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Tag Archives: post-colonial

Dishonouring the memory

Public statues are about honouring the person portrayed, especially when they are larger than life-sized. There are no public portrait statues created of people who it was not intended to honour. This is because the tradition of portrait sculpture started with the depiction of Ancient Greek gods, demigods and heroes.

The campaign, “Wentworth Must Fall”, at Sydney University to remove the statue of William Charles Wentworth from the Great Hall and rename the Wentworth building is based on the Oxford University “Rhodes Must Fall”
campaign and other campaigns for statue removal that are known collectively as the Statue Wars (see my post Statue Wars 2017).

Removing a sculpture or burning of an effigy is not revising history — it is a symbol of regime change. It is about moving from colonial to post-colonial. The changes in public statues, place names and other symbols is part of post-colonialism. And the question that Sydney University students are asking their university in this campaign is what are they doing to decolonize. Leaving a public portrait statue of a person who is no longer honoured distorts the historical record by implying that the person is still honoured.

It is traditional to burn the effigies of hated figures and remove statues of them. Often when a statue is removed it is destroyed because the people removing it hate the person it represents. This doesn’t have to the case and the statue can be stored, archived, and exhibited in contexts that do not honour the person portrayed (for example in an exhibition of the work of the sculptor who made it).

The statue of Wentworth was made by Pietro Tenerani, a sculptor based in Rome and a student of the Danish neo-classical sculptor Thorvaldsen. During his career Tenerani produced work to order for the Catholic church and nationalists around the world — from a statue of Simon Bolivar for Bogota to a statue of Ferdinand II of Naples for Messina. His portrayal of Wentworth as an orator is more creative than accurate. When the statue was made Wentworth was in his sixties but is portrayed as a younger man. Wentworth himself was not a supporter of the statue. He believed that the funds could have been better spent.

Regardless of the details of Wentworth’s life his statue was and always will be a colonial symbol. The inauguration of the Wentworth statue was an imperial event (as reported in Empire p.5 24 June 1862). Before its unveiling the statue was covered with a flag and the band playing God Save the King several times. Australian nationalists are keen to cement their claims with statues of colonial heroes and post-colonialism is heavily resisted. The current government worships Captain Cook as a demigod of imperial colonisation, worthy of a multi-million dollar memorial.

It is the plinth or pedestal that is the crucial element in the hero worship of these statues. Lying on its side without its plinth statues of Stalin or Felix Dzerzhinsky are inoffensive. If the statue of Wentworth was placed in a pit (maybe with a glass roof so that people could walk over it) it would have a very different meaning.

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Gordon Bennett @ Sutton Gallery

The title of Gordon Bennett’s latest exhibition: “(Abstraction) Citizen” is just waiting to be deconstructed. They are tempting text to use as a springboard for an examination of Australia’s race relationship and representation.

The paintings themselves, Bennett’s series of double portraits invites more critical discourse about the dichotomy between words and identity, abstraction and representation, citizens and non-citizens. In Bennett’s painting the pink lines that make one face are on top of the black/brown X-ray, geometric figures that are reminiscent of figures by Jean-Michel Basquiat. In 1998 Bennett started to channel Basquiat in his paintings. Bennett saw similarities his Anglo-Celtic and Aboriginal ancestry and Basquiat’s Haitian/Puerto Rican, as well as, that Basquiat’s art that was an amalgam of visual images and ideas.

Underneath the double portraits of imaginary people Gordon Bennett has written words on the canvas, titling the portraits with text: “suburbanite”, “burgher”, “indigene”, “citizenry”, “colonist” and “population”.

The philosopher Max Stirner wrote: “…in order to be a real I, a ‘free burgher’, a ‘citizen’, a ‘free and true man’, they too see the truth and reality of me in the reception of an alien I and devotion to it. And what sort of I? An I that is neither an I nor a you, a fancied I, a spook.” (The Ego and Its Own p.225)

Max Stirner argues that identities like ‘citizen’ are alien abstractions; that I am not a citizen, a suburbanite, a burgher, an indigene, citizenry, colonist, or even population. The words that Bennett has written on his paintings are abstractions; they are not representational or representative of an individual. The words suggest a membership of an abstract group. It is also a reference to Bennett’s alternate identity as “John Citizen”.

Gordon Bennett keeps on changing his style of painting. I remember seeing his retrospective of twenty years of art at the NGV in 2007 and being struck by the variety of media, besides painting, that Bennett has used including videos and self-portraits in the form of installations with dressing tables. Bennett’s ‘cut & paste’ aesthetic appropriates everyone; he mixes Pollock with Pop Art, Phillip Guston with De Stijl, going from one extreme to another. He could, at this stage of his career be resting on his achievements and like many other established artists continuing to turn out trademark style paintings but instead he keeps on changing.

Gordon Bennett is a post-modern stylistic master of appropriation mixing Western and Australian aboriginal art with a post-colonial agenda. This sounds very serious but Bennett makes post-modernism visual delight. Gordon Bennett’s art will remain a critical favourite with his references and thought provoking work but his art remains fun and visually appealing.

Commemorative plaque @ Queensland College of Art, Brisbane


Mute Relics & Bedevilled Creatures

Mute Relics & Bedevilled Creatures, at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick is a response to ‘Reconcilation Week’ or NAIDOC Week.  It is a fun and thought-provoking exhibition. It is a strange kind of fun, like laughter, even if the laughter is bit bitter and crazy, it is still a laugh in the post-colonial wake of genocide.

It is important that aboriginal and non-aboriginal artists are part of this exhibition. There is an exchange in the references, appropriation and subversion of European or Australian images and materials. As in, Julie Gough’s “Ransom” where antlers are hung with giant beads of Tasmanian coal, or the inclusion of brown glass by John Duggan in his display of stone tools. Everyone owns the history.

Sam Leech’s future fauna are beautiful paintings of strange hybrid creatures, speculating on the future evolution of Australian fauna, like an albino kangaroos with antlers. Sharon West and Gary Smith have also created strange hybrid creatures; Smith’s “Flabbit”, a flying rabbit, is a wonder of taxidermy. In a reference to Duchamp the shadow of the flabbit in its cage is projected across the red surface of Smith’s triptych of paintings.

There are no shortage of spectacular works in this exhibition amongst them Kate Rohde’s 3 neo-rocco cabinets on gold tables, complete with exquisite levels of kitsch details, displaying fake displays of animal, vegetable and mineral specimens.  The highlight of the exhibition for me was seeing more paintings and dioramas by Sharon West. West is also one of the curators of the exhibition and has written an extensive essay on the exhibition for the catalogue. Her paintings especially the richly detailed interior of the Australian museum of megafauna summed up the exhibition and included Smith’s flabbit amongst the exhibits depicted.

Lurking behind this exhibition appears to be a strawman argument, a bogeyman of museums, a conservative dragon with a hoard. It is very different from the current museums and exhibition practice. It is also ironic for art that refers to and partially relies on the gallery institution for its viability. The installation and display of collections is played with through out the exhibition. Like, Denise Higgins “What Remains” that employs the aesthetics of clinical scientific minimalism, storage and labelling. And, especially, in Lyndon Ormond-Parker’s exhibition of historic texts in a vitrine.

Ralph Appelbaum, head of the world’s largest museum and exhibit design firm, said in the Guardian Weekly (01/6/09): “Museums are essentially ethical constructs.”  Taxonomies, categories and collections are all ethical constructs that prescribe values to the order that they create. (Read: Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger) Even what we cannot classify, the “bedevilled creatures” of the exhibition, is itself classified. This may be for the purpose of exclusion and taboo or, in the case of this exhibition, a celebration of unique qualities.


Anzac Biscuits

“Chocolate box art” is another way of saying a schmaltz painting; the decoration biscuit tins and tea tins used by Anna Davern have a similar aesthetic quality. However, Anna Davern tin collages at Craft Victoria are not just an exercise in playing with kitsch aesthetics. Combining the exaggerated sentimentality of images of England and Australia emphasizes their disconnection. Davern creates absurd, surreal images with humor and fun commenting on a post-colonial Australia. The images of England are as alien as the images of Beefeaters in Australian landscapes.

The Buena Vista of the title, the beautiful view is watched over by absent aboriginals. The silhouette or cutout and therefore absent figures of aborigines watching the scene remind the viewer of the genocidal practices of colonization. The indigenous people are removed or disconnected from the scene. The silhouette figures and the reworking of traditional media with post-colonial themes that Davern uses is similar to the art of Nusra Latif Qureshi.

Davern asks in some of the pieces what if Australia had colonized England? Would there be platypus swimming in the Thames and aborigines in English flower gardens? The Beefeater wearing a Ned Kelly helmet is another of the strong images from this show.

The Anglophile obsessions with the ‘mother country’, England are illustrated in these old biscuit tin lids. It is an obsession that still influences Australian politics. This week Tony Abbott MP has chosen to highlight in criticizing the draft national history curriculum prepared by Dr John Hirst, of La Trobe University for not being focused on England. (The Age 16/10/08) So Davern’s exhibition is a timely, expanding our view of the current ‘history wars’ in Australia. Davern has not simply jumped on this topical issue but has been developing it in her craft/jewellery making practice for several years.

Australia needs more intelligent craft like that of Anna Davern that explores and plays with national identity rather than producing props for nationalists.


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