Art as Australian identity

Oceana Piccone, Year 12, Visual art 2018, task #2, word count of 2182

“Examine and evaluate the representation of Australian identity in art, referencing at least three artists, their work and the context in which they worked.”

Throughout Australian art history, we have adapted, compromised, and evolved. initially Artists have expressed their social views through art styles that complement their story. The first known Australian art form was the carving of rocks by indigenous Australians, they would use stone as a canvas to demonstrate survival techniques and traditional rituals with the use of symbolism. There was no written language for Australian aboriginals so in order to convey their important cultural story it was portrayed through symbols and icons. Their art materials consisted of ochre, charcoal, chewed bark and stencils. Without this artistic expression which endured the centuries, their culture and identity could have been disregarded. Australian indigenous art is centred around story telling, to convey knowledge of the land, events and beliefs of the aboriginal people. The images illustrate symbols of identity, hand prints, footprints, boomerangs, spears and of figures holding hands.

Everything changed in 1770 when the first fleet of new arrivals from England set foot on the sands of Botany Bay. Wars and battles were had between the aboriginal tribes and the English, many natives died in defence of their rightful land. It was a very morally corrupt affair. The early English settlers called Australia ‘The Empty Land’ or ‘Terra Nullius’, and didn’t legally recognise the aboriginal people as people.The English brought with them diseases such as the plague which spread quickly, killing many of the natives. The English won nearly every battle with their advanced weapons, taking and transforming Australia into an English colony. The English enslaved and killed off thousands of the indigenous people. This time marked the beginning of the end for this ancient way of life. The early European artists painted the Australian landscape but their paintings appeared like the country from which they had come. The gum trees in John Glover’s works look like weeping willows of the English countryside. Australia’s art styles were always one step behind other more exposed countries in mainland Europe and America. It took time for information and new techniques to make an impact in this far flung colony. During early Australian art history it seems the goal was to document life on this new and strange continent. Artists such as Tom Roberts painted daily life in Australia, representing not only the landscape but also Australian identity for them at the time.

Art in Australia rapidly transformed, following the lead of international impressionism, Modernism and Postmodernism this was the beginning of an art ‘journey’. Things such as easier access to more affordable travel, the internet and social media have impacted on the development of Australian Art. Australian identity has also evolved, with people starting to ask questions like What is Australian identity? What does it mean to be Australian? What is Australian art? Are the Australian aboriginal people the only true Australians? Throughout the history of Australian art, identity has been a significant theme, in the works of many influential artists, such as Arthur Streeton, Daisy Loongkoonan, and Gordon Bennett. All these artists have impacted the evolution of Australian art and explored the complexities of what it means to find their identity as an Australian.

Arthur Ernest Streeton was born 8th April 1867 inVictoria and died on the 1st of September 1943. His parents were both English and met on the voyage from England to Australia. He was an Australian landscape painter and a leading member of the Heidelberg Movement, also known as Australian Impressionism. He was heavily influenced by international Impressionism and the idea of Plein-Air painting. He was the fourth of seven children and studied at the National Gallery schools in Melbourne between 1882 and 1888, he received little formal training in art beyond night classes and he often would join other students to paint in popular sites like Box Hill, Mentone and Heidelberg. Streeton was influenced by his friends and teachers and was attracted to French Impressionism. This innovative style only started appearing in Australia around 1887 and he quickly adapted the style into his own practice, as he was in the process of finding his own identity. In 1887, he camped and painted with Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubblin and Louis Abrahams which developed into its own well known school of art and led the way for other Australian Impressionists. Streeton’s paintings defined a unique interpretation of his country. He found his inspiration in nature and could sit and observe its beauty for hours. He enjoyed painting in open air, representing Australia’s light, heat, space and distance. Impressionism aimed to capture momentary, sensory effect of a scene.

Critic Geoffrey Edwards commented on Streeton’s work, stating that, “There is a complex play of emotions and ideas that works on you subliminally.”

Streeton moved to Sydney, where he painted the views of the city, harbours and beaches. In Sydney theres a beautiful little bay called Sirius Cove, where he produced work such as “From My Camp (Sirius Cove)”.

“Sirius Cove”, 1890, is an oil painting of a section of the Sydney harbour, a place where artists would come and stay in the “Curlew Camp”. I personally find his piece very alluring and peaceful, close up it appears unrealistic and spontaneous, but from afar it’s a perfect landscape with a soft pastel palette. This impressionistic landscape communicates a warm summer day, salty breeze, and throwing pebbles. A place where Streeton could contemplate where he stands in relation to the world and discover his own personal identity. This peaceful picturesque bay is a strong contrast to what it has become today, a bay filled with bustling boats and seaside holiday houses.“Sirius Cove” is representing the beauty of the seaside, it’s showcasing Australia’s natural elegance. It makes me feel calm. I think he’s making a statement on how in life, a close up reality can appear distorted apposed to when you look at it from afar where it becomes deceivingly perfect. Worldly wonders are often evident in Streeton’s work as he illustrates his immediate environment. He was one of the first non native impressionist artists to successfully capture the Australian ‘identity’ through it’s landscapes. His audiences have grown and changed over time, viewing his work from many different angles. I can appreciate this work because it’s a timeless piece that successfully captures the time and place and leaves an impression on the viewer.

“Sirius Cove”, 1890

Oil on plywood, 50 x 70 cm

Arthur Streeton illustrates his immediate surroundings in search for cultural identity within this vast expansive wasteland we call Australia. I feel our natural surroundings are intrinsic to cultural identity and Streeton represents his personal perspective beautifully in a soft impressionistic manner. This is a strong contrast to Daisy Loongkoonan, an Indigenous painter who knows who she is, where she stands and what cultural group she belongs to. Daisy Loongkoonan is a Nyikina elder, born around 1910 in Western Australia. She never attended school and is unable to read or write. She is the last remaining speaker of the Nyikina language and she is thought to be Australia’s oldest practising artist. Loongkoonan didn’t pick up a paint brush until she was in her mid 90’s but when she did, a stream of cultural consciousness poured onto the canvas and she painted symbols of rituals, paths and locations. Her work represents her culture, natural medicines, bush tucker and the river. She creates art for no other reason but to express her cultural identity, she uses bright colourful dots to portray flora and fauna, her works are showcased on an international level, and have been exhibited in every state in the country, her works are now selling for up to $12,000. Money doesn’t mean much to her though as she’s rather comfortable in her country shack, bare footed and covered in ochre dust.

Ben Hill, an art journalist, writes “Loongkoonan was a natural… no one taught her, she just took off.” Her early paintings were rather crude and unformed, but she quickly developed a unique and idiosyncratic style of vividly-coloured dot painting, quite different from the Wandjina spirit figures.” She produced 372 paintings in about five years and has had more than 60 exhibitions. Loongkoonan is a brave woman who is driven by her love for her country and heritage.

“Nyikina people, Bush Tucker In Nyikina County”, 2006

Acrylic on canvas and linen, size unknown

Many of Loongkoonan’s paintings are a visual story of her heritage and past. Her works are quite magical and very jewell-like. They display visuals that appear like an optical illusion and they portray an eagle eye view of the land. They also can be read like aerial maps of the Nyikina countryside. Loongkoonan doesn’t make art to shock her audiences or to make us question, she makes art because it feels natural and it’s her way of expressing her cultural identity. She uses art like photography, documenting her tribal ways before they’re lost. She feels that once she’s gone her traditions will be lost with her.

Art is created through many different perspectives, a range of people exposed to diverse cultures in different times. The next artist i’ll be exploring is also an aboriginal artist born in a more exposing time. He works from a Postmodern perspective, standing up for his cultural identity but showcases it in a very different way. Gordon Bennett was born in Monto, Queensland on the 10th of August 1955. Died the 3rd of June 2014. Bennett enrolled at Queensland College of Art. In 1986 and graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree. Bennett’s art is linked to his personal struggle for identity as an Australian man of both Aboriginal and Anglo-Celtic descent. Bennett’s art expresses issues associated with the dominant role that western culture has played in the construction of the social and cultural landscapes of the nation. When asked about his practice Bennett has said, “my approach is very personal. You might even say that every work to date has been a self- portrait, in that what inspires each work is my own day- to- day experience of living in Australia.”

A recurring subject in many of Bennett’s works is the question of identity, personal, cultural and national, and our perceptions of knowledge. Bennett is a multi-media artist and chooses the medium to best explore the concept of each artwork. His practice includes; painting, photography, printmaking, video, performance, and installation. Postmodern approaches flow through Bennett’s work, not only in his use of new mediums but also in the depiction of shocking subject matter. His works are layered, complex and often include symbolism from social text books, western art history, and indigenous art. Bennett is not just expressing himself and his own personal identity but is standing up for the national rights of other indigenous Australians. He uses appropriation, satire, irony and re-contextualisation to layer meaning into his works, offering his audiences multiple perspectives. He’s challenging conventional ways of viewing and thinking about art, opening up new possibilities for understanding the subjects explored. Bennett's art is confronting and bold, he clearly outlines his views of discrimination suffered by Aborigines. His work is very expressive and Postmodern, quite the contrary to Arthur Streeton’s landscapes which are more subtle, or to Daisy Loongkoonans hidden cultural codes. Bennett clearly portrays his views on the world he lives in and asks us to reconsider Australia’s history and what it means to be Australian.

“Self Portrait (but I always wanted to be one of the good guys)”, 1990

Oil on canvas, 150.0 x 260.o cm

In Bennett’s work “Self Portrait (but I always wanted to be one of the good guys)” he explores how stereotypes impact on peoples sense of identity. It’s a bold work that fearlessly states I AM, a powerful word, confronting identity, accompanied by ‘I am light- I am dark’ which is a statement on how Bennett stands between heritages. Bennett portrays himself as a four year old boy dressed as a cowboy as the ‘I’ and is juxtaposed with images of Aborigines fighting the English. The use of black and white contrasts to border the artwork indicating his mixed heritage. Bennett’s paintings are filled with graphic detail, patterns, lingering perspectives, words, grids, logos, narratives, emotion, all screaming his views.

In conclusion, Australian art has adapted, compromised, and evolved in a dynamic way. Australia has always seemed to have these questions on it shoulders; What does it mean to be Australian?, What defines an Australian artist? and What is Australia’s national identity?’ In my opinion artists have explored these questions throughout art history. The artists I have examined, such as Arthur Sreeton, Daisy Loongkoonans and Gordon Bennett have depicted their cultural, national and personal identity and expressed what it means to be Australian to them. Australia is a diverse country with many social views, none of which are right or wrong. I think for everyone it’s different and these artists works are just some of the voices in this on going dialogue.

I would like to acknowledge the Arakwal Bundjalung People and the wider Bundjalung Nation as traditional owners and custodians of this land and pay my respects to elders past and present.