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Andrew Sayers, author of *Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century*, 30 September 2014

HELEN ENNIS: Thank you, David, and for the opportunity to be introduced to a whole new set of work from the 1870s. Our next speaker Andrew Sayers needs no introduction as his book is the hub of our meeting today. I know that you haven’t come just to talk and hear about that book in particular but also because you know Andrew as a colleague and as a friend. Tim [Bonyhady] was talking about what today represented, the 20-year anniversary of the publication of Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century, giving people a chance to think about its long-term impact, but it has also given Andrew a chance to go back and think about what that book has meant to him and then to focus on a particular aspect. Please would you welcome Andrew Sayers. [applause]

ANDREW SAYERS: Thanks very much, Helen. I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people. It’s particularly great to have Aunty Joy here today. Our friendship goes back a long time. My thanks to Tim Bonyhady and Melinda Hinkson for having the idea of this twentieth anniversary celebration. I must admit that I hadn’t noticed what Tim had noticed that it was 20 years since 1994. Also thanks very much to the Museum team for today’s event, the whole Museum team that I had such fun working with when I was here as director, and of course the Gordon Darling Foundation for their support today.

In the beginning was the list. Then there was the book, and after that the exhibition. Now, two decades on, further work, new discoveries, new questions and new artistic responses to the work of the Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century. I’d like to acknowledge all of those researchers, thinkers and artists who had come before my work in 1994 and to acknowledge also all of the extraordinary work - the new insights, the new artists and the new details in biographies - that have followed in the past two decades.

I thought I would do two things briefly today: firstly, to revisit how the book came into being; and, secondly, to turn our minds to some new questions that I’ve been thinking about in particular in relation to Tommy McRae.

First the list: 2014 is not only the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Aboriginal Artists in the Nineteenth Century, it’s also the 25th anniversary of the publication of Drawing in Australia, the book I wrote to record the Bicentennial exhibition of the same name mounted at the National Gallery of Australia [NGA]. In that book Drawing in Australia, beneath an illustration of a work by William Barak that Wally Caruana, who’s here today, had purchased for the National Gallery in 1985, I bracketed Barak with Tommy McRae and Mickey of Ulladulla as three Aboriginal artists working in the nineteenth century who it was possible to identify by name.

As a curator of Australian drawings, I thought it would be a useful exercise to compile a list of as many drawings as I could identify by those artists and by anybody else who could be identified in that century among Aboriginal artists and, as Tim mentioned, I quickly reached a list of some 200 drawings. In 1989, the majority of these works were in the collections of libraries, where they were sometimes misattributed, museums, and a surprising number of private collections.

Then the book: in researching this presentation I came across a work-in-progress seminar I gave in 1991 at the Australian National University [ANU] and at that stage I was still talking about the project as compiling a catalogue of drawings. It didn’t become a book until I realised that the parallel lives of the three principal artists had given rise to circumstances in which drawings were valued. I wanted to explore the idea that drawing matters when a particular creative space opens up which allows artists to communicate, to note simple observations of the world, to teach, to bear witness, to make work for a market, to respond to demand, to respond to curiosity and, in the case of these artists, the curiosity was not that simply of ethnographers but also of their fellow practising artists.

Three themes in the cultural landscape of the late 1980s and early 1990s formed a setting for the book. Tim has outlined already the attention on Tommy McRae that had led to the work of my colleague Carol Cooper, and the work of Barak that had been explored by John Mulvaney and Diane Barwick, among others. It was a period of intense interest in colonial encounters - contact histories. It was a time when specific and documented narratives from the first waves of European colonisation were being recovered from archival sources and being re-told.

Secondly, in the 1990s the art of Namatjira and the Hermannsburg watercolourists of the mid-twentieth century was undergoing a reevaluation. In many respects, from their use of so-called non-traditional mediums to the development of a market for their works, the Hermannsburg watercolourists of the twentieth century echoed the work of their nineteenth-century draughtsmen.

Thirdly, in the early 1990s a new generation of urban Indigenous artists, such as the artists working from Boomali, were achieving national recognition, and in this context the artists of the century before were valuable precursors. Lin Onus, one of the finest artists of that generation, agreed to write the book’s foreword. Lin Onus, who died in 1996 not long after its publication, more than any other artist was heir to these nineteenth-century artists.

And then there was the exhibition. I hadn’t intended initially to work on an exhibition, I had intended the book to do the work of making a body of drawings more clear and visible. I thought it would be too difficult, due to the fragility of the works and the fact that so many of them were in collections overseas, to put an exhibition together. But there was a huge amount of support for the idea of a travelling exhibition, especially from the Indigenous Advisory Committee of the Museum of Victoria. I remember how persuasive Aunty Joy was in that forum.

In the end it proved to be a relatively easy exhibition to mount and it was tremendously rewarding. The overall impact of the exhibition, and Carol has spoken a little bit about this, was to bring a nation from a century ago into the present. You stood in the exhibition surrounded on all sides by people. In the foreword to the book, Lin Onus wrote:

In a few spots, however, it is still possible to wander through the bush and imagine, through Barak’s eyes, what life was like in those times. This seems to be a poignant joyfulness in which one can picture large numbers of people coming together for a special occasion.

That picturing of large numbers of people coming together for a special occasion, in this exhibition, was profound and moving, and the book couldn’t have the same impact as the exhibition. It is, of course, one of the great rewards of curatorial work when an exhibition on which you might have worked for years tells you something you couldn’t possibly have known before. The richness and the order of the world presented by Barak was quite overwhelming. [images shown] You can see in this picture here a wall of works by Barak, and in the foreground a showcase with a sketchbook by Tommy McRae.

And other qualities came through strongly: ceremonies, sailing ships, steamers, sawmills - the world as pictured by Mickey of Ulladulla was a world full of incident and seemingly alive with stories. As Tim has pointed out, these were all elements of the artist’s life, his place, memory and self-portraits.

In the drawings of Tommy McRae, one noticed again the sheer number of people taking part in the precisely delineated ceremonies he depicted. There were other qualities unique to the artist: the dazzling, zigzagging energy in his work, his capacity to depict a world through the simplest of means and his unusual viewpoints. In history of Australian art, it’s only in Tommy McRae’s drawings that we witness tree branches crashing to the ground.

[image shown] In this photograph of the installation of the exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia, you can see this Museum’s [National Museum of Australia] Tommy McRae’s sketchbook in the foreground opened at the page Spearing fish, turtle and swan. Spearing fish, turtle, and swan - you can see the annotation in blue on the lower right-hand corner of the sketchbook page. Of all the drawings of Tommy McRae, this is the drawing I return to time and time again. The composition has a tremendous formal coherence that’s given to it by the counterpoint of repeated curves. The convex watercraft, the spines of the Murray cod, the arabesque of the swan and the alert backs and limbs of the hunters all create a series of segmented curves that contribute to a whole, a kind of circle.

Although we can read the space of the page as the continuous space of the surface of the water, it seems that there are four episodes depicted here. The space is both continuous and episodic. You can see in the lower half of the composition the turtle on the bank about to be set upon by the hunter who has beached his craft; then there are two fish about to be speared; and in the top half of the composition two hunters close in on the swan. Quite early in his work the artist has established his own iconography. Yet in this particular drawing he achieves a delicacy of touch - those perfectly weighted and flexible spears - that is enormous in its expressive power. The drawing reminds me of the way which watercraft move over the surface in the work of Chinese or Japanese artists as in this Ming dynasty ink painting.

It reminds me, too, of Donald Thompson’s iconic 1937 photograph Goose hunters of the Arafura swamp, an image that has the same pared-down intensity, the coiled-spring energy, the quiet intensity of the hunt. Of course I recognise that such parallels put us into tricky ground. Tim Ingold reminds us, among other writers, that we cannot make any easy cross-cultural assumptions about the universality of the meaning of landscape or where the divide falls, if it indeed exists, between culture and nature or, indeed, what animals and plants actually mean.

When I wrote Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century, with its strongly and biographically emphasis and its focus on the circumstances under which drawings are made, I avoided mostly compositional and spatial analysis for the works of the artists who were included there. I felt unsure of my ground and wary of imposing my subjective responses. As Mary Eagle has said in relation to Tommy McRae, ‘After all, composition is the most culture bound aspect of visual language.’ But if I were to write a book on Tommy McRae today I would be inclined to focus on a series of different questions from those that concerned me in 1994. Perhaps these are more questions of connoisseur-ship and formal analysis. It may in fact be that this is the direction that other researchers into Tommy McRae may not take the work.

I think it’s remarkable that the span of McRae’s drawing covered 35 years, possibly longer, and some of the motives he drew in the 1860s - this is an 1860s drawing [image shown] - he was still drawing in the 1890s. I’m not sure that we have as clear a view about the stylistic changes in the development of his practice over this period, but it would be a valuable thing to explore that. I would like to understand more about the construction of his drawings, how he built and created form, and perhaps for that we need some close analysis of his materials and technique. They could yield a great deal in this area.

As I now spend my time painting and drawing and less writing, I daily grapple with visual problems, principal among them the most mysterious - how to create space; how to create a sense of energy; how to suggest life and light?

Roderick Kilborn, Tommy McRae’s neighbor who probably saw him make many drawings, commented that ‘his peculiarity as an artist was that in all his sketches he commenced at the foot and worked upwards’. This technique of establishing a ground is clearly evident in many of his drawings. Interestingly, in the Museum’s sketchbook of which this is a page [image shown], we can see this in action. In that sketchbook the artist used different colours of ink, blue and black, and presumably one or other of the inks ran out during the production of the sketchbook. But it allows us to see the artist in the process of making space, sometimes with just a single tree or his characteristic thicket of lines.

There is another sort of space in McRae’s drawings - narrative space. If we look at the drawing, such as Fight between two tribes, again in the National Museum’s sketchbook, we can see two distinct sides of a composition like battle lines. Not simply a spatial divide but a conceptual one - energised space as between the hunter and the prey in the drawing of our discussion today.

In the drawings depicting the Buckley story, which have been eluded to by Tim earlier in today’s proceedings, the narrative is divided interestingly into discretely depicted episodes. In this drawing [image shown], which was one of the best acquisitions the Museum made while I was director here, we can see the way in which the story of William Buckley is divided into three parts: the arrival of the convict ship in Hobson’s Bay; surprise; and Buckley’s appearance as the supposed spirit of the recently buried member of the local Aboriginal group.

You can see in this drawing that the story is outlined in words written on the composition. I don’t know who wrote the inscriptions in the drawing, but they are clearly integral to the way in which the narrative unfolds. I’ve always had an inkling that the habit of attaching explanatory inscriptions to the drawings, a feature of the earliest works in the 1860s - you can see there in the top part of the composition ‘the challenge’ - which continued until the last works, inscriptions that come from a variety of hands, must ultimately have come in some way from the artist himself. There’s a specificity in many of the descriptions and a uniformity in the way certain subjects are described in these annotations that cannot be coincidental. If we look at the inscriptions with care, comparing them across all of the sketchbooks, we have what in some measure must be the authentic voice of the artist, speaking to us across the space that divides us from and unites us with his world.

Almost all of Tommy McRae’s drawings are in sketchbooks or can be traced to having been the pages of a sketchbook at the time of their creation. Mary Eagle has commented that:

… unlike much European art, a drawing in a sketchbook by McRae is not independent of other drawings in the book … The sum of any one drawing is more than a single page but instead resonates across the sketchbook in the manner of drawings on a rock wall.

I think this is an important dimension of Tommy McRae’s work because each page, although it may be discrete, takes its place as the record of an incident in the continuous context of the artist’s memory. H Ernest Gatliff, who visited McRae’s camp at Lake Moodemere in the last years of his life and who commissioned a sketchbook from him, observed that:

… he drew entirely from his imagination sitting out in the open in the shade of a tree. Often he would glance up at a tree as if for inspiration but never have I seen any resemblance between his drawing and the object of his glances.

This way of working comes as no surprise to us. Yet this picture of the artist at work is a small image of that larger context of our appreciation of Tommy McRae. It evokes that imaginative space, that space of memory and lived experience that was inside the artist himself. And now I think it’s time for tea. [applause]

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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