Dhungatti artist and Archibald Prize winner Blak Douglas has returned to Manly Art Gallery & Museum to present his challenging truth about Gayamay (Manly Cove). It’s the first solo exhibition he’s held since winning the 2022 Archibald Prize for his portrait of fellow artist Karla Dickens. ‘Moby Dickens‘ showed her in Lismore suffering during the aftermath of last year’s floods.

In Manly, ‘Inverted Commoners’ examines place and displacement and questions what a place really should be named, especially at Gayamay – the point of first contact between First Nations and the Anglo-Irish colonists. If you recall, Captain Phillip much admired the ‘manly natives’ spotted as he made his way to his 1788 landing in Port Jackson, stating that “their confidence and manly behaviour made me give the name of Manly Cove to this place”. However, he never bothered to identify them as the Gayamay of the Dharug-speaking Gayamaygal people.

Douglas’s colourfully provocative landscapes, each marked with big black inverted commas, call into question what a place really should be named. “In this exhibition I’ve chosen to present a suite of canvases highlighting the superficiality of the rapid erasure and disrespect to the original occupants”, Douglas said.

“The inverted commas are suspended upon the landscape as a reminder: ‘But what is this place really named – where are you really from?’. Änd the commas are painted in the blackest pigment currently available, a specialised acrylic paint (Stuart Semple Black) purposely sourced for this body of work. It creates an abyss, a spiritual questioning how much do we really understand about ourselves living on this Country”.

One of the works – intended for purchase by the Art Gallery – features the now-closed Oceanworld building just outside the Gallery which used to be an aquarium. Douglas told an opening event that the Gayamay related to those fish, so the building had contained their spirituality. Another features Washaway Beach nearby, the artist imagining the Gayamay standing on it to observe the arrival of mysterious, unwanted ships through the Heads.

And just about all of Douglas’s works contain his metaphoric clouds, based upon the flat-bottomed clouds that feature across central Australia. Though at Manly Cove, perhaps, they’re also representing the dark footprints of fluffy White administrators, attempting to impose themselves briefly on the timeless Gayamay.

Kunmanara (Pepai) Carroll would have recognised those clouds, and the great potter and artist from Ernabella shares the Manly Art Gallery space with Douglas. ‘Ngaylu Nyanganyi Ngura Winki’ (I Can See All Those Places) is a major solo exhibition from the Jam Factory in Adelaide which showcases a significant body of Carroll’s final ceramic works and paintings before his death 2021. The exhibition is accompanied by a major monograph publication from Wakefield Press, and is touring to 12 venues nationally until mid-2024.

Though both dead and deadly, Carroll is seen on film at the sites of his work – such as his father’s extraordinary water hole at Yumari, which supplied the cruciform shape that features in both pots and paintings. The Jam Factory had facilitated a 2017 trip to Country: a creative project called ‘Mark and Memory’ which saw Carroll return to his grandmother’s and father’s Country, Carroll’s inherited custodial country near Kintore, Kiwirrkura and Wilkinkarra (Lake Mackay). His works also feature Wanampi the water serpent and Ininti, capturing the contour and colour range of the desert bean tree.

This trip was the first time he had returned to these lands since leaving the region for schooling at Papunya. It’s a marvellous body of work by a man who only took up potting 10 years before his death