard’s striking and idiosyncratic works are reminiscences of her childhood living on country around Wintinna Homestead near Oodnadatta, on the edge of the Simpson Desert.
In Tjuntala Ngurangka (Country with Acacia Wattle), Coulthard paints her country with a traditional dotting technique in whites and yellows, the composition of wattle trees in meandering lines suggesting the local acacia wattles that she vividly recalls seeing in flower as a child, their vibrant yellows piercing the hard country.
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‘Lupa’ (wattle seed)
Rona Rubuntja is from Hermannsburg, about 130kms west of Alice Springs, generally known for their Namatjira-style watercolours, however Arrente women have been working with coil-built pottery since 1990.
Typical items have the lids decorated with modelled figures of animals or ‘bush tucker’ such as the Wattle seed. The surface decoration adapts their tribal stories to the new medium, and as pottery making is not a traditional medium, the potters view their work as an avenue for self expression, not a utilitarian item.
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Acknowledgment of Country
The Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land upon which the Gallery stands in Brisbane. We pay respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders past and present and, in the spirit of reconciliation, acknowledge the immense creative contribution Indigenous people make to the art and culture of this country.
It is customary in many Indigenous communities not to mention the name or reproduce photographs of the deceased. All such mentions and photographs are with permission, however, care and discretion should be exercised.
Featured image detail: Vida Lahey Wattle in a yellow vase c.1912-15