Decolonising the ‘Postcolonial’

Helen. S. Tiernan, Transculturation: Sublime and Surreal Encounters of First Contact in the Antipodes,  Cooee Gallery, Sydney, May 6 – June 3, 2017

If postcolonial art has a style, it is appropriation, or rather, re-appropriation, as it tends to rework colonial imagery. This reworking is what earns it the descriptor post-colonial (though you might be forgiven for wondering if colonisation could ever truly be over). Postcolonial art is more a genre than a style, and a genre that introduces a certain wit and lightness to subjects that formerly had been heavy with remorse and guilt. Instead of the fatal shore, a carnivalesque upside-down world is reimagined, in which the normal order of things is undone. It can have a Weimer-era cabaret feel, like Brook Andrew’s brilliant exhibition The Right to Offend is Sacred at the NGV, or it can feel more like the sunroom of some nineteenth-century mansion where one is taking tea, as in Helen Tiernan’s May-June exhibition Transculturation: Sublime and Surreal Encounters of First Contact in the Antipodes held at Cooee Gallery in Sydney.

At first glance, Tiernan’s work seems to trade in nostalgia, as might be expected from her use of early historical sources. This is not, however, how she constructs meaning. Instead she artfully decolonises, with presentations that open new discourses for the understanding of contemporary Indigenous identity and history. She presents two spectacular panoramic works of colonial encounter, Colonial Wallpapers—Mantle of Perception (2017) and Colonial Wallpapers—Pacific Encounters (2017) and smaller ones like Warra Warra Wai—‘go away’ first contact Botany Bay (2017) and Tupaia’s sketch books. Banks and Maori chief trading (2017). These paintings with layered and sensuous clouds of tonal movements create ironic nuanced narratives of colonial cultures.

Colonial Wallpapers—Mantle of Perception appropriates the photographic and printed recordings of colonial artists such as Joseph Lycett, (1775-1828), Augustus Earle (1793-1838), John Eyre (1771- after1812) and Von Guérard (1877-1879), subtly undermining the entitlement claims of their imagery by miniaturising and precariously placing their architectural icons in a seemingly endless Indigenous ancestral landscape that includes its own icons such as the ancient stone fish traps at Brewarrina. Irreverently playing at the edge in the manner of the upside-down world, the layered subtleties of the artist’s narrative enjoy theatrical presentation, including a gilded altarpiece in marble, a metaphoric self-portrait of artist as heroine embodied in the image of Truganini. This Tasmanian Indigenous icon is now venerated in a church-like apse, supported either side as if in the coat–of-arms atop Parliament House in Canberra. Tiernan’s twist on settler nationhood, however, is to Indigenise the emblematic animals by using sculptor Laurie Nilsen’s wire emu and Danie Mellor’s porcelain kangaroo as her models.

The architrave frieze that frames the wallpaper (created from imprints of European-inspired stencils on recycled photographic negatives) signals the theatrical presentation of the format, the artist in mock heroic mode reminding that ‘All the world’s a stage… And one man in his time plays many parts.’ The cast of colonial players that step onto her stage include bushranger Ned Kelly in Sidney Nolan garb, Captain James Cook on his Memorial at Kernel (1879), and the great losers, failed explorers Burke and Wills in their Melbourne memorial.

Such references to colonial heroes and anti-heroes set the stage for Tiernan’s miniature portrait series Heroes of Colonial Encounter. Repainted, re-Historicised. This time she reimagines history, painting Bennelong, Bungaree, Colby, Bidgee Bidgee and Ballodere no longer as anonymous ‘Savage’, ‘Primitive’ or ‘Other’ as they appear in colonial accounts but instead, as equals amongst others. In the context of the exhibition these minoritarians are hung alongside those of such former colonial majoritarians as Cook, Joseph Banks, William Bligh, Arthur Philip and Matthew Flinders. However this time the interpretations of Eurocentric history are subverted and the importance of Aboriginals accentuated by the formality, humour and decorative excess given to them.

The other major work of the show Colonial Wallpapers—Pacific Encounters references early and often imaginary map-making of the South Pacific and a plethora of art and written historical sources, as well as material drawn from Cook’s voyages to Tahiti and new Zealand. Here Tiernan plays her transcultural hand, raising questions on the histories of Pacific ‘Others’. She humorously deconstructs Indigenous views of encounters, most notably by quoting those of the Polynesian aristocrat, navigator and artist Tupaia, Joseph Banks’ close friend who acted as Cook’s guide in the Pacific. In a typical postcolonial appropriation, Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg’s Apotheosis of Captain Cook, the famous engraving of Cook’s ascension to heaven,(1) is juxtaposed with drawings of Lewis Carroll for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865, challenging the official gravitas of the idea of European discovery through appealing to a more surreal interpretation of this history.


(1) It was after an image by Phillip James de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) that had been inspired by a drawing by John Webber in 1794. See

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Fig.1. WEBHelen Tiernan%2c Colonial Wallpapers- Mantle of Perception%2c 2016%2c 5 panels%2c 180x350cm .jpg

Helen S. Tiernan, Colonial Wallpapers– Mantle of Perception, 2016, 5 panels, 180 x 350cm, Oil on canvas, Photography and image courtesy of Cooee Gallery, Sydney. 

Fig.2. WEBHelen S. Tiernan%2c Colonial Wallpapers - Pacific Encounters%2c 2017%2c 180x300cm.jpg

Helen S. Tiernan, Colonial Wallpapers-Pacific Encounters, 2017, 180 x 300cm, Oil on canvas, Photography and image courtesy of Cooee Gallery, Sydney.

Fig.3.WEB Helen S. Tiernan.jpg

Helen S. Tiernan, Warra Warra Wai- 'Go Away' First Contact Botany Bay, 2017, 148 x 74cm, Oil on canvas, Photography and image courtesy of Cooee Gallery, Sydney.

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Helen S. Tiernan, Tupaia's Sketch Books, Banks and Maori Chief Trading, 2017, 148 x 74cm, Oil on canvas, Photography and image courtesy of Cooee Gallery, Sydney.


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Helen S. Tiernan, Bennelong, 2016, 30 x 30cm, Oil on canvas, Photography and image courtesy of Cooee Gallery, Sydney.

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Helen S. Tiernan, Captain James Cook, 2016, 30 x 30cm, Oil on Canvas, Photography and image courtest of Cooee Gallery, Sydney.


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Helen S. Tiernan, Captain Arthur Phillip, 2016, 30 x 30cm, Oil on canvas, Photography and image courtesy of Cooee Gallery, Sydney.


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Helen S. Tiernan, Bungaree, 2016, 30x 30cm, Oil on canvas, Photography and image courtesy of Cooee Galley, Sydney.

Marie Geissler is a PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong. Her thesis title is Arnhem Land Bark Painting, The Western Reception 1850-1990. She has a Graduate Certificate of Art from the University of Sydney, a Bachelor of Science from the Australian National University and is the co-author of Yannima Pikarli Tommy Watson (2010), Thames and Hudson. She has written extensively for Craft Arts International on the visual arts (acting for many years as the Assistant Editor) and published over one hundred and fifty articles ranging from profiles on artists to collections, books and exhibition reviews in Australia and overseas.

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