Ben Quilty was born in 1973, and the ‘history wars’ of the 90s – when he was a student – galvanised his interest in Indigenous Australia. (ABC Arts: Teresa Tan)
When Ben Quilty duxed Year 11 art (the same year his careers advisor told him not to go to art school), he was presented with a book about Australian landscape painting — and he saw Henry James Johnstone’s iconic 1880 painting Evening Shadows, Backwater of the Murray, South Australia.
Johnstone’s painting presents a romantic vision of Australian landscape with such forceful beauty that it has become the most copied work in the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection.
Those who get close enough will see that it’s not only a landscape: in the foreground is a young Indigenous woman with a baby swaddled on her back, standing on the river bank across from a campsite where we see a younger and older man sitting beside a fire.
H. J. Johnstone’s painting Evening Shadows was gifted to the Art Gallery of South Australia in 1881, and was the gallery’s first acquisition.
As Quilty grew older, the painting came to trouble him. He learned that by the time it was made, the Ngarrindjeri who lived in that area had all died of smallpox.
“I’ve since found out that many of that smallpox was spread purposefully in blankets given to the community,” Quilty said at last week’s media call for his exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW.
This exhibition, a survey of the Archibald Prize-winning painter’s career, includes his 2011 response to Johnstone’s Evening Shadows: an epic oil painting 7 metres wide and more than 2 metres tall, comprised of 8 separate panels.
Evening shadows, Rorschach after Johnstone is a response to H.J. Johnstone’s landscape painting of 1880.
(Supplied: Art Gallery of South Australia)
It looks less like a landscape and more like a complex, kaleidoscopically colourful Rorschach, or ink blot test, popular in the 60s as a diagnostic tool for cognition, personality and particular psychological conditions.
Quilty has been making “Rorschach paintings” for over a decade (including his 2009 Doug Moran National Portrait Prize-winning painting of Jimmy Barnes).
He uses a method familiar to many of us from preschool, smooshing one blank canvas against another loaded with thick, wet oil paint, then folding it back out to reveal a symmetrical image.
The result might be described as a “damaged and mirrored image”.
Quilty’s portrait of Jimmy Barnes was a finalist in the 2009 Archibald Prize and won the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize.
In Evening Shadows, Rorschach after Johnstone, the figure of the young Ngarrindjeri woman has partially disappeared on one half of the mirrored image, as a result of the print-making process.
Elsewhere, the paint has smooshed to create new, hard-to-decipher forms.
Curator Lisa Slade says: “All those things [the viewer sees] are contingent on your way of seeing — and that, for me, is the deeper resonance in Ben’s work: he makes us play a role [as viewers].”
Instead of an objective observer, the viewer is complicit in any meaning, or narrative that arises from the painting.
Slade says that “Rorschach making for Ben has been one way of pulling apart the horror of landscape and the role of landscape — the very idea of landscape in Australian art history.”
Quilty himself is reluctant to paint the Australian landscape any other way.
“I can’t make paintings about the beauty of the landscape, without acknowledging the history of the human experience of this landscape,” he tells ABC.
Fairy Bower Rorschach is hung on a wall painted ‘Diocletian purple’, a colour associated with grief and European mourning rituals. (Supplied: Art Gallery of NSW/Mim Stirling)
One of the cruel ironies for Quilty, who studied Aboriginal culture and history through Monash University, is that in many cases the most beautiful locations in Australia also have the darkest human histories.
“Most of the massacres [of Indigenous people] that took place around Australia were at beautiful locations — because, for example, a waterfall is where there is permanent water. So the community would live there for a period of time before moving to the next beautiful place,” he explains.
The new ABC documentary Quilty: Painting the Shadows follows the creation of the artist’s most recent Rorschach landscape, depicting the site of the 1838 Myall Creek massacre, on Gamilaraay country in Northern NSW.
Every year since 2000, Indigenous and non-Indigenous members of the community have gathered to commemorate the 28 women, men and children of the Wirrayaraay tribe who were murdered by 12 stockmen at Myall Creek station. They were camped peacefully, and probably preparing the evening meal, when they were attacked.
Quilty attended this year’s memorial service, presided over by local elders including Aunty Sue Blacklock and Uncle Lyall Munro, with the intention of creating one of his Rorschach landscapes.
Both elders gave their backing for the artist to tell the story of this massacre through his painting.
Aunty Blacklock says in the film, “I think it would be a good idea to get it [the history] out there for everyone to see.”
Ben Quilty and Gamilaraay elder Aunty Sue Blacklock with Myall Creek Rorschach. (Supplied: Darryn McKay)
Quilty sketched the site during his visit, focusing on the landscape around a large grey tree, dead and blackened in places from successive bushfires, that has stood since the massacre — “like a sentinel to the memory of that place,” in his words.
He speaks of “channelling the suffering; the broken, forgotten history; the insanity of people trying to forget this history; the denialists” into his latest painting, “to make something very positive”.
The resulting artwork is beautiful in many ways. But Aunty Blacklock says “you can feel the heartache in the painting”.
“The trauma — you can still feel it in there.”
Early in Quilty: Painting the Shadows, the artist says: “Paint’s such a luscious thing, such a beautiful medium that you can kind of deceive people into reading the story that they would be uncomfortable naturally reading.”
Quilty’s Rorschach paintings are undeniably beautiful — the colour palette; the sense of composition — but they also unsettle, partly because the Rorschach test brings its own set of connotations.
We expect — and perhaps dread — the revelation that might come if we gaze too long at these canvases.
“With his ink blots, he [Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach] was deciphering paranoid and delusional behaviour. They’re abstract — so you’re not meant to see anything,” Quilty explains.
“When I first started making these works … I was trying to implicate the viewer in the history, to make them consider why they are seeing something. And there is something to see, and therefore there’s a conversation to be had — and there are things that need to be reconciled.”
In Quilty’s recent painting Irin Irinji, some viewers see ghost gums and others see inverted white figures in the Rorschach landscape.
The work was made at a massacre site in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in remote South Australia.
In 2017, Anangu elder Frank Young told Quilty of an incident in which local Anangu men were killed as retaliation for spearing a white dingo scalper who had defiled a water source. Their bodies were hung in trees as a warning to other members of their community.
In 2018, Quilty travelled to the site with Sally Scales, chair of the APY Executive Board Council, and her mother — Pitjantjatjara women.
“The Anangu wanted me to tell their story of standing up for their land, and this [painting] was the response to that,” says the artist.
In the film, Scales says: “It’s not like he [Ben] wants to go and apologise for all those sorts of things, and I don’t think that — that’s not what he’s trying to do. But for him, it’s sort of going, ‘This has happened. Don’t brush it under the table. There is a sorrow here. There is a history here and we need to start talking about that’,”
When he was in year 5, and being home-schooled by his parents, Quilty and his family undertook a trip around Australia that he remembers as formative.
“Even at that age I was starting to question who I was — an Irish-blooded white man living on this incredibly ancient human place.”
By the time he started studying at Sydney’s National Art School, in 1992, it was the heyday of Australia’s ‘History Wars’, when historians and politicians and high court judges wrestled publicly and vehemently over the narrative of British colonisation of the continent.
Aged 19, he took a correspondence course in Indigenous history that opened his eyes to the violent history of colonisation.
The course materials included historical documentation of massacres of Indigenous peoples by white colonists and settlers.
“I felt unbelievable injustice for the lack of acknowledgement of those sites,” Quilty recalls.
He looked up his own family name, and found a cattle station owner called Paddy Quilty who was responsible for poisoning and killing local Aboriginal people at Bedford Downs in Western Australia.
Bedford Downs Rorschach is named after a cattle station in the East Kimberley where Aboriginal people were poisoned by landowner Paddy Quilty.
(Supplied: Ben Quilty)
There was no traceable family connection between the painter’s ancestors and the station owner’s, but it was enough to make Quilty feel implicated.
“To tell these stories, it would be really wrong not to implicate myself — I am part of the problem.”
Looking back at that time of ‘awakening’ awareness, Quilty says, “I was engaged but I didn’t have the facility to respond [to those issues]. I wasn’t a good enough painter.”
He says he wasn’t emotionally developed enough either: “I was a classic 19-year-old. You know what they’re like. Underwhelming.”
Quilty grew up in Sydney’s north-west, where car culture was strong, and found early-career success with paintings of Holden Toranas. (Supplied: QAGOMA/Philip Betts)
But at a certain point, his interest in landscape painting fused with his interest in history and reconciliation.
In 2008, he painted Bedford Downs Rorschach — not a landscape, but a mirrored image of two white skulls.
In 2012, he painted Fairy Bower Rorschach, depicting the Fairy Bower falls at Bundanoon in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, near Quilty’s home and studio — a site at which, according to local Indigenous oral history, about 30 Gandangara people were massacred in 1834.
He says he will keep painting these sites — if the local Indigenous communities permit him and want him to.
“While there’s this whitewashing of history, that’s what I’m driven to do. I think it would be not taking my role as an artist seriously if I wasn’t trying to acknowledge that injustice.”
Quilty: Painting the Shadows airs on ABC on Tuesday November 19 at 9:30pm, followed by catch-up on iview.
Quilty is showing at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until February 2.
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