28 October 2021

Off to Exploit the Antipodes

In 1811 Governor Lachlan Macquarie, his wife Elizabeth and a sizeable entourage travelled from Hobart Town to Port Dalrymple on horseback. As Macquarie rode through the country he claimed the land by naming places after himself, his wife and his mates, erasing the ancient names used by people who already lived there. Here he is, leaving his official mark all over the landscape which, in this painting, is loosely based on the route of the old bush road through an area locally known today as Murderers Gully.

The Governor Rides By    61 cm x 77 cm
These paintings are about the colonial takeover of Trouwunna, as seen from a safe distance. 

They were first exhibited in Understory, an exhibition at Nolan Art Gallery in Salamanca Place, Hobart, in November 2021.

Throughout my life the narrative of Tasmania’s indigenous people has been told and retold, changing from a tale of the regrettable annihilation of a “dying race” (neatly culminating in the death of the “last Tasmanian”), to the reclamation of cultural identity by the Palawa. As the descendant of convicts who arrived in the first British ships, I realise many of my ancestors were complicit in the colonial genocide. The question is how to deal with this knowledge.

As usual when confronted by something too complicated, I retreated to my studio to explore the issue in paint.

The result is a series of large, complex images intended to intrigue and disturb viewers. The playful beauty of these oil paintings, with their humorous characters and seductive colour doesn’t quite obscure the darkness and violence of the subject matter. Expect anthropomorphic forests infested by inchoate, chthonic figures and strange encounters with the all too present inhabitants of “Terra Nullius” as the colonisers set about the business of exploiting the antipodes.

According to various history books, Tasmania was discovered on the 24th November, 1642, by Commodore Abel Jansz Tasman.

Discovering Terra Nullius    138 cm x 123 cm

When Tasman sailed down the coast of Trouwunna in 1642 he didn’t see any occupants, but saw certain indications that the place was inhabited. Cook, Baudin and other early visitors confirmed this, but persisted in declaring that they had “discovered” a new country that was up for grabs. The people who had already discovered the place and made it their home tens of thousands of years earlier were not asked their opinion. 

All the Pretty Ships Came In   91 cm x 122 cm

There are varying accounts of how astonished Australians were when the first European ships arrived. Were these strange things huge seabirds, or floating islands with possum-like creatures running up and down the trees? How did they move, with nobody pushing? Did they walk along the bottom, or paddle like swans? Eventually the ships came in and these problems were solved, but they were exceedingly trivial compared to what followed.

The British assumed, as usual, that they could move in and take over. 

Off to Exploit the Antipodes   152 cm x 122 cm

If the locals were nonplussed by the new arrivals, the colonists were rather apprehensive about unknown horrors inhabiting the jungle into which they had been thrust.

The Wild Woods   91 cm x 122 cm

Many of them knew little of the world beyond a few city streets or a couple of rural villages, their education consisting of superstition and local gossip. The forests of Van Diemens Land must have been pretty fearsome. 

The tough ones survived. We don’t know much about the ones who didn’t. 

Into the Hinterland   87 cm x 117 cm

 Do you watch horror movies? Do you ever wonder what it would look like if the zombies won? And they made the movie?

Arthur and the Zombie Apocalypse   84 cm x  183 cm

Governor Arthur’s futile, but no doubt terrifying, Black Line failed to capture any of the “troublesome natives”, but helped convince the few remaining people that their only option was to accept George Augustus Robinson’s proposal to move them to Flinders Island.

It didn't end well.

Tiny Tragedy   91 cm x 76 cm