Daniel Boyd’s first major retrospective in an Australian gallery, Treasure Island, opens up multiple lenses on our history. By Djon Mundine OAM FAHA.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. – 1 Corinthians 13.12
A wide, black wall covered with small coin-sized mirrors shimmers to greet you as you come down the escalators at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW). Your own image beckons you past a black veil into Daniel Boyd’s Treasure Island. The black wall of reflection, the gateway to the exhibition, is a powerful and thoughtful work.
Boyd is a Kudjala, Ghungalu, Wangerriburra, Wakka Wakka, Gubbi Gubbi, Kuku Yalanji, Bandjalung and Yuggera man with ni-Vanuatu heritage. After many acclaimed exhibitions across a 20-year international career, this is the first major Australian examination of his work.
Boyd himself is a signpost at the meeting point of three roads: Australia’s brutal colonial history, the spilling over and interaction with our nearest neighbours in the Pacific, and the resultant identity created through this mix in Australia.
Behind the veil, more than 100 artworks that document Australian and Pacific history from the “other” side are laid out for us to read. A large catalogue contains insightful, creative and experimental commentary from the curators and Boyd himself, as well as from 10 First Peoples contemporaries.
Boyd was very influenced in his reading and thinking by the Caribbean Négritude movement, including postcolonial writers such as Édouard Glissant. In the 1950s, Bandjalung elder and Christian minister Lyle Roberts Snr – artistic director and broadcaster Rhoda Roberts’ great uncle – set down three principles for his descendants to live by: to retain pride in race and colour, to retain identity and language and to consider other people to make the best of life.
Boyd was also fascinated by dark matter, which doesn’t reflect light but which comprises nearly a third of all mass in the universe, and extended this into a social and historical metaphor.
In the same decade, Caribbean postcolonial intellectual Frantz Fanon posited that a colonised society would move through three phases of self-realisation. First, the colonised group would attempt to imitate the colonisers’ culture and lifestyle. Second, usually on liberation, they would cast off all remnants of the colonisers and embrace precolonisation cultural practices. The third phase is a rationalisation of present modern life: a rich and positive Creolisation. Both Roberts’ and Fanon’s lines of thought understood that your present-day concept of yourself emerged from a strong historical line, but that you positively lived in the present. Boyd’s work expresses this third variation.
Likewise, curators Isobel Parker Philip and Erin Vink have divided the vast sprawl of ideas and historic moments in the art of Treasure Island into three themes that jump back and forth in time, as Boyd’s stories do. The central intellectual statement is that facts interconnect and can have multiple meanings for different people at different times, or even in the same time.
The first theme introduces this idea, and takes us into Boyd’s drawing together of little-known events in what we have been taught is our history. The second theme covers those works that critique European colonisation: physical violence, restrictive laws and legal oppression. These include Boyd’s portraits of power: some are familiar, such as Sir Joseph Banks, and others not so well known. The third is physical and cultural survival, as exemplified in ourselves and our families today.
In 1982, the year of Boyd’s birth, Warlpiri artist Maurice Jupurrurla Luther (now deceased) led a group of Lajamanu Country men to create a Warlpiri sand painting in the central court of the AGNSW as part of the 4th Biennale of Sydney, Vision in Disbelief, directed by William Wright. Although it had taken a decade since its beginnings in 1971, the Papunya–Western Desert painting movement of “dot and circle” had so fully arrived that it seemed that Aboriginal art now equalled “dots”.
During the 1980s, members of the public could bring art pieces in their collections to the gallery to be “authenticated”, in a type of Antiques Roadshow. As one of the appraisers, I was briefed not to mention a monetary value. For most paintings, the first step was to examine them under a magnifying glass – if the image was built up from points of colour, the image was a print and not a painting.
Little bit long way. In 2011, I put Boyd’s name forward for a residency at the Natural History Museum in London. It was here he started to develop a pointillist style of painting using pigment dots and translucent archival glue which, because it was a convex blob-dot, became a lens, and then a field of lenses, that gave many views of the subject on the canvas.
Boyd then learnt about particle theory – a theory that all matter in the universe is made up of small separate particles that vibrate at varying speeds and distances. He was also fascinated by dark matter, which doesn’t reflect light but which comprises nearly a third of all mass in the universe, and extended this into a social and historical metaphor. He delved into his Pacific Islander history and its influence in Western art history. It moved him to express a cosmology that questions what is the unknown: what do we know, and what is it that we don’t know?
Boyd’s heritages are bitter stories of dispossession, disempowerment and slavery: two hidden histories of galling colonial crimes. Between 1863 and 1904 some 62,000 South Sea Islanders were “blackbirded” – kidnapped or deceived into leaving their homes – and brought to Australia to toil in the tropics of north Queensland, clearing land and developing sugar, banana and pineapple plantations. Boyd’s immediate Aboriginal predecessors lived at the Anglican Yarrabah mission, outside Cairns. Yarrabah was set up by Ernest Gribble in 1893. Much is now made of “traditional” Aboriginal arranged marriages, but the mission church, in an attempt to break up the power of elders, arranged Western-style marriages in the Christian church. A black-and-white tinted portrait features Daniel’s grandmother Gertrude Brown (now deceased) and was taken in Yarrabah, when she was in a bridal party. The original small blue version was bought by Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull.
In 1957, the Yarrabah residents staged a strike to protest poor working conditions, inadequate food, health problems and harsh administration. I was told that the authorities expelled the ringleaders at gunpoint, and many others, including Boyd’s relatives, left voluntarily, never to return, to escape living under “the act” (now The Aborigines’ and Torres Strait Islanders’ Affairs Act 1967), which was used by government to control every aspect of peoples’ lives. The protesters moved and set up Bessie Point community, now named Giangurra. When he was at school Boyd made small tourist paintings of the reef to sell locally. He was mentored by several uncles who were talented painters.
It’s ironic that the opening of Treasure Island, which showcases Boyd’s commentary on the colonisation of Australia, coincides with a growing awareness of the ongoing pillaging of Australia’s treasures, especially gas reserves and other natural resources, and the new Albanese government’s struggles to contain this exploitation.
As Glissant wrote in Poetics of Relation: “To forget is to offend, and memory, when it is shared, abolishes this offence. If we want to share the beauty of the world, if we want to be solidarity with its suffering, we need to learn how to remember together.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2022 as "Rule of three".
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