I find it intriguing that virtually all of the many feature articles that I’ve read, plus radio and even TV interviews experienced about the current AGNSW survey show of Daniel Boyd’s work have concentrated on the man rather than the art. Of course, he’s an interesting man with a very precisely detailed ancestry as a Kudjala, Ghungalu, Wangerriburra, Wakka Wakka, Gubbi Gubbi, Kuku Yalanji, Bandjalung and Yuggera man with ni-Vanuatu heritage. But it strikes me that we didn’t need to know nearly as much about Ben Quilty – who had a solo show in 2019 at the Gallery – or about Emily Kngwarreye or even Matisse, the artists and their ideas, to appreciate their art.
It’s almost as though Boyd is viewed as a conceptual artist, an Abramovic, rather than a purely visual artist. But then, perhaps that’s part of curators Isobel Parker Philip’s and Erin Vink’s intention, suggested by their heavyweight catalogue containing “creative and experimental commentary” from themselves and Boyd, as well as from 10 Indigenous contemporaries.
Oddly, while Boyd’s earliest works in his satirical, piratical mode are clearly mocking colonialism and the “discovery” of Australia from an Aboriginal viewpoint, the emotional heart of this show for me was works flavoured with Pentecostal elements – for his great grandfather was ‘blackbirded’ from the Vanuatu island that gave us bungy-jumping to be a slave in the Queensland sugar fields. The images of both island life and his subsequent mainland slavery from old photographs that Boyd then turns into his unique black-and-white pointillism using pigment dots and translucent archival glue seem to have an emotional heft that isn’t matched in First Nations artworks.
Take the series of five Islander portraits – taken from old photographs in 2014 and ’15 and given the ubiquitous pointillistic treatment – they have an extraordinary combination of anger in the eyes and character generally that can’t simply be the result of hostility to the original photographer. Compare them to more recent family impressions which have an almost childlike jollity – not helped in telling the Boyd story, I suspect by the fact that the original black and white images have been colourised like an old movie.
Back a generation or so, Boyd’s grandmother was captured at a family wedding, looking as hostile as any ‘native’ might have been in an exploitative photographer’s studio. Pentecostal grandfather, Harry Mossman, on the other hand, has an ease and a nobility despite the wrongs heaped on his mixed-race marriage by Queensland’s ‘Aboriginal Protectors’ and the good Christians at the Yarrabah Mission. Could this be because he was at ease with photographer and anthropologist Norman Tindale – a man whose scientific collection of such data has lead to so much better understanding of land rights, tribal boundaries and DNA relationships across First Nations Australia?
Yet Boyd feels he has the need to stress his reinterpretation of his grandfather’s photo is “from a different cultural perspective”. I wonder how he interprets Tindale’s motives? I note the Fondation Cartier in Paris, currently showing a solo show of Sally Gabori’s art made just across the Cape from Mossman is delighted to show a Tindale photo of her from 1960. We now know that she wasn’t always the 80+ woman who emerged so stunningly as a painter in the 1990s!
Does Daniel Boyd only paint people? They may dominate this show (and include a rather sweet Queen and Capt Cook’s death in the anti-colonial section), but when the artist lists his influences, they are “Indigenous knowledge systems, Gestalt Theory, Plato’s Cave and dark matter”. And Indigenous knowledge may well include his favourite philosopher, Edouard Glissant, the late Caribbean post-colonial activist whose key encouragement to Boyd seems to have been “the right to opacity”. As Edouard Glissant wrote in Poetics of Relation: “To forget is to offend, and memory, when it is shared, abolishes this offence”.
Boyd’s recasting of old Islander and Aboriginal images is undoubtedly a way to abolish the offence of forgetting. While his 6-canvas suite of Plato’s Cave artworks is a fascinating attempt to examine the philosophical conundrum posited aeons ago by Plato about prisoners attempting to understand the world via shadows from it cast by firelight on to their cave wall. Boyd replaces the fire with distant daylight – painted in a matt white; the darkness of the prisoners’ reality glitters brightly. Is this their right to opacity?
But then, on the opposite wall of the first, darkened room of the exhibition is the huge work, ‘Untitled (ToVR)’ 2017/18 – in Boyd’s unhelpful coding system. Daylight surely wins in this explosion that seems to be thrusting clouds away – one shaped suspiciously like Australia.
I fear Gestalt Theory never took visual form for me in this dynamic show. And Jesus never appeared either. For an early exploration by Boyd was his feelings towards the myth behind the establishment of the Yarrabah Mission from which he believed his family had every right and need to escape. Of course, it’s foundation history was as an essential, welcomed refuge from massacre established by that ‘turbulent priest’, Ernest Gribble. Perhaps that dichotomy discouraged the works’ selection – though as it was Boyd’s first series breaking away from his pirates, it could have been seminal.
Beyond the AGNSW, look out for Boyd’s huge suspended artwork at 180 Oxford Street, close to Circular Quay in Sydney. Commissioned by the British/Nigerian architect Sir David Adjaye, Daniel has designed a horizontal screen perforated with different-sized holes described thus: “Like stars scattered across the night sky or subatomic particles comprising the dark matter of the universe, these openings point towards our incomplete understanding of time, space and memory”.
Not unrelated to the exhibition. It’s about to open, but I first wrote about it when it was announced in 2019.
Artist: Daniel Boyd, Emily Kngwarreye, Sally Gabori,
Gallery: Art Gallery of NSW ,