Dennis Nona and moral questions about criminal artists
In this story
It was 2007 and Torres Strait artist Dennis Nona was receiving another accolade. They were coming steadily now. At 34, Nona was considered one of Australia’s most gifted and influential Indigenous artists. His work was displayed in most states, and had been purchased by museums and galleries in London, Cambridge, Lyon, Tokyo and Santa Fe.
This time, Nona was being awarded the 24th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award – and its $40,000 prizemoney – for his intricately detailed, cast bronze sculpture Ubirikubiri. Three-and-a-half metres long, the piece is of the titular crocodile and a human victim fixed to its back. The National Gallery of Australia purchased it immediately. The gallery’s director, Dr Gerard Vaughan, told me this week: “Dennis Nona has been regarded as one of the most significant Indigenous artists of the last 50 years. His work provides a strong link between the ‘spirit people’ and the contemporary world and has paved the way for other artists after him.”
At the time of the award, Nona explained the legend behind the sculpture. It was said there was once a Papua New Guinean fisherman who worked the Mai Kusa river. One day, his wife suddenly died. Recognising that his young daughter was bereft, he sought to console her with a puppy. But his daughter did not take to it. So then he brought home a piglet. His daughter would not take to him, either. One day, while fishing, he came across a baby crocodile. His daughter loved him, and named her new pet Ubirikubiri. As he grew, the father extended the enclosing pen he had built for his daughter’s pet. One day, with the crocodile now fully grown, the father leaves the house having forgotten to feed Ubirikubiri. Starving and enraged by the time the father returns, Ubirikubiri savages him, breaks out of the pen, and places his victim on his back before wandering off towards the river. When the daughter comes home, she finds the pen broken and her father and Ubirikubiri missing, and follows the crocodile’s trail to the water. She sees them both there, on the bank, her father dead and facing skywards from the back of Ubirikubiri. The daughter pleads for the return of her father’s body, Nona told journalists, but the crocodile turns and vanishes into the river.
Last year, after Nona had been twice convicted of child rape, he sat in the ACT Supreme Court for sentencing hearings. His lawyer said Nona had left the remote island of Badu as a young man to study fine art in the nation’s capital. It was a profoundly jarring experience, one that he sought to soften with booze. He had not been caring for himself properly.
Earlier this week, journalist Antony Funnell published a piece on the paedophilia of the celebrated artist Donald Friend. It was an unusual article for one reason: the late artist’s crimes were not revealed by investigative rigour, but simply by reading the compendious published diaries of the abuser. In other words, Friend had told us all about his crimes before – but none of us, it seems, were terribly concerned. Of a nine-year-old Balinese boy, Friend wrote: “He goes about the act of love with a charmingly self-possessed grace: gaily, affectionately, and enthusiastically. And in these matters he’s very inventive and not at all sentimental for all the caresses.”
Funnell reminds us that in 2010 Barry Humphries referred to his old friend’s crimes as “benevolent paedophilia”, which is at once a grotesque contradiction and a veiled suggestion of charitable colonialism – Friend’s victims were often impoverished boys from the developing world.
Funnell missed the winking gestures of another Australian luminary, which I dug out this week. In Robert Hughes’s memoir Things I Didn’t Know, published a decade ago, he says Friend’s penis “in effect, had led him around the world like a divining rod”. Perhaps – just perhaps – Hughes was ignorant of the ages of those his mate was divining; that somehow, despite Friend’s candour, this remained among the things he didn’t know. But it is unlikely. Hughes later writes of Friend’s banishment from Bali: “…Donald [was] thrown off the island for his homosexual practices. Depending on the reigning moral atmosphere among the Balinese authorities, who were not above using eminent gays to promote their ‘island of culture’ one moment and expelling them in fits of moral sanctimony to impress the electorate the next, the life of the ageing gay ... was by no means as secure as it might have been.”
But Friend was not, of course, an ageing gay. He was an ageing paedophile.
There seemed in all of this the question not only of whether to display the art of someone such as Dennis Nona or Donald Friend, but what generational changes had occurred in our attitudes to child sex abuse. Upholding Friend’s international “adventures” – and his eminent friends’ adoring sympathy for them – seemed to be a perverse libertine spirit, squeezed from the years of the counterculture. Our great bohemian exports wandered the rubble of Europe, marvelled at Cézannes, and worshipped their secular saints like Keats. Catholics were imprisoned by superstition and shame, they thought – but they were aesthetes, truly free.
“The wrongfulness of child sexual abuse was debated as part of the sex research of the ’50s and the sexual liberation of the ’60s,” Dr Michael Salter, a criminologist at Western Sydney University, told me this week. “A naive and romanticised view of children’s ‘sexual rights’ that included a ‘right’ to sexual activity with adults emerged in some corners of sexology and countercultural movements. This reached its apex in the 1970s with the formation of various pro-paedophile movements, some of which were quite influential, particularly Britain’s Paedophile Information Exchange, which included senior public servants. For some, the normalisation of child sexual abuse was seen as the “enlightened” intellectual position compared with the abhorrence of sexual abuse evident in the general public.
Last year, Dennis Nona was sentenced to five years’ prison for the rape of a 12-year-old girl. The previous year, he had been sentenced to seven-and-a-half years for the rape of her sister, who was then 13. He had sustained his crimes with violent threats. Nona had also lied during the trial, arguing that one of the girls had, in fact, raped him while he was blacked out from drinking. One of his victims became pregnant as a result of the crime.
The second conviction accelerated what art historian Sasha Grishin has described as the erasure of his work. There are now very few galleries in Australia that display his sculptures or prints – the National Gallery of Australia, the owner of Ubirikubiri, keeps its holding in storage. “Art galleries have a duty to the public to collect the most relevant and significant works of the day,” Gerard Vaughan, the gallery’s director, told me. “At the time of collecting, Dennis Nona’s criminal history was not known. The acquisition of these works was judged purely on aesthetic, social and art historical grounds.
“The NGA, given his recent trial and imprisonment, has judged it appropriate to remove his works from display, and there is currently no plan to return any of these works to public view.”
It is a position that infuriates art dealer Michael Kershaw, who remains an ardent supporter of his former client’s legacy. Kershaw offered Nona a character reference in one of his trials – he declared the artist a role model – and remains in regular contact with Nona via email, phone and occasional visits. Kershaw says that while engraving tools aren’t permitted in prison, Nona is still keenly drawing and that “he has emailed a number of drawings which are exceptional. He hopes these will be produced as prints soon after his release.”
Kershaw believes the removal of Nona’s works from public galleries amounts to a hysterical censorship.
“Well, I think the artist and the art viewers are the lesser for it,” he tells me. “I can understand but can’t condone it. Any survey of Torres Strait Islander art would be dishonest and greatly flawed without the inclusion of Nona’s work. I understand that the institutions are publicly funded and their boards and directors do not wish to stick their necks out because there are plenty of moralists out there in government and elsewhere that would be eager to chop them off. It is interesting to note that overseas institutions do not appear to be as morally judgemental as their Australian counterparts. The Musée des Confluences in Lyon don’t seem to have an issue as they are currently exhibiting Dennis’s Telstra Award-winning bronze, Apu Kaz.
“Dennis is an important Australian artist. He visualised the myths, legends and culture of the Torres Strait, which has informed the many that have followed him. I believe history will treat his legacy much the same as other morally questionable but great artists such as Caravaggio, Picasso, Koestler, Wagner, Woody Allen, Dostoyevsky et cetera. His artistic legacy is not in great shape at this point in time but as Dennis is up for parole in two months’ time one would hope that this will be the turning point in the appraisal of his legacy.”
Kershaw was an especially ardent defender of Nona – in a manner that made me think the victims were really the ones being erased here – but his defence raised an important question: should art institutions serve as moral arbiters? And if we agree that they should, how might they define their role in such a way that they make consistent and independent judgements, rather than becoming a weathervane for public panics?
“Public art galleries make all kinds of evaluations, ranging from the aesthetic, to the economic, to the historic, to questions of provenance,” says Damon Young, a philosopher who has written extensively on ethics. “It’s never simply, ‘Is it beautiful or otherwise striking?’ but also, ‘Can we afford it?’, ‘Is it historically notable or representative?’, ‘Is it stolen or forged?’, and so on. Some of these questions overlap with ethics, for example: ‘Should we give public money to art thieves?’ In this light, I see no reason why a gallery can’t say, with some precedent: ‘We find this work aesthetically and historically valuable, but we will not give public money to an abusive criminal or their estate.’ They might be shallow, craven or simply wrong about the details, but their power to exclude – which is the exemplary curatorial power – can involve ethics.
“So, exclusion might apply to offering material support to living artists or their estates. What about historical works? Once a work’s already in a collection, hiding it does little good to anyone. The money is spent, the criminal or abuser supported. The only thing left to do is acknowledge this fact, including the gallery’s own complicity. Make the object’s history part of its display, without conflating its ethical and aesthetic values. In short, the gallery can make ‘Sorry, we fucked up’ part of their collection’s message.”
At the time galleries began removing their Nonas from display, they seemed sheepish about admitting why, even though it coincided with his conviction. Galleries relied on an easier fallback position – that their collections were large and always in rotation. But this week, the NGA director admitted freely that the removals were triggered by the crimes, and that it was natural and appropriate for galleries to make decisions beyond the purely aesthetic or historic. “Whilst the decision for collecting an artwork rests on the significance and inherent qualities of an artwork itself, criminal activity by an artist can have an impact whether or not a work should be displayed,” he told me. “A public collecting institution needs to be sensitive to what is acceptable in our society at any given moment.”
And: “It is inevitable that art galleries should make judgements beyond aesthetics … Social attitudes and therefore issues around the concept of morality constantly shift, and there is a long history of official censors banning works of art judged to have unacceptable or unwelcome political content, or indeed works of literature or journalism. Public institutions must navigate these matters with great care. While they should never be subject to censorship, they must be sensitive to public values and concerns.”
The director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Dr Michael Brand, said something similar – that galleries were delicately navigating a line between cultural standards and censorship. “Moral evaluations of the conduct of artists whose works are in the gallery’s collection are generally avoided,” he said. “That is not to say that the gallery in any way condones the conduct of particular artists in its collection now known to have committed crimes or offences that are unacceptable in our society. Aesthetic considerations and historical context guide art museums in determining what to collect and display, so moral issues such as these are always vexed ones for art museums. They deserve to be robustly discussed and debated but, finally, must be decided on a case-by-case basis.”
This position asks interesting questions. Is it right that a child abuse victim may encounter their abuser’s work, or is it worse to exclude that work from everyone else? Should the punishment of the abuser extend into the cultural sphere – extend beyond prison and include a sort of cultural erasure? Should the Rolf Harris plaque – installed on a humble footpath in the Perth suburb of Bassendean, and commemorating his place of birth – have been removed, as it was, or kept as a reminder of our monsters and credulity?
“These institutions are part of whatever weird collection of lusts, anxieties, snobberies and delusions their culture maintains,” Young tells me. “Because of art’s precarious and sporadic autonomy, sometimes artworks and the art world push back against dominant values and ideas. But it takes a whole lot of support from the powerful to keep up these collections – and with that comes wariness of upsetting those in charge, and those whose opinions these leaders purport to represent. As with universities, art institutions will aim to endure – if this requires some clumsy nod to smug pseudo-ethical posturing, then it takes a strong director to say, ‘Fuck off, this is brilliant art and citizens need to see it.’ ”
Curiously, with Donald Friend, those weird collections of lusts, anxieties, snobberies and delusions functioned in a very different way than they did with Rolf Harris and Dennis Nona. His work is still held by all major institutions, still displayed, still the product of his “divining rod” and its unambiguous, unhidden predilections.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 3, 2016 as "Shifting perspectives".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.