Visual Art

In the National Gallery of Australia’s The Red Thread of History, Loose Ends, two of the country’s best artists end up speaking past each other. By Andy Butler.

The Red Thread of History, Loose Ends

Judy Watson’s Joyce with Queensland Tenure Map at left.
Judy Watson’s Joyce with Queensland Tenure Map at left.
Credit: Supplied

A Helen Johnson and Judy Watson joint exhibition feels like a dream. These are two of Australia’s best artists, both painters who use similar materials on unstretched canvas, with a conceptual and emotional framework that attempts to unpack the complex legacies of Australia’s colonial history.

The Red Thread of History, Loose Ends at the National Gallery of Australia is technically two solo commissions within the gallery’s Balnaves commissioning program shown in parallel. Interestingly, every other commission in this program has been a solo presentation.

Helen Johnson notes in an interview for this exhibition that she didn’t want to be “this white woman kind of grandstanding about colonial processes”. After being approached for a solo commission by former NGA curator Jaklyn Babington, Johnson felt her work should be in dialogue with an Indigenous artist. Judy Watson was brought on with the NGA’s curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art, Tina Baum. The artists had previously met only in passing.

Johnson and Watson draw out the role of women within legacies of colonialism that still shape this continent today. Both artists inhabit different cultural positions – Johnson describes herself as a white Anglo settler, while Watson belongs to the Waanyi people.

Johnson’s The Birth of an Institution is emblematic of the themes in her paintings. On a large unstretched canvas, an abstracted figure of a white woman kneels in the throes of childbirth, head buried in her forearms. A dome-like ceiling of a colonial institution is crowning. The woman’s body is circled by the heads of men with vested interests in the birth of the colony – bankers, priests, politicians.

Johnson’s feats of painting are defined by texture, composition and layering. The texture of the background of The Birth of an Institution is reminiscent of sandstone, the top layer of the painting is a line-rendering of an ornate colonial building, snaking along the curves of the woman’s body. Through her use of large-scale canvas, near illustrative-like figuration, and layering, Australian colonial history is constructed as a theatre of the absurd. She notes a quote from Watson in an interview – “It’s everybody’s history and no one gets away with it.”

This historical research into whiteness at the birth of the colony is grounded in our contemporary moment through Johnson’s other works. Restoration Australia takes the renovation show of the same name as a starting point. In the television series, contestants restore the grandeur of Australian colonial buildings, without acknowledging the fraught history of early settlers. The painting Restoration Australia layers imagery of a topographical map and line drawings of colonial buildings, all but painted over with a dark wash of paint. Over the top is a circle of eyes surveilling the image. All the eyes are white women in mainstream media: while none of the women are named in the exhibition didactics, one of them certainly seems to be Kerri-Anne Kennerley.

Watson’s engagement with the position of women within colonisation sees her layering silhouetted portraits of herself, her mother, her sister and her daughter, with imagery atop each figure that ranges from topographical maps and flora to a chart of global temperatures.

In Watson’s art, colonisation is not an abstract phenomenon: it has direct effects on people. Her work is haunting and dark, while containing stories of resilience and tenderness.

Joyce with Queensland Tenure Map is a portrait of her mother silhouetted against a colonial map of Queensland, with English place names sprawled over the canvas. The silhouette is layered atop a white rectangle, reminiscent of the photographic backdrops used when collecting scientific and anthropologic data on First Peoples. Women from Watson’s family appear along the wall – a self-portrait with the shifts in global temperatures, her sister Lisa with a pastoral map of north-west Queensland – as well as ancestral objects such as boomerangs and throwing sticks. Her daughter, Rani, is cast as Lady Justice in one painting, pine needles as her blindfold. Three generations of Waanyi women, with her daughter ready to carry on the resilience within Watson’s matriarchal line.

Holding seemingly contradictory emotions of despair and loss along with strength and beauty is masterful. There is a reason Watson has been lauded as an artist for decades.

Watson achieves what Johnson’s work doesn’t. One doesn’t feel the people at the heart of the story of colonisation in Johnson’s work. The players in her paintings seem like caricatures, rather than complex figures that act as an anchor for the viewer to absorb the contradictory emotions of what it is to exist in the colony. In this way, Johnson’s and Watson’s works speak past each other.

A duo exhibition can be magic when artists draw out things in the other’s work that otherwise wouldn’t be there. Ideally, each artist enriches our understanding of the other’s practice. In The Red Thread of History, Loose Ends, this doesn’t quite happen – or rather, the enrichment is one-sided. The complexity of the narratives behind Johnson’s work is given a new layer by the presence of Watson’s paintings, but Watson is a more commanding presence in her own right.

This asymmetry is heightened by how the contributions from each artist sit in the space. Johnson’s large-scale canvases dominate the centre of the exhibition in a way that diminishes the power of Watson’s works. Watson’s paintings, circling around the perimeter, feel cramped.

Watson’s video Skullduggery (2021) – in which historical personal letters between Matron Agnes Kerr and the staff at a museum in London are read out by First Peoples – is the strongest piece in the exhibition. The letters tell the story of Kerr, a nurse working in a hospital in the Gulf of Carpentaria, who contacts a London museum in order to send the bones of Aboriginal people to Britain. Seeing this work in an institution such as the National Gallery of Australia is chilling – one feels vertiginous in realising that the NGA is as deeply colonial as the museum represented in Skullduggery.

I don’t want to discount the relationship that was formed between Watson and Johnson in the process of making this exhibition. By all accounts, it is a warm friendship. However, one must question the pattern of institutions deploying the art of First Peoples as a teachable moment for non-Indigenous artists grappling with the guilt of colonialism.

In my mind, white and settler artists do need to be grandstanding about colonial processes – because we need to have a stern and difficult conversation about our history. Johnson does this exceptionally well. But given Watson’s brilliant contribution to The Red Thread of History, Loose Ends it feels as if her voice would be better served by a solo commission all her own. 

Judy Watson and Helen Johnson: The Red Thread of History, Loose Ends, is at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until June 5.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2022 as "Colonial dilemmas".

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