Two Photographs by Darren Siwes

Another Aboriginal man who, by his own admission, does not feel connected with the culture of his ancestors, is the photographer Darren Siwes. He has been exhibiting his work since 1996. My first encounter was with a widely reproduced series of photographs from 2001 given the collective title Mis/Perceptions. I’d like to consider two of these photographs and their affinities to works of two other artists: Jeffrey Smart, whose influence Siwes openly acknowledges, and Christopher Pease, who like Siwes, explores questions of Aboriginal identity and representation in the cultural traditions of European art.A native of South Australia, Siwes was born in 1968 and attended the Adelaide School Central School of Art and the Lions Art Centre. In Siwes’ large-scale Cibachrome photographs the place of indigenous people in modern Australia is portrayed in a way that is at once startlingly literal and disturbingly opaque: an Aboriginal man stands, often in darkness, somewhere in the city or suburbs of Adelaide. Landscape plays an important role in Siwes’ photographs, although the landscape is usually an urban one, or one in which urban elements encroach on the natural. The most striking element in each work is a self-portrait, manipulated as severely as the landscape itself.

In “Give Way,” a man of part-Aboriginal descent (Siwes himself) is positioned in a green-hued darkness at the intersection of two roads and slightly to the right of center of the photograph. Trunks and limbs of great old trees frame him. To the left a collection of road signs points toward the solitary figure. Three of the signs report distances to nearby towns; the fourth provides the name of one of the two roads at the intersection. An oddly placed fifth sign is attached to the post that supports the three directional signs, its blank reverse side facing the camera. Obviously, it must be legible from the unseen approach at the figure’s back, despite the large tree trunk that would appear to obscure it and the fact that it appears to be on the wrong side of the road. To the right of the figure and behind him is a sixth road sign also presenting its blank reverse to the viewer; its shape, however, indicates that it is the titular ‘give way’ (yield) sign.

Although the man himself is clearly an Aboriginal, he is dressed in standard European business attire—dress pants, white shirt, and tie. Strongly lit from the left, his right hand is clenched in a fist; his left is too shadowed to be distinct. The oncoming light and his bright white shirt make him stand out vividly from the blackness that surrounds him from behind. It is only when one looks down to his feet and the roadway that one realizes that the figure is insubstantial and semi-transparent.

In a second work from the same year, “Visions,” Siwes poses the ghostly figure in the foreground on a lawn, again lit strongly from the left. Behind him is a chain-link fence topped with strands of barbed wire. In the background left a pair of large, well-lit radio-signal receivers points skyward. Nearly lost in the darkness to the right is a mass of dark green shrubbery stretching the full height of the frame. This natural growth in the right half of the photograph stands in sharp contrast to the mechanical radio receivers on the left and to the broken stump of a tree or bush between them and the fence. At the same time, though, this contrast is undercut by the graceful curves of the receiver dishes themselves, which look almost like delicate flowers stretching skywards.

Further back in the photograph the dim outlines of a building can be seen, noticeable mostly by the light emitted from a doorway. This light shines with phallic insistence between the legs of the figure that, in addition to the business attire he wore in “Give Way,” is cloaked in a black overcoat, his hands deep in its pockets. The blackness of the overcoat makes the transparency more pronounced: although the figure is clearly foregrounded, the details of the background, including the lit doorways, part of the radio equipment, and the chain-link fence itself are quite visible across the space that the figure occupies.

In both photographs there are pronounced contrasts between the urban environment and the natural, between the well-lit roadway with its directional signs or the illuminated radio receivers and the darkness of the bush and the forest. In both, the figure stands at the boundary between the man-made and the natural, on the cusp of light and darkness, at the border of the seen and the unseen. Specific elements in “Visions” add ambiguity to the setting: the radio receivers are floral as well as mechanical, and the twisted barbs running across the top of the fence look like tiny stars in the night sky. And the self-portrait in each photograph is both part of the scene and displaced from it.

As with many of Siwes’ works, there is a suggestion of narrative in these photographs, although narrative may be too fluid a word for these unmoving figures in a static landscape to bear. But a story can be illuminated by reference to earlier Australian artworks. Siwes has noted among his influences Jeffrey Smart, painter of the famous “Cahill Expressway” (1962). There are clear compositional similarities between that painting and “Give Way.” In both a solitary figure stands slightly off-center right, dwarfed by a huge, sweeping form arching above it. In “Cahill Expressway” it is the concrete mass of a Sydney traffic ramp rather than the menacing trees of Siwes’ photograph; this substitution of nature for constructed landscape is surely a deliberate irony on Siwes’ part. Smart’s painting has long been considered an icon of urban alienation, and although Smart denies he meant to suggest that reading, it seems quite relevant to an interpretation of “Give Way” as illustrating the ambiguous place of Aboriginal man in Australian society and the bush in relation to the city.

Between Smart’s painting and Siwes’ photograph stands “Nyoongar Dreaming ” (1999), by Perth-based Aboriginal painter Christopher Pease. Here again a figure, an indigenous man, stands on a roadway straight out of Smart’s oeuvre in a pose that is common to many of Siwes’ self-portraits. Behind him is the blank reverse of a sign that mirrors the one in ‘Give Way’. The overall green cast of the painting is echoed in Siwes’ photograph; however in Pease’s painting the green is not that of trees at night but an atmosphere of chemical pollution. The young man in Pease’s painting is Peter Farmer, the nephew of a famous Australian Rules football player for whom the freeway upon which he stands is named. Pease’s painting is an essay on land rights, on the continuity of Aboriginal presence in urban Australia, on the sad ironies of Aboriginal standing in their own land, and on the destruction of the native country by the imposition of a white civilization.

In Siwes’ photographs contrasts and ambiguities give the first impression of an unresolved tension and of open-ended questions. The locales are “natural” but both bear the stamp of subjugation. Is this Dreamtime or Machinetime? Is the figure disappearing from view or coming into being? Is his identity Aboriginal or European? To which of these worlds does he properly belong?

The narrative flow of history, especially in the echo from Pease’s painting, suggests that the European vision is supplanting the indigenous, but the presence of the artist himself questions that inevitability. In one photograph Siwes stands with his back to the sign that says “give way,” in the other with his back to the barbed-wire fence. His stance is uncompromising, impassive, and steadfast, recalling the portrait of Peter Farmer in Pease’s painting. He asserts his Aboriginal identity in the midst of European urbanism. 

Siwes’ chosen medium is photography, an entirely urban and technological choice which both echoes and extends the history of Aboriginal art in the late twentieth century. It was the adoption of western media, specifically acrylic paint and canvas, that took indigenous cultural expression out of the realm of the ethnographic—with its connotations of primitive—and into that of art. Admittedly, both ethnography and art are themselves concepts alien to the native traditions of the continent, but it is in seizing the tools of the colonists that indigenous people, since 1971, have successfully established a dialogue and are perhaps even asserting control of the means and conditions of the discourse.

Note: The background material on Christopher Pease’s “Nyoongar Dreaming” is drawn from the notes accompanying its illustration in Brenda Croft’s Indigenous Art: Art Gallery of Western Australia (Perth, 2001)

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