July 2018

by Miriam Cosic

‘Colony’ at NGV Australia
Twin exhibitions explore the very different experiences of settlement for European and Indigenous peoples

Michael Cook, Court (2014), no. 7 from the Majority Rule series, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Yvonne Pettengell Bequest. © Courtesy of the artist

“Our landscape is overwritten by its history. Its scarification is only visible if one looks hard, listens closely and is prepared to not look away,” writes Nat Williams, a curator at the National Library of Australia, in the magnificently produced catalogue of the two-part Colony exhibition. The book is as much about political history and the clash of civilisations as it is about art history, and makes as powerful a statement as the exhibition itself. Colony is a close examination of the growth of European settlement across Australia: it celebrates the milestones and achievements, but counterpoints this with the experiences of Aboriginal dispossession, death and erasure.

The show is a feat of scholarship and of curation, with about 800 objects brought together from the NGV’s own holdings, other state museums and private collections. On arrival at the Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square, one passes an honour guard of decorated Indigenous shields from across south-east Australia, each a personal statement of its maker and his culture. From there, earliest maps of our coastline by European explorers – excited to reach the mythical Great Southern Land, which the British eventually and conveniently called terra nullius – lead to rooms of art and artefacts, documents, journals, portraits, landscapes, furniture and wunderkammern. All of these elements chart the growth of European settlement and its interaction with traditional owners of the land. This is part one, Colony: Australia 1770–1861 (until July 15), which takes us up to the year the NGV itself was established.

The exhibition’s contents – encompassing the engagement with natural history, the scientific interest in the “natives” (which seemed to fade as Europeans began to see themselves as native), and the landscape painting bound by European tropes – are engrossing and illuminating. It is surprising how many artists in the first years of the colony were criminals serving time. Francis Greenway, Sydney’s first government architect, who had so much influence on the structural bones of the city, had been transported for forgery. So had the painter Joseph Lycett, responsible for many now-emblematic topographical and landscape pictures of the convict colonies.

Those two are well enough known but there were many others, and officers with draughtsman skills added to the records. The rooms of the exhibition are arranged sequentially, starting with Sydney Cove and the second settlement at Newcastle, moving on to Tasmania and thence to the free settlements of Melbourne and Adelaide. The vast sweep of nation-building is captured in detail, though the exhibition stops well short of Federation. We see the state capitals develop, growing in size and elegance from picture to picture by artists such as Lycett, Conrad Martens, Ludwig Becker, Samuel Jackson, John Glover and others whose Europeanised trees and softened light have become the memory of white Australia’s “early days”.

Henry Burn’s Swanston Street from the Bridge (1861), for example, shows the unpaved years of what would become Marvellous Melbourne, the twin temples of St Paul’s Church (now a cathedral) and the Princes Bridge Hotel (which would become Young & Jackson) already standing sentinel on the city’s south side. There are oddities too: the small display of scrimshaw – etchings on whalebone – that was a by-product of the southern whaling industry; and the Dixson cabinet of curiosities, with its panels of sights around Newcastle thought to have been painted by Lycett, and its drawers containing elegant geometrical arrangements of local shells.

The sharp point here in the first part of Colony, which prepares us for what comes next, is its political subtext. When Aboriginal people are portrayed, they are mostly objectified: either romanticised as the “noble savage” or demeaned almost to the rank of fauna. There are some sympathetic depictions, including those by two Indigenous Victorians, Tommy McRae and William Barak, who were already painting professionally in the 1860s. But they are the outliers.

Colony: Frontier Wars (until September 2), the smaller of the two linked exhibitions, is upstairs via two escalators. On the way, at the first landing, is a forest of burial poles from different regions. Dignified, beautiful and sombre, they remind us that our crossover in points of view is saturated with what artist Jonathan Jones calls in his catalogue essay “an eternal mourning”.

On the second landing is Jonathan Jones’s installation Blue Poles, a composite play on many themes: the burial poles, the Jackson Pollock masterpiece, the colours of Michael Riley’s ineffable Cloud series and more, all addressed in a group of Jones’s trademark light poles in pastel blue.

The body of the show begins with Julie Gough’s memorial, Chase, a dense group of 315 hanging sticks. She, Gordon Bennett, Brook Andrews, Vernon Ah Kee, and others memorialise massacres, the loss of homelands and the weakening of culture. “Our age-old philosophies of death and grief will continue to inform our artistic practices, writes Jones, “until Australia comes to terms with the immeasurable loss of life that we have experienced in the founding of this nation.”

Christian Thompson’s own eyes look out from portraits of famous white men, including Captain Cook’s, in his 2015 series Museum of Others. Lorraine Connelly-Northey’s Possum-Skin Cloak: Blackfella Road, made of rusted metal, fencing and barbed wire, is an arresting depiction of the paved roads and farm enclosures that were overlaid on traditional geography, framed by the reaching hands and discarded artefacts of the original inhabitants.

Michael Cook’s photography in the Majority Rule series is a radical time shift: clones of the same Aboriginal “everyman”, in suits and ties, carrying briefcases or suitcases, populate urban spaces such as streets and tiled underpasses. The series imagines an Australia in which the original inhabitants comprise not 3 or 4 per cent of the population but the unremarkable majority.

The curators have made a point of replacing the museum staple “unknown”, for earlier artists in this section whose names are lost to history, with “once known” to underline how white history has erased so much of Indigenous culture. The courtesy is applied even to a collection of everyday objects such as shields and baskets laid out below a transfixing video by Steaphan Paton, called Cloaked Combat, in which an Indigenous man in military fatigues shoots arrows from a modern bow unerringly into traditional shields. The term might have resonated more strongly if the “unknown” convicts in the first part had been similarly honoured. Not all were criminals after all; some were political prisoners of the same empire that dispossessed the original Australians.

This is an extended version of the article that appeared in the July 2018 issue of The Monthly.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

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