SITE EIGHT / 24 May to 3 June 2011
In observation of Reconciliation Week 2011. Maritime themes are explored in the context of place, time, cultural identity and Australia's geophysical and psychological relationship to the sea. Indigenous and settler-heritage artists consider historical and contemporary events, exploration, colonisation and migration and their effect on upon Indigenous culture.
When gallant Cook from Albion sail'd,
To trace wide oceans o'er,
True British courage bore him on,
Till he landed on our shore,
Then here he raised Old England's flag,
The standard of the brave;
With all her faults we love her still,
"Britannia rules the wave"!
In joyful strains let us sing,
"Advance Australia fair"!
Original second verse of 'Advance Australia Fair', Composer Peter Dodds McCormick, 1878
Girt by Sea invites artists to explore maritime and nautical themes in context of Australia's geophysical and physiological relationship to the sea. Eleven Indigenous and settler-heritage artists consider historical and contemporary events, investigating the issues of exploration, colonization and migration. The imperialistic sentiments expressed in McCormick's little-known second verse of the Australian national anthem, 'Advance Australia Fair', note that our nation was 'founded' on exploration. Besides the British, other sea-going European peoples, such as the Dutch, French and Portuguese, have landed on our shores. One who explores these imperialistic aspirations in their work is Yamatji artist Brian McKinnon. McKinnon questions 'What if the Dutch had beaten Britain in claiming ownership of the land'. In the work What if—as a symbol of these colonial aspirations—he inlays ship motifs into the carved border of an old tobacco tin, reminiscent of the folk art of sailors of the past.
Because of the geographic position of Australia in the South Pacific, Australia was a politically strategic outpost for Britain—for its commercial, trading and transportation interests. This vast untapped continent was viewed as an ideal natural prison—using the sea as its gaoler—for a growing prisoner population. A land so distant from Britain and surrounded by water supported an 'out of sight, out of mind' policy. Prior to Captain James Cook pacific journeys, the southern oceans and their lands were regarded—in the British imagination—as 'Terra Incognita', the unknown land, inhabited by sea monsters and strange peoples. My work contemplates this thought through a diorama entitled The Endeavour Attacked by a Giant Octopus. It features mythical creatures attacking Cook's ship whilst assisting migrant ships that are in danger of shipwreck.
Djubajay artist Darren Trewin has also considered exploration themes through the depiction of Cook's Endeavourstranded on a reef. This scene, as captured in The Endeavour Stranded at Cooktown, evokes a calmness through his use of a cold and tropical colour palette. Another to examine the notions of exploration is Waikato Iwi artist Kirsten Lyttle with her interest in the cult and myth of Cook. Her bold imagery of the death of Cook in Hawaii is portrayed on a popular tourist souvenir, the Hawaiian shirt. Lyttle use the souvenir as a vehicle to reflect on the impact of colonization. The actions of these new arrivals were disastrous in indigenous terms, not only resulting in the dispossession of land and the importation of disease, but the destructive forces of the introduction of non-native animals and plants onto lands that had previously been quarantined and protected by the sea.
Australia, like Britain, is an island nation with the majority of its population coastal dwellers. Australia's early settler art featured the maritime scenes of Port Jackson and its surrounds. Later, in the Victorian period when sea-bathing became fashionable, the artwork produced captured this recreational beach culture. From this time beach culture became firmly embedded in the Australian psyche. In Victoria the southern coast is encompassed by the surf beaches of the Great Ocean Road. It is a region shaped by the melancholy of shipwrecks and whaling folklore. Gunditjmara Elder Aunty Frances Gallagher, whose tribal country runs along this coast, was inspired by throw out the lifeline—a hymn sung at her church on the Framlingham Aboriginal Mission as a prayer to those in trouble at sea.
The idyllic side of the sea is portrayed in the work of Taungerong Elder Aunty Gwen Garoni. Aunty Gwen paints the various fishing and coastal recreational activities, such as scuba diving, in her work The Life of the Seaman. This work reflects her memories, and she recalls "The sea has been part of my family's history as my great, great grandfather was a mailman on Phillip Island in the late 1800's, who delivered the Island's mail by boat." Another who presents the recreational aspects of the sea is Shaumus Scott's. Tooradin Series I is a reflective photographic essay of the beach shoreline in late summer, a landscape emptied of holiday makers.
Immigration has played a significant role in Australia's maritime history. As a port city, Melbourne in the 19th and 20th centuries received an influx of economic and war refugees from Europe. In his work From Southampton to MelbourneCharlie O considers his family's journey from Southampton to Melbourne on board the immigrant ship the Oriana as 'ten pound tourists'.
As our national anthem notes our home is 'girt by sea'; we now perceive this as an old-fashioned term that conjures images of an invisible girdle, which somewhat restrains our shorelines. For a number of immigrants it has been a shoreline that has been hard to infiltrate. For its long-term inhabitants it is a border of great natural beauty. In the work Ships in the Night, Joy Hirst questions, through narrative, whether the sea has a memory. Hirst inventively uses the sea's horizon line as a pictorial starting point in which she can overlay imagery. While Birri Gubba/Gurreng Gurreng artist Simon Rose's video work touches on the narrative of sea structures, reflecting on their relationship to fictionality and disruption.
Overall, our maritime histories have been constructed by both pleasurable events, such as summer holidays at the beach, as well as tragic ones of loss. The sea can be perceived as either a friend or a foe, and within this premise Girt by Sea offers a variety of cultural interpretations, from pictorially-based works to investigative research. Throughout these many interpretations is a common thread: an emotional response formed by the nostalgic and personal memories of each of the artists.
Indigenous Arts Unit, School of Art, RMIT University
Brian McKinnon is represented by Mossenson Galleries, Melbourne.