Gregory P Lehman, Senior Lecturer, Institute for Koorie Education, Deakin University, 16 March 2016
GREGORY LEHMAN: [Indigenous language spoken]
I would like to express my appreciation and the honour of being able to speak to you today on Ngambri, Ngunnawal, Ngunawal land, and pay my respects to the elders here today and elders past, and the ancestors that all of us bring with us today into this conversation.
Patsy [Cameron] and I are going to attempt the impossible, and that is do a quick sprint through the very complex history of our island and our people.
It’s a complex history, and my particular interest is in the visual representation of Aboriginal people, and in particular Tasmanian Aboriginal people, during a very complex and brutal time, which was dominated by what was known in Tasmania as the Black War one of those wars, as Dawn [Casey] reminded us earlier today, that Australia still refuses to recognise.
I’ll try to offer a snapshot of the situation in Tasmania to give you some context and look at some key questions about the presence or, importantly, the absence of Aboriginal people in the visual record, and a little about the role of portraiture in presenting my ancestors during this turbulent period.
Patsy will then focus more on the lives of the people sketched by John Skinner Prout. A number of these are included in the [Encounters] exhibition.
[pause – starts slideshow]
When Skinner Prout arrived in Australia in 1840, he was already a successful painter, having exhibited with the Bristol Society of Artists in 1832 and the New Society of Painters in Water Colours in London.
His visit to Van Diemen’s Land in 1845 and, together with other artists, including Simpkinson de Wesselow and later Bishop Nixon, to Wybalenna on Flinders Island, resulted in some very important images of our people, and that series of sketches by Skinner Prout that’s now held in the British Museum.
I’m just going to have to jump. Sorry.
Prior to this, there had been a relative absence of Aboriginal people in portraiture and landscape. A good example of this, many of you will be familiar with the work of Joseph Lycett. He produced a series of views of Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales, published in London in 1824.
A great number of his views of New South Wales either had Aboriginal people as his subject; hunting kangaroo, using fire, climbing trees to hunt possums. In the views of Van Diemen’s Land, Aboriginal people are completely absent.
This is curious, considering that around that period, 1820 to 1822–1823, we were building up to the most intense period of the Black War. Aboriginal people were certainly not absent from the minds of the colonists. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why, from a propaganda point of view, Lycett was persuaded not to include them. That’s a matter of conjecture.
This absence was the case until the end of the Black War. This painting [shows image], called The Conciliation, that some of you will recognise, is generally considered to be Australia’s first history painting, by Benjamin Duterrau.
He arrived in Hobart Town in 1832. Shortly after, the Big River Mob, who were the last armed resistance group in Van Diemen’s Land, were cajoled into agreeing to a treaty with George Augustus Robinson and travelled with Robinson to Hobart Town to meet with the governor, where they had been promised that the governor would, ‘Agree to all their requests.’
Of course they were immediately packed off to Flinders Island. That was one of the last, possibly the last portrayals that occurred in Van Diemen’s Land over the course of that war.
This period culminated in the exile of Tasmanian Aboriginal people to permanent offshore detention on Flinders Island, something that Australia is still trying to perfect.
Ironically, it also coincided with painters such as John Glover, repopulating the Tasmanian landscape with Aboriginal people. People who had just, at great expense to the colony, been bodily removed.
The figures that Glover populated his landscapes with were mostly based on images from his sketchbooks. One particular sketchbook of his actually documented the Big River Mob as they were being brought into Hobart Town by Robinson, although these hardly qualify as portraits.
Sorry I’ve just jumped. It’s not where I want to be.
As well as Duterrau, another artist, the convict Thomas Bock, was commissioned to paint portraits of Tasmanian Aboriginal people by George Augustus Robinson. Robinson was intending on publishing his journals as a book, and he made a number of requests to artists for images he intended to use to illustrate that publication.
These portraits so impressed the governor’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, that she requested that copies be made as, ‘Interesting duplicates in profile, in neutral tint, so that the particular formation of the lower jaw of some of the Tasmanian Aborigines might be ascertained, in any not to be seen in the principal portraits.’
These predated the photographic portraits produced by Charles Wooley as the earliest examples of what TM Huxley later defined in his guidelines for anthropomorphic photography. Portraiture emerged, of course, from its beginnings in Egypt, to use on coins in Persia and sculpted portraits of philosophers such as Socrates in Ancient Greece.
They were a homage to power, authority, wealth, fame, or influence, but portraits of those without any high position in society are just as important.
Unlike status portraits, which establish conventions of idealised beauty, displaying a stoic, often-aloof expression and also depicting symbols of the subject’s wealth and power, portraits of members of an underclass broke with these conventions, allowing artists to depict individuals in ways more common in genre painting.
Caricature was common. Emotion, disfigurement or quirks such as squints were laid bare to satisfy a fascination with or a disdain for otherness.
This sketch was made by [William Buelow] Gould of people who were being held on Grommet Island, by George Augustus Robinson as he was removing people from the west and southwest coast of Tasmania. Grommet Island is a small island of the coast of Sarah Island, which was one of the most severe penitentiaries for convicts in Van Diemen’s Land.
However, these, what I’m calling genre portraits, were not always disrespectful. The genre approach often resulted in portraits that are more powerful and evocative than was possible to achieve when painting a dignitary who may have often commissioned the portrait themselves, enabling them to exercise considerable editorial control over the resulting representation.
Skinner Prout’s portraits, I think, are quite sympathetic. This isn’t something new. It wasn’t uncommon for country house owners in 18th century England to commission portraits of loyal servants. These are often statements of ownership, often in the same way that chattels of estates were used in commissioned paintings.
But unlike status portraits, these would often focus on the communicative, through gesture, expression, or in depicting everyday objects or activities rather than symbolic ones. In this way, such portraits are important as documentary works, often more candid, more authentic than the carefully staged portrait of a high society subject.
This painting of Alexander is a very good example. I might actually let Patsy [Cameron] talk about this, because she speaks much more knowledgeably about this than I do.
But we cannot forget that every portrait of the powerless is infused with the authorship of those commissioning the work. These portraits often speak of the representational otherness of the subject, intended to emphasise the conformity of the viewer to accepted or established norms.
Some of these portraits, such as those by Prout, may have been at the initiative of the artist, in the tradition of ethnographic documentation or, more likely in this case, due to the romantic appeal of the dramatic human tragedy that these people represented.
As Shearer West says, ‘Traces of status in poses, gestures and accoutrements of portraiture enabled viewers to respond in a way that tested their own perceived superiority over, inferiority to, or affinity with the subjects of the portraits.’
These Prout portraits, 170 years on from their production, I believe, do all of these things. They evidence the difference between the indigenous people of the island and those who sought to replace them.
They document the enforced poverty into which a formerly free people were now condemned. They raise questions about whether George Augustus Robinson’s Wybalenna project to transform freedom fighters into agrarian Christians was either just or realistic.
At the time of their creation, the portraits gently restated what the too few colonists who defended the Tasmanian Aborigines against the worst of settler aggression had sought to do; to assert their common humanity and just as gently ask what implications there might be for those who now benefited from their removal from what had been their home for a thousand generations or more.
Most importantly, because of the work of Prout and the freedom he had as an artist to visually explore all of their character and circumstance, unencumbered by the conventions of classical or anthropological portraiture that constrained the work that he and other portraitists in Van Diemen’s Land, like Bock, had to observe, we have a rare window into the lives of these individuals who have continued to live across the generations for those of us who count them as ancestors, but who have largely slipped into obscurity for contemporary Australians.
The Encounters exhibition allows these great souls to live again. Thank you.
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Date published: 01 January 2018