Reading Colony Australia 1770 – 1861 and Frontier Wars

Colony Australia 1770–1861, NGV Ian Potter Centre, Melbourne, 15 March – 15 July 2018 and Frontier Wars, NGV Ian Potter Centre, Melbourne, 15 March – 2 September 2018.

 

Visitors to COLONY Australia 1770 – 1861 will invariably view the six hundred decorative objects, drawings, prints, photographs, paintings, costumes and tribal artefacts through a ‘culture bound’ Western paradigm. Dating from early maritime exploration and European settlement until the founding of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1861, this immense exhibition poses a complex question articulated by David Hansen, ‘How… do we understand the relationship between Indigenous and settler peoples in this country? What is our shared history?’ [1]

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Installation view of Colony: Frontier Wars

Tom Ross

The paradox begins on entering the exhibition where a row of 34 Indigenous shields from the early 1800s, stunning in their hand-carved tribalism, surrender to a spectacle in memory of their traditional owners. Within close proximity are journals, maps, engravings, watercolours and topographical drawings, evidence of European discovery and the imperial claim on New Holland. It is a display of opposing cultures, an Indigenous one that embodies an aesthetic autonomy, the other an occupation of historic magnitude.

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Installation views of Colony: Frontier Wars

Tom Ross

An engraving of the enlightened Joseph Banks wrapped in a tapa cloth, banners flapping in the romantic rays of Britannia’s golden sunset, is coterminous with a rich man’s insatiable appetite for collecting and the imperial orders of the Royal Society. Banks accompanied James Cook on the first voyage of discovery in 1768 and personally funded his entourage of naturalists and draughtsmen, harvesting botanic and anthropological specimens in the name of science, art and Empire. Thousands of seeds were sent to Kew Gardens in London, where painters spent their days illustrating the unfolding blooms. In the colony the Port Jackson Painter, George Raper and John Lewin captured a world pure and exotic, a reportage of reptiles, birds, beetles and shells. Shot, caught and classified, preserved specimens were shipped to fill glass cases in private museums, whereupon they became conversation pieces, stories of adventure and trespass. The image of the emblematic black swan was printed on cups and plates and delivered alive to the French Empress’s exotic Jardin Malmaison, while the Darwinian question of evolution raged. For it was believed that something separated the civilised from the uncivilised, and it was not only a question of survival but a quest to win the world in terms of possession.

The parallel exhibition Frontier Wars unpacks a different narrative of dramatic encounters and conflicts between two cultures. As Bernard Smith wrote, ‘Frontiers are not places… where men meet nature but where they confront other cultures’. [2] The colonial frontier was a place where justice rapidly degenerated into atrocities, a site of displacement and dispossession. A central floor-display of abandoned shields, boomerangs, spears, dilly bags and a large-screen video by Steaphan Paton of the artist shooting arrows at shields (similar to the ones previously mentioned) compounds the sense of violence. These two entirely different exhibitions work against and for one another, illuminating the disparities inherent in interpretation, story-telling and the contemporary ritual of curatorial presentation. Together they provide a readjustment of historical veracity that lies somewhere in between.

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Installation view of Colony: Frontier Wars

Tom Ross

The vogue for illustrated books advertised the Antipodes as paradise, its natives noble and its flora and fauna weirdly exotic, and it launched a tourist industry. By the 1820s a new migrant population of freeholders had arrived and the squattocracy soon acquired vast tracts of land. They were followed by travelling artists who painted the colony’s panoramic progress in which Aborigines were seen as marginalised observers, mere backdrop to invasion. A watercolour of Regal Burgun, adorned with his spear and shield by Richard Browne, naively illustrates the native’s pride; the duplicity of colonial crime, however, resonates in a collaged watercolour of an Aboriginal family who sits calmly like a Parisian group sur l’herbe, but we are informed that the artist, Captain James Wallis, led the first official massacre at Appin on the Dharawal people in 1816. As the population expanded and acquired wealth, portraiture became fashionable and the colony’s plaited, ribboned and slender-waisted women and children contrast poignantly to the strands of shell necklaces and reed baskets made by Indigenous women. If Augustus Earle’s portraits were his meal ticket, his depiction of the Wentworth Falls or a bivouac in the Illawarra district of NSW established the grandeur of the antipodean wilderness.

Frontier Wars reinforces history as a moral drama between nativism and territorialism, while Colony Australia superbly curates the story of a transplanted social and economic experiment of Australia’s colonial past. These exhibitions are not to be missed, for they present a dynamic testimony of Indigenous culture under the dramatic changing face of Europeanised antipodes.

 

[1] David Hansen, ‘”Another man’s understanding”: Settler images of Aboriginal People’, in Cathy Leahy, Judith Ryan (Eds), Colony Australia 1770–1861 / Frontier Wars, exhibition catalogue, NGV, 2018, p. 109.

[2] Bernard Smith, The Spectre of Truganini, ABC Boyer Lectures, Sydney, 1980, p. 18.

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Installation view of Colony: Frontier Wars

Eugene Hyland

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Installation view of Colony: Frontier Wars

Eugene Hyland

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Installation view of Colony: Frontier Wars

Eugene Hyland

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Installation view of Colony: Frontier Wars

Tom Ross

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Installation view of Colony: Frontier Wars

Tom Ross

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Installation view of Colony: Frontier Wars

Tom Ross

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Installation view of Colony: Frontier Wars

Tom Ross

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Installation view of Colony: Frontier Wars

Tom Ross

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Installation view of Colony: Australia 1770 – 1861

Tom Ross

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Installation view of Colony: Australia 1770 – 1861

Tom Ross

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Installation view of Colony: Australia 1770 – 1861

Tom Ross

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Installation view of Colony: Australia 1770 – 1861

Tom Ross

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Installation view of Colony: Australia 1770 – 1861

Tom Ross

Sheridan Palmer is an art historian, curator and an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne. She has published extensively with Centre of the Periphery: Three European Art Historians in Melbourne (2008); Hegel’s Owl: The Life of Bernard Smith (Power Publications 2016) and co-edited with Rex Butler Antipodean Perspective: Selected Writings of Bernard Smith (Monash University Press, 2018). She is currently researching post-war modernism.

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