July 2022

Arts & Letters

Mission statement: Daniel Boyd’s ‘Treasure Island’

By Quentin Sprague

Daniel Boyd, Untitled (TBOMB), 2020; 2 panels (overall). Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, James and Diana Ramsay Fund 2020. © Daniel Boyd

An AGNSW exhibition traces the development of the Indigenous artist’s idiosyncratic technique, which questions ideas of perception

The artist Daniel Boyd was recently given a bunya nut. Anyone who’s seen one will know exactly what they are, even if the name is unfamiliar. They are the unforgettably huge native pine cones – bright green, as big as a grown man’s head, and as heavy as 10 kilograms – that grow on the bunya pine, Araucaria bidwillii: dead straight trees that tower like bristling ship masts above surrounding landscapes, and are endemic to areas of south-east and Far North Queensland.

It was mid lockdown, and Boyd – whose impressive survey exhibition, Treasure Island, opened at the Art Gallery of New South Wales last month – was in the process of researching his family connections. It’s a task he has performed near-constantly throughout his two-decade practice as a painter: as the AGNSW survey gracefully underscores, no matter how far his paintings range in subject (and they range widely, taking in themes as complex as the cosmos and colonialism) they always circle back, in one way or another, to family. Born in Cairns in 1982, Boyd is part of a family that, on both sides, was funnelled through the nearby Yarrabah mission, an Anglican-run clearing house for Stolen Generations from across Queensland. Their backgrounds, and thus Boyd’s, trace a veritable cultural history of the region, and include links as far afield as Vanuatu (Boyd’s ni-Vanuatu great-great-grandfather was blackbirded as a labourer in the sugarcane industry), and to language groups including Kudjala, Ghungalu and Bundjalung. Reading up on bunya pines, Boyd learnt that one of the tree’s native regions touches the edge of Kuku Yalanji country – another group from which he draws heritage. He realised that his own people had once been among those who would gather every three years to feast on the rich nuts – events that would last as long as two months, and would provide a platform for all manner of social and ceremonial exchange.

As he read, Boyd’s picture of what the bunya pine meant for his forebears drew into focus. “People cared for a particular tree, and responsibility for it would be passed down for generations,” he later tells me. “It would be your duty to care for it.”

He set aside the bunya nut in his Sydney home, where it sat undisturbed for a number of months. When it began to decompose, he pulled it apart to reveal its fleshy seeds. He realised they wanted to germinate, so he planted a number in pots and waited.

I recently took a drive with Boyd from the AGNSW to his studio near his home in suburban Marrickville. It’s not far, but traffic was heavy and slow. As Boyd calmly steered his hybrid SUV past the ever-shifting array of inner-city storefronts, our conversation had time to roam freely.

It was two days before Treasure Island opened to the public, and we had met in the exhibition spaces in the lower level-two galleries. Boyd was there for a final sign-off on the installation with the exhibition’s co-curators, Isobel Parker Philip and Erin Vink. He was happy with what they’d done, and rightly so. Besides his works, the most striking aspect of Treasure Island is the non-chronological way in which they are sequenced across four linked galleries. It begins with a selection that, as Philip will tell a press pack the following day, is intended as an “orientation device”. Here, viewers are introduced to Boyd’s free-ranging approach. There are a handful of works that illustrate his forays into video and installation, but his paintings provide the focus. One large canvas, beautifully suspended in the centre of the gallery and softly illuminated in the otherwise darkened space, depicts what appears to be a black hole or a nebula; a sequence of paintings close by show the mouth of a cave viewed from within, a reference to Plato’s well-known allegory. Across a back wall, another series depicts the organic geometry of Marshallese rebbelib navigational charts – quietly iconic stick and cowrie shell constructions by which ni-Vanuatu seafarers found their way through sometimes treacherous ocean currents.

Nearly all the works are painted in what has become Boyd’s signature style: high-contrast, near-monochrome canvases that are heavily stippled with raised dots of clear archival glue, each of them roughly the size of a small shirt button or a droplet of water. Boyd refers to these dots as “lenses” – it’s only through them that each canvas’s underlying image is seen. This is because once they are applied, Boyd paints the entire image out with oils before rubbing it back again: the lenses are buffed clean while the spaces between remain obscured. The paintings are, in a sense, desecrated before being brought back through Boyd’s touch – quite literally restored to legibility after being lost. The method – one of the most remarkable alignments between process and concept that I’ve seen in recent Australian art – makes each image seemingly glow with an inner light while at the same time rendering it indistinct and spectral. It speaks directly to the possibility of the world before it is known. Pinpricks of light, tiny flashes of synaptic eruptions: this is how the world exists before perception, and is eventually how a full picture of it is made. But is it ever complete, or even the same from one mind to the next?

As we drive, Boyd explains that a desire to disrupt prevalent ways of seeing the world, and therefore categorising it, provides one key to his work. He speaks in a relaxed manner, almost preternaturally so: halting snippets of ideas arrive carefully weighed and assessed; he’s not at all averse to long pauses.

“I think an empirical model, and the resulting simplification of things, is not representative of who we are as human beings,” he tells me.

No matter how labour intensive the process is, Boyd feels that the way in which his paintings dissolve and then reassemble his source images allows him to work though complex ideas in a far more propositional and poetic manner, one far more closely aligned with actual lived experience.

“We move through time and space, and continually gain associations with all these different things,” he says. “My paintings are grounded in a language that allows them to speak to that complexity. It’s like, there are all these different ideas that can flow through that: it’s about engaging the beauty of chaos, in a way.”

The first gallery of Treasure Island gives way to a headlong rush through a visual history of colonialism in its many forms. In the two galleries that follow, there are paintings of colonial kings and queens, of Pacific Islanders being trafficked as slaves, of tribal sculptures once appropriated as fuel for the modernist conflagrations unleashed by Picasso and Matisse. Passed through Boyd’s exacting process, whatever original power his source images once had in and of themselves is swapped out for the same beguiling inner-illumination that links all his work. Bright moments appear throughout – the biomorphic abstraction of a smallpox virus and a closely cropped image of a breadfruit tree are both rendered in rare flourishes of gorgeous colour – but it’s the fourth and final gallery that’s the most affecting at a personal level. There, it’s all about family. And among canvases that show great-grandparents and ancestors is an image of an infant Boyd being cradled by his young mother, her face lit by a megawatt grin. She passed away late last year; for Boyd the work provides a means “for her to be present”.

Boyd tells me about his early life in Cairns. Although he recalls participating in the protest marches for Aboriginal rights that would kick off the town’s annual NAIDOC week celebrations, his parents were not overtly political. They clearly passed on to their son an understanding of the injustices that his immediate forebears had endured, along with a quietly confident belief in the pressing need for redress. But Boyd, who is the youngest of three siblings, later came to understand that their own experience of oppression had instilled in them a fear of retribution.

“They didn’t want to lose their children,” he says, “so they were very careful about what they did.”

The fear was well founded: the route his family traces through the Yarrabah mission is multi-generational. His father’s mother was eventually sent by mission authorities to work at the Cairns hospital, which is where his father was born, while his mother left Yarrabah as a child, following a group who secured freehold title to a parcel of land at Giangurra (responsibility for the mission was handed to the state government in 1961). Little more than a cluster of houses on the north-east edge of Cairns harbour, Giangurra was only accessible by water until a road was carved into the bush between Cairns and Yarrabah in the 1970s. For Boyd’s mother, transport to Cairns for school or shopping was by rowboat.

Racism was a constant presence during Boyd’s childhood and youth. “You try and figure out ways around it, but it ultimately informs your understanding…” His description trails off, while his eyes fix on the traffic ahead. “Even then I was trying to figure out why people treated me the way they treated me, why they treated my family the way they did.”

Beyond family, sport and art also provided some protection. A talented basketballer, by his late teens Boyd was playing in the local semi-professional team. At times he was training and playing up to seven days a week. It gave him a sense of discipline, but it was more than that. “I think basketball gave me a kind of sense of responsibility to other people.”

As for art, that came when a work colleague of his father’s encouraged an early interest and Boyd began selling reef-themed works to tourists. Later, after he participated in an exhibition for First Nations artists from Far North Queensland, which was held at Sydney Airport in 2001, one of the organisers asked him for a portfolio of his work. When she showed it without his knowledge to the National Institute of the Arts, at the Australian National University in Canberra, he was offered a place. He was 19 – within four years his paintings had been collected by the National Gallery of Australia.

A selection of these works – drawn from a series Boyd began at art school and continued for a number of years following – are included in Treasure Island. In contrast to the rest of the exhibition, they are painted in a far more conventional manner, partly, as Boyd freely admits, because he was then still teaching himself how to use oil paint. They are also more straightforward, purposefully so – meme-like visual satires that sit in contrast to the more layered and nuanced work that followed. The first of them – Captain No Beard (2005) – was prompted by a visit to Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery, where Boyd encountered a portrait of Captain James Cook by the Englishman John Webber, official artist on Cook’s third Pacific expedition of 1776 to 1780. Webber’s work is emblematic of the official portraiture of the day: a three-quarter view of Cook in his maritime finery; a moody, storm-tossed backdrop; a sense of heroic stoicism, of lands only recently touched by empire’s long reach.

Boyd’s immediate feelings about Webber’s painting were, as he puts it to me with characteristic restraint, “complicated”. But he soon saw that it might offer a means to “challenge who these images are for and try to reclaim some kind of ground in terms of how they inform society”.

The idea took hold. Back in his studio he faithfully appropriated Webber’s image, before adding a pirate’s patch to Cook’s right eye, and perching a red parrot on his shoulder. He added a postcard-style white border and painted the work’s title in cursive script along the bottom edge. A series followed: alongside Captain No Beard there was soon a painting of a Union Jack-turned-skull-and-crossbones (Jolly Jack, 2005), and another of the well-known AIATSIS map in which the Australian continent is divided into a coloured mosaic of Indigenous language groups. Boyd emblazoned that one with the title of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island – a text he has referenced enough over the subsequent years for it to grant his AGNSW exhibition its title. This early series of work formed his final art school portfolio, but due to an outstanding unit on his academic transcript he never officially graduated. All was not lost. The following year, he exhibited the series with Sydney’s now-defunct Mori Gallery, where it was seen by Brenda L. Croft, then the NGA’s senior curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.

As Croft recently recalled to me over the phone from Canberra, she was bowled over. “The only other time I’ve felt like that was when I first saw Gordon Bennett’s work at Perspecta,” Croft said, referring to the annual contemporary survey exhibition that the AGNSW produced between 1981 and 1999. The Queensland-born Bennett, who passed away in 2014, was included in 1989, and is now understood to be one of the key figures of Australian contemporary art: a giant among the first wave of Aboriginal artists who burst onto the 1980s and 1990s contemporary art scene with work that grappled directly, and often uncomfortably, with this country’s colonial inheritance. Boyd would never meet Bennett, but by the time Croft encountered Boyd’s work at Mori he had already been touched by the older artist’s influence.

“I was a very quiet student at art school and I would hide in the library,” Boyd says, laughing softly at the memory. One of the books he recalls pulling from the shelf in his early days there was a slim catalogue marking Bennett’s 1993 win of the prestigious Moët and Chandon Australian Art Fellowship.

“As a young student I was thinking, What am I going to do with this thing, with painting? And here’s a guy who comes from Queensland, and he’s Aboriginal, and he’d won one of the biggest art prizes in Australia – it gave me a sense of the kind of forum that I was engaging with, an understanding of the possibilities that art could afford.”

For her part, Croft acted quickly. “NGA had a policy not to buy student works,” she told me. “But Dan’s works were so well formed that I had no qualms arguing for their acquisition.” The gallery purchased four paintings in 2006, three of which Boyd had made at art school, and another a year later. He is now represented in the national collection by eight works spanning 2005 to 2016.

Boyd’s studio lies only a handful of streets from the home that he shares with his partner, Belle Charter, a fellow artist whom Boyd met at art school and whose master’s studies in education have recently been put on hold so she can help manage Boyd’s career. They have three daughters, and the proximity between home and studio allows Boyd to be as present as possible – our discussion will end in time for him to collect his youngest from kindergarten close by. Being based in Marrickville also keeps him free of direct art-world entanglements. His studio is in an old factory neatly divided into workshops peopled not by fellow artists but by tradespeople and small businesses.

Inside, there are two works in progress, but Boyd’s generously scaled studio walls are otherwise bare. His paintings are in high demand: he has recently sent a new group to Los Angeles, where he is included in an exhibition at Château Shatto, a forward-thinking commercial venture run by Australian gallerist Olivia Barrett, while a project exhibition opens in early 2023 at the prestigious Gropius Bau museum in Berlin. In addition, it was recently announced that Boyd had been included among the line-up at Superblue – an “experiential” art initiative from the globe-spanning Pace Gallery – that also includes international luminaries such as African-American sculptor Nick Cave and land artist (and more recently Kanye West collaborator) James Turrell. This success comes in step with a broader, and long-gestating, turn, in which First Nations artists are claiming new ground at the centre of a previously Eurocentric art world. As we settle at Boyd’s large worktable, he explains that although he isn’t without reservations about the art world’s machinations, he nonetheless recognises the moment. “I’ve been lucky to be a part of change.”

Once again, our conversation turns to Boyd’s family background. He spent a lot of time at Giangurra when he was growing up, and it still plays an important role in his life. He now returns with his own children, who love it as much as he did when he was their age. “They’ve been going there since they were born,” he says. “It’s a beautiful place … They go there, and there are, like, 50 kids, and they’re like, ‘Who are these kids?’, and I’m like, ‘These are your cousins!’” But it’s the environment too: “It’s ancient in a different way – the oldest rainforest on earth. And it’s so diverse in terms of the things that exist there.”

Even so, Boyd remains keenly aware of the darker aspects of his inheritance, and of the responsibilities that have arisen as a result. The Yarrabah mission looms large in his family’s story: an immovable obstacle that irretrievably altered history’s flow.

“They came into the mission in many, many ways. One of my great-grandmothers was the sole survivor of a massacre, and my great-grandfather was the child of a South Sea Islander slave and an Aboriginal woman. And being a mixed-race couple, he was taken off them simply because of the fact of who they were.”

Long-held traditions were lost there, language prominent among them. “The assimilation policy was cultural genocide, there’s no way around it,” Boyd says. “And there has to be accountability for that, you know?”

What form might that accountability take, I wonder, that would be commensurate with the act?

Boyd pauses.

“I think it comes down to responsibility,” he says finally. “There are so many things that should happen, but there’s no easy answer.

“I think the beauty of being an artist is that you don’t have to answer to anybody but yourself … I [also] know that I am adding to a continuum. I have children who I hope will have a better future than my parents and grandparents – all my ancestors – had. But we still have a lot of work to do with the lateral violence, and the things that are still enacted upon First Nations people.”

A number of days later, I phone Boyd. I had by then visited his exhibition again, and had left thinking about how culture changes and adapts – that even in the face of world-shattering events such as colonisation it can find the means to reform.

We return to something we’d touched on but not fully fleshed out in person: the story of what became of his bunya seeds. The majestic trees can’t help but track the wider story of Australia’s colonisation. Although they were afforded early (and rare) protection, once their value as timber became clear it was open slather. They were logged extensively in the late 1800s and early 1900s, which in turn brought an end to the large-scale inter-tribal gatherings the trees had prompted for generations. But even as numbers fell precipitously, they were spreading elsewhere. Colonial settlers returned with seeds to Sydney, and then took them south along the coast, where they were most often planted in the 1880s to help travellers identify the location of a homestead.

Boyd’s favourite example comes from even farther afield. A studio assistant he worked with during lockdown in 2021 hailed from Los Angeles, and told Boyd of a famous bunya there – one that had become far more than a navigational beacon. As Boyd soon discovered, “El Pino”, as it is known by locals, had featured prominently in a little-known cult film, Blood In, Blood Out, from 1993, and was widely embraced as an icon of the largely Latino East Los Angeles neighbourhood. When a prank Facebook post last year claimed that it was to be cut down, the community believed it and the backlash was immediate: protesters gathered and banners were unfurled. One local, interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, said of the tree: “[El Pino] is like Mecca here. Everyone feels a sense of ownership to it.”

As for Boyd’s bunya seeds, two eventually raised their green heads from the pots in which he’d planted them. It took almost nine months. He gave one away, but the other he kept. Realising he had the makings of a 30-plus metre tree on his hands, he took it to his in-laws’ property in the Blue Mountains, to one day plant it in the earth.

The shock of relocation seemed at first to kill it, but then, after a brief interlude, it once again reached new growth skyward.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer. His first book, The Stranger Artist, won the 2021 Prime Minister's Literary Award for nonfiction.

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