Betsy Ross (d. 1836) sits picking at an American flag beside the triumphant French and American troops at the Surrender of Cornwallis (Trumbull. 1820). Lord Cornwallis was the failed British general whose loss virtually guaranteed American independence. Betsy a patriotic female icon credited with sewing the first American Flag, which she probably didn’t. Her identity now long lost to the message, she sits wearing a balaclava (Pussy Riot. 2011).
In our patriarchal retelling of history women feature merely as props illustrating the morality of men’s gross actions and are almost always depicted as meek and available. Russia’s feminist protest punk band Pussy Riot tears this image down and challenges the appropriation of identity.
In 2016 the Russian government interfered in the US presidential elections, assisting the election of the (self confessed pussy grabbing) Trump led Republican Party.
All of these things are broken.
“I dreamt that Tank Man survived, that he lived a good and happy life and that he stands in the Chinese mountains watching over us.”
Tank Man (Associated Press, Tiananmen Sq. 1989) overlooks a bleeding landscape (The Meat Land of a Country 山河, Guo Jian 郭健, 2017) captured within a wreath of poppy flowers. This porcelain plate, a souvenir, is an object that marks a time, a place and a set of values. And it is broken.
In 2017 I travelled to Beijing for the first time. I went with the intention of getting lost, of meeting artists and of making real the images of a place that I had lived through the television screen almost 30 years earlier. Guo Jian is a dear friend and we talked at length about this piece. It is his small painting that speaks so powerfully of a wounded place that formed the starting point for the composition.
The title refers to the ‘Century of Humiliation’ (百年国耻) China suffered at the hands of colonial forces and in particular the British Opium Wars. For better or worse, this period founded modern communist China and gave rise to an exodus of Chinese artists.
In 1989, the grainy images of a lone and unidentified man challenging a column of tanks had had a profound impact on the world, although practically unknown in China. They were images of hope at a time when the walls that separated ideologies appeared fragile and they were images that changed me.
The fate of Tank Man remains unknown.
Goya's Giant (1818) turns his head as if disturbed from thought. He sits naked within a distant landscape since lost to catastrophic environmental change (The White Terraces, Blomfield 1884, NZ). The things that shape us, our childhood and the world in which we are born, they are fragile things that so often we fail to value until they are lost to us. This is a deeply personal work (I am Goya's giant) about loss and the world that I left behind.
Queen Elizabeth II poses atop the throne (Coronation photo, Cecil Beaton, 1953) in full regalia, surveying the nation from beneath a Don Dale spit-mask (Don Dale Detention Centre, 2016). Beyond her in the grand romantic vista sits a solitary Modernist sculpture, 'Black Sun' by Inga King (1975).
King was a refugee of Nazi Europe who found love and a home in the foreign landscape of Australia, and until her death aged 100 in 2016 was a subject, like all Australians, of an often blind and indifferent Crown.
This plate has been shot.
Captain James Cook sits fiercely stabbing at a world map (Nathaniel Dance 1775). His look is commanding yet the otherworldly landscape suggests that he is anything but at home. He is an alien in a foreign and fearful place. An 18th century icon cast adrift, foolishly dividing up the spoils.
"Natives on the Ouse River (John Glover, 1838) stands in marked contrast to the actual situation of the traditional owners of Ouse River country - the Braylwunyer people of the Big River nation - which was one of dispossession and violence at the hands of the colonists." - AGNSW Archive
Yellow Peril (aka Vault, Ron Robertson-Swann, 1978) stands foreign and timeless in a Glover landscape (John Glover, 1838). In the foreground a dying Burke and Wills (John Longstaff, 1907) stare helplessly out. Glover's imagined noble paradise torn apart by ambition.
"I believe it is my best work so far and part of my ambition to be one of the best artists of my generation." - Ron Robertson-Swann (The Sun, 1981). Vault was unceremoniously removed from City Square after 6 months, in July 1981.
In 1860 Burke and Wills led a failed expedition to cross Australia. Arriving at the 'DIG' tree just hours after their support team had unexpectedly departed; they died alone at Cooper Creek. The third figure, King, was saved by the Yandruwandha people.
Ned Kelly's helmeted figure replaces the Aboriginal warriors in this reworking of this iconic 19th century etching. Captain Cook's boat-people arriving at Kernel in 1770 are met with resistance by the divisive bushranger from the 1880's. Kelly, who is often associated with xenophobia, is caught repelling the English arrival, in what amounts to a diabolical contradiction. These two powerful figures of Australian colonial history are forever in conflict over the rich prize of terra nullius (nobody's land).
Tom Robert’s shearer (The Golden Fleece, 1894) plunders the treasure from under an Albert Namatjira’s ghost gum (1945).
Many, many Australians have grown wealthy from the outback’s seemingly boundless resources, almost none of them Indigenous. Namatjira was Australia’s first Aboriginal art star and at one point was estimated to have supported over 600 people with his painting, yet he died broken after being jailed and was largely unloved by the art establishment.
In 2013, two majestic ghost gums that were iconic images in Namatjira’s paintings, were burnt to the ground in suspicious circumstances, just weeks before they were due to be placed on the heritage register.
McCubbin's failed gold prospector (Down on his Luck, 1889) sits mournfully in a Wedgwood paradise (after Claude Lorraine, 1650's), its broken porcelain traced with veins of gold (kintsugi).
Lorraine here depicts an idealised urban landscape, a pre-Romantic image of utopia and one senses that McCubbin’s miner has realised that his dream of creating Australia in this image is not only futile but was perhaps the wrong dream all along.
Blue Claude is a work about the squandering of Australia’s mining boom, both then and now and about how we choose to commemorate history within our domestic lives.
Printed with the great care and assistance of Lancaster Press