Colony exhibitions at NGV challenge a nation still at odds with its past
Advertisement

Colony exhibitions at NGV challenge a nation still at odds with its past

Central to the NGV's Colony: Australia 1770-1861 exhibition is the development of European art in Australia, but curators are quick to emphasise that important counterpoints to this glorified colonial narrative are included along the way. This juxtaposition of celebrated European works and First Nations' cultural objects produces an agile dialogue, much subtler than the complementary exhibition Colony: Frontier Wars, though equally as potent in challenging the Commonwealth's preferred interpretation of its nationhood.

In terms of provocation, the launch of the double exhibition is perfectly timed, arriving in the midst of a key point of difference between the two major parties over a proposal for a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous "voice" to parliament. The Prime Minister's objection to the proposal recently saw him threaten to take the issue into an upcoming federal election, potentially the most divisive since the One Nation-charged politics of the Howard era. Add to this scenario the contested ground over Australia's national day on January 26 and the relevancy of Colony: Australia 1770-1861/Frontier Wars should become too incendiary to miss.

Joseph Lycett, Inner view of Newcastle (detail), c.1818.

Joseph Lycett, Inner view of Newcastle (detail), c.1818.

Photo: NGV

Highlights include artefacts from the continent's Dutch explorers that dispel the myth that the great southern land was discovered by Lieutenant James Cook aboard the Endeavour; a range of early views of Sydney Harbour, including images of the local First Nations mob engaged in their traditional practices around the British penal settlement; the art of scrimshaw recalling the impacts of European whaling and sealing in southern Australia; drawings by early settlers that bluntly mark out the places of massacre of First Nations peoples around Melbourne; detailed pastorals painted by convict artists that reveal the extent to which settlement was predicated on dispossession and dispersal through a sudden elimination of Blackfullas from the artists' adopted composition of the landscape. In the curious absence, a true history emerges.

It is this capacity for truth-telling that is most instructive when it comes to the approach required for the Commonwealth to realise its aspiration for reconciliation. In this direction, the Colony: Australia 1770-1861/Frontier Wars exhibitions take respectful note of the vital third tine of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which calls not only for a First Nations voice to parliament, and a treaty (or treaties), but a critical, public process of national self-reflection.

Dixson collector's chest c. 1818-20, encapsulates the doctrines of the Enlightenment.

Dixson collector's chest c. 1818-20, encapsulates the doctrines of the Enlightenment.

Photo: NGV
Advertisement

In modern Australia, truth-telling in terms of the national grand narrative remains severely neglected. We need only examine the national apology to the Stolen Generation on February 13, 2008, with its clever caveat in regards to guilt. Or John Howard's wilful disregard of the recommendations contained in the Bringing Them Home report in 1997, followed by his obdurate refusal to say sorry over the next decade. But it was an attitude that repeatedly polled well and became a guiding beacon for far too many people. We can observe the hangover in white Australia's predisposition to historical amnesia around January 26 each year.

It's a sentiment that Colony: Australia 1770-1861 succeeds in challenging. Also revealed, though perhaps inadvertently, is the true nature of colonialism in terms of relations of power and the role of Australia's fledgling colonies in the industry of Empire.

In the exhibition's catalogue, contemporary artist Brook Andrew observes a telling compositional aspect of colonial landscape paintings. The persistence of a "horizon line", Andrew notes, forms a kind of "doctrine" on the subject that "symbolised hierarchies of class, society, culture and the idea of an 'opposite', pitting Western man as superior to this new land, taming it with a new spirit".

Lieutenant Cook and naturalist Joseph Banks could be said to have been enthralled by this same doctrine when they landed on Dharawal lands on April 29, 1770. Records describe Banks feverishly amassing plant specimens in the name of scientific reason, and Cook attributing Rousseauian nobility to the savages encountered.

Colony includes specimens obtained by Banks on that first foray ashore, though sadly not the 1770 bark shield that the expedition acquired after it was abandoned by the startled local mob. The shield, like so many other artefacts obtained from Aboriginal people in the early years of invasion, remains in the keep of the British Museum. There are, however, examples of 19th century traditional shields, arranged in a row at the entry to the show.

"They signify from the outset that there is a rich Indigenous material culture that is part of [Australia's] history," says senior curator Susan van Wyk. "And also in recognition that the whole notion of terra nullius has no basis."

The striking visual effect may also symbolise First Nations swift opposition to the colonial-settler invasion, and preface what is addressed more assertively in Colony: Frontier Wars.

The Colony catalogue also acknowledges that Britain's loss of the American colonies following the American War of Independence (1775-1783) increased pressure for new solutions to social and economic conditions in late 18th century Britain. New primary resources were readily identified and then relentlessly extracted.

Celebrated decorative pieces such as William Temple and John Webster's Dixson collector's chest (1818-20), and their Australian-gothic chairs of 1821 (replete with the telltale armoured-fist-gripping-a-dagger motif of Governor Macquarie's family crest), and including the Joseph Sly gothic-revival bookcases (1845) and the Sydney sideboard (unidentified, also late-1840s) are impressive symbols of the commercialisation of one particular resource in the new colony. Appreciation for the craftsmanship and artistry of these objects may be deserved, but the exhibition could have provided clearer acknowledgement of the historical context of their production to improve understanding of what these furnishings truly represent.

The discovery of coal determined the establishment of a second penal settlement at Newcastle, but it was ultimately the surrounding red cedar that lured the colonial frontier further afield. Cedar-getting commenced around Coal River, as the Hunter was then known, as early as 1801 and rapidly escalated, with the most accessible stands gone within 20 years. By the mid-1820s, red cedar had become NSW's third main export after wheat and wool and by the 1850s there was barely a commercially viable stand remaining in the region.

As the cedar-getters advanced in pursuit of virgin forest, behind them graziers and croppers moved in to occupy the cleared land. A finely balanced ecosystem that had existed for millennia was transfigured within a century. The land was ravaged. The natives were dispersed, eliminated. The impacts continue to resonate today.

If the Dixsons collector's chest shamelessly encapsulates the doctrines of the Enlightenment, the affiliation between the convicted forger Joseph Lycett and some of the colony's most prominent officers perfectly epitomises colonial relations of power. Between 1816 and 1821 Lycett became the favoured artist of Newcastle's commandant, Captain James Wallis. History has since revealed that Wallis – himself an amateur artist – was prone to claim Lycett's work as his own.

It was also recently discovered that during his five-year stint at Newcastle, Lycett created 20 watercolours depicting the Awabakal and Worimi peoples of the area, as well as First Nations peoples in Port Stephens, Myall Lakes and the Birpai people of Port Macquarie. The watercolours document these local mobs at work and in leisure, as well as in ceremony and war – one illustrates Blackfullas in a skirmish with a European rowing boat.

These works, considered unusual because Lycett primarily painted landscapes, were unknown until they reappeared in London in 1972. Since then, they have returned to Australia and become instrumental in informing Indigenous resurgence programs within these traditional First Nations.

It is these sorts of revelations of a shared narrative that Colony: Australia 1770-1861 sets out to expose. It also explores the pliability of nationhood, and the need to revisit notions of who and what this nation is. This truth-telling now needs to occur beyond the gallery space, so a more respectful, responsible and responsive nation might prevail.

Jack Latimore is a Birpai guri living in Melbourne.

Colony: Australia 1770–1861 and Colony: Frontier Wars are at NGV Australia, Federation Square, March 15-July 15. Fairfax Media is an exhibition partner.

Most Viewed in Entertainment

Loading

Morning & Afternoon Newsletter

Delivered Mon–Fri.

By signing up you accept our privacy policy and conditions of use