Daniel Boyd’s Historical Reversals

Daniel Boyd is an artist of Kudjla and Gangalu extraction whose great-great grandparents came from the area around Cooktown in Queensland where Captain Cook beached his ship, the Endeavour, for seven weeks in 1770 to repair damage done to its hull on the Great Barrier Reef.  Boyd began exhibiting in 2005 and came to international prominence  in 2007 when four of his large, historically themed canvases–two of them “portraits” of James Cook–were included in the Australian Indigenous Art Triennial: Culture Warriors.

Boyd’s paintings have always relied on historical precedent and quotation, but with telling modifications.  His portrait of Arthur Philip, Governor No Beard (2007), first governor of the settlement at Port Jackson, presents the man wearing an eye-patch and with a pirate’s parrot perched on his shoulder; his portrait of George III, King No Beard (also 2007) likewise includes patch and parrot and additionally substitutes a chain of small human skulls for the customary golden livery chain.  The implication that the British seizure of Indigenous country is an act of piracy is obvious in the artist’s manipulations of the standard iconography of great men of European history.

Treasure Island (2005), also included in Culture Warriors, employs a more complex set of visual puns.  It starts with the well-known AIATSIS map of the Australian continent that breaks the country’s contours up into the 250 or so language groups that were present before colonization.  The map itself is the product of Eurocentric rationalism, using standard multicolored charting techniques to subdivide lands into clearly demarcated linguistic territories that were in most cases far more fluid in their boundaries.  Boyd takes irony a step further and introduces the piratical theme by emblazoning the legend “Treasure Island” across the map.

In a 2009 exhibition, Freetown, at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney, Boyd’s painting took a surprising turn.  He abandoned his overt Anglo-Australian historicism–though not his technique of large realist portraiture–with a pair of paintings showing a lion in the wild.  The press release for the exhibition makes clear that Boyd, through the show’s title, was commenting on the return of freed slaves from America to the Liberian state founded to provide them with “a freedom that is complex, constructed and idealist,” one that is “imposed rather than chosen” and hence perhaps no freedom at all.

But another painting in the Freetown exhibition signaled a radical change in approach and style.  It was a small work, for one thing, the image only 30.5 x 21.5 cm in a frame (an integral part of the composition) measuring 61.5 x 45.5 cm.  Entitled Jesus Christ!, the work, like Treasure Island, is a multi-layered mixture of European and Indigenous cultures and representational schemes.  It shows the face Christ, crowned with thorns, against a Central Australian landscape of red hills and a white-barked gum tree drawn from the iconography of the Hermannsburg watercolorists.  Rather than being executed in watercolors, however, the work is an interpretation of the Central Australian dot-painting style.  Indigenous sacred landscape and Western sacred iconography are thoroughly conflated in an aesthetic stratagem that marries and plays with the two artistic styles associated with painting in the Red Centre.  Or, in Boyd’s own words,

Jesus Christ! A series of works that engage with ideas relating to Christianity and beliefs that predate this particular religion. Christianity’s movement through landscape is a principal element of the work, in particular an Aboriginal landscape. Referencing the art of Albert Namatjira (a pupil of Rex Battarbee), presents the opportunity to allude to a popular idea of Australian Aboriginal landscape. I aim to highlight the repercussions of a journey that disregard Pre-Christian information or story by reworking images containing Jesus in a similar fashion. Fragmentation of the picture plane refers to this disregard of Aboriginal cultural practices, which were seen to be heathenish. Treatment of the surface in this manner allows me to question processes and outcomes of Christian Enlightenment in relation to colonial methodologies.

My partner’s Grandmother bought a Reuben Pareroultja (1916-1986) watercolour from Rex Battarbee’s Gallery on a sight seeing Tour of the Northern Territory in the early 60’s. When she was having the work cleaned and re-framed last year I acquired the old frame, allowing me to conceptually frame the work as ‘Modern Australian Aboriginal Art.’

The conceptual engineering that Boyd deployed in Jesus Christ! has carried through to his latest set of works, which have emerged from three months spent as artist-in-residence at the National History Museum in London.  During that time he worked with images from the Museum’s First Fleet collection of 600 drawings and watercolors that document the first European contact with the Indigenous world in Port Jackson.  In a video interview posted on the NHM website, Boyd discusses how he is fascinated by what information is missing from from these visual chronicles of early encounters: the true nature of interactions between the First Fleeters and the Indigenous inhabitants, as well as any real comprehension of the culture of the region prior to colonization.

The works that Boyd has produced carry the artistic strategies of Jesus Christ! a step farther.  He has begun by copying images from the First Fleet collection, then overlaying them with painted dots to create fragmented mosaics.  Although the visual similarities to desert painting seem obvious, Boyd insists that he is more interested in the way in which the dots create empty spaces, a lack of an integrated picture.  They are incomplete images in themselves, full of empty interstices that reflect the broken historical record.

Boyd also spent time with the Museum’s collection of human remains and in the process discovered a skull that came from a burial ground in Queensland.  It was a confronting experience for the artist, and his new work, in addition to the paintings, has incorporated “skull boxes,” some decommissioned from the collection, some newly crafted, which stand as sculptural objects in themselves and are used as frames for his paintings.  Much as he took a frame that Battarbee had used for the Pareroultja painting for his earlier, Hermannsburg-inspired work, he has now adapted these emblems of historical exploitation to frame–in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense–his meditations on the losses and reversals of history.

Works from Boyd’s stay in London have recently gone on display at Roslyn Oxley’s gallery in Sydney in an exhibition entitled A Darker Shade of Dark.  Beyond the images from the First Fleet collection, the works on display in Sydney also include renditions of other historical objects: a stick map from Oceania, or a sculpture from Vanuatu that was owned by Matisse and passed on to Picasso after Matisse died.  By including these objects in his work, Boyd is expanding the set of historical references to comment on the art historical primitivism that has seen culture, like land, being appropriated to the ends of colonizers.

From the first, Daniel Boyd has been a savvy commentator on the interpenetration of art and history.  The early paintings were masterpieces of appropriation in themselves, and betrayed a keen sense of the artist’s place in creating history. (There is a sly self-portrait in King No Beard: the artist’s head trapped in a glass specimen jar on a table behind the monarch.)  As the years have passed, Boyd has become increasingly sophisticated in his visual strategies; the NHM video reveals him to be an extraordinarily articulate artist in words as well as in paint.

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One Response to Daniel Boyd’s Historical Reversals

  1. Pingback: Hannah Gadsby’s Oz | Fibres of Being

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