Troubling my way through Sidney Nolan.
Dr Kate McMillan
As I write this, I’m sitting in the front room of the farm house, adjacent to The Rodd Manor in Herefordshire, where Mary and Sidney Nolan lived until 1992. Surrounded by 250 acres of ancient woodlands and Sid’s organic farm on the Welsh Borders, this deathly quiet landscape feels oddly haunted by a Nolan. The ghost of him that is left here, I’ve come to discover, is very unlike the mythology that surrounds him.
This has led me to try and reconcile my earlier writing on Nolan which, in hindsight, seems harsh and unforgiving - slightly acerbic as one BBC radio presenter noted in early 2017. He was probably right insomuch as he detected my antagonism towards an icon of Australian painting – the sort of character (or caricature) that I left Australia to escape from. Oddly enough, I have found myself writing and speaking about Nolan in this centenary year of his birth for various events, books and exhibitions across Britain. What began as a critique of another white male Modernist (who in my mind had only been interested in perpetuating certain ideas about how ‘being Australian’ might be visualised), has become a fascinating ongoing enquiry into aspects of his practice that have been almost completely ignored in Australia, but increasingly celebrated in England.
It was after I had written an essay for the book ‘Transferences: Sidney Nolan in Britain’ by Rebecca Daniels, that I began to uncover many works I had not seen before. The first was on a trip to The Sidney Nolan Trust located at The Rodd in January 2017. One of the portraits, that would later be exhibited in the exhibition at Ikon Gallery, was propped up against a wall. Anthony Plant from The Rodd casually mentioned that they were later works – an entire, very large series in fact, of works that were made in response to the 1982 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. How could I not know about these works?
With this in mind, I went back through as many works as I could – and many will know that this means thousands – to see what I could find. In what other ways had Nolan responded to human rights issues in Australia?
My first ‘discovery’ was from 1947, the unambiguously titled ‘Aboriginal Hunt’ (fig 2). Nolan visualises one of many historical examples of Aboriginal peoples being driven off cliffs in order to ‘disperse’ populations for farming. I had come across similar stories right across Australia in research for my PhD and other projects, many of which were explored in the book ‘Blood on the Wattle’ by Bruce Elder. However, denialists in the so-called ‘history wars’ still perpetuate what eminent historian WEH Stanner termed ‘the great Australian silence’ in 1968 - the ongoing attempts to minimise the impact and mechanisms of invasion and colonisation. For the first time I understood that the narration of Sidney Nolan’s work can also be considered in the same way; through the exclusion of certain themes in favour of others. For most, the iconography of the bushranger and other white heroic escapades is what we remember Nolan for.
This is precisely why ‘Aboriginal Hunt’ is so powerful. Nolan unequivocally confronting this inconvenient truth. The work itself had been whitewashed from Australian history writing - not deliberately, but in the failure to not recognise its significance.
In the painting the Aboriginal boy stares directly at the viewer, somehow resigned to his fate. His murderers are anonymised, silhouetted, as are the names of many who participated in genocide for almost 150 years. Like much of Nolan’s work, the composition is awkward and perfect in equal measures. The sun is about to set, nightfall will mask the place this boy descends to.
This great silence in Australia has been less about denying the existence of genocide, and more about the minimisation and marginalisation of it, so that it still today occurs as a simple footnote to the bigger Australian narrative of bush rangers, convicts, democracy and the birth of a secular society. Nancy Tuana and Shannon Sullivan call this the ‘epistemology of ignorance’ – a racial contract amongst dominant populations to keep disruptive narratives small.
As artists, many of us feel the weight of this deliberate forgetting. It is with clarity that we look upon the things that cannot be easily spoken of, the traces of this history that lay across our landscapes. It is the terror of colonialism, the unresolved violence and murder that brings us back to the site of the crime time and time again. We visualise the landscape, not because of its beauty – though this is true – but because we are haunted by it.
The 1952 Queensland drought which formed the subject matter for Nolan’s series of Drought Photographs is utterly emblematic of this haunting (fig 3). With the unforgiving landscape at the centre of these photographs, it reads as the rotting carcass of colonialism usurping the persistence of European farming practices. Hundreds of thousands of cattle died during this three year drought. In one of the photographs we see Nolan and his touring party playing with the carcasses as if props from a play. It was as if Nolan saw the ridiculous futility of it all. His work does not stand alone in this regard. It is in fact part of a long lineage of white Australian artists who have depicted a troubled land, with humans in direct confrontation with it.
The drought photographs were too shocking to be published, despite numerous attempts by Nolan. The full edition of 61 would not be shown until 2011 at Australian Galleries, curated by Damian Smith, almost 60 years after they were taken. Nolan’s drought photographs are an exquisite imaging of the ruin of Empire, as well as the residue left from violent invasion. They underpin the fondness and fear that settler Australians have always had for the landscape - they speak back to a nation about itself, and to Britain of its colonial legacy. If we search through Nolan’s output, we can see this composed and considered sadness, this critique of settler society, explored time and time again.
In June of 2017 I had the great pleasure of speaking about the paintings that were shown in the Sidney Nolan exhibition at Ikon Gallery. It is difficult to put into words the power of seeing these works for the first time. That it would be, not in Australia, but in the British Midlands (the place from which many convicts would begin their journey south), was striking to say the least. Again, I was struck by the absence of these powerful images in my knowledge of Nolan.
The works in the exhibition represent a deep sense of the tragic, of loss and of the residue of history in the present. Some of these paintings were included in an exhibition at the Lanyon Gallery, Canberra in 1988, only to fall back into anonymity again. They respond to the injustices being uncovered at the time by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. These works provide evidence that the reflection and insight Nolan had had in 1947 when he painted a boy being driven off a cliff, stayed with him throughout his working life.
Nolan died in 1992, the year after The Royal Commission handed down its final findings. It investigated the deaths in custody of 99 Aboriginal people between 1980 and 1989. I wonder what Nolan would say if he had lived to know that since then, 340 more Indigenous people have died in custody; and that virtually none of its recommendations have been implemented in the more than 25 years since the report, and other subsequent reports.
I grew up in Western Australia. It has the highest rate of racialised imprisonment in the country, followed by the Northern Territory. Indigenous children in WA are 53 times more likely to be jailed than non-Indigenous children; adults 17 times more likely, despite being only 3% of the population. These figures are worse than those under South African Apartheid. As artists, we must resist the silencing, the propaganda surrounding our national narrative and the distraction of art history’s canon. How strong these stories are if even the protests of Sidney Nolan can be minimised.
Therefore, in wondering what language we might use to describe Nolan’s work, perhaps the most significant theme is not the larrikin bushranger, but crime and incarceration, of violence being played out against a backdrop of the Australian bush. We might consider more closely the founding of Australia - a British colony stolen from its first peoples with the aim of incarcerating its unwanted citizens on an island far away. We might also think about the strange repetition of history when free settlers and former convicts sought to implement systems of punishment and incarceration against Aboriginal peoples, the legacy of which continues today.
Importantly, we might think about how we view, describe and canonise the images of our history. We might choose to be very careful as academics, historians, artists and as thinkers, as to which of these artist’s histories we privilege. Which works do we look at, and consequently consider the ways in which we inadvertently might contribute to the silencing.
I think these are the works of Nolan’s we should be remembering, and I suspect he might agree.
1. ‘The Great Australian Silence’ was a term that Stanner first used in 1968 during the ‘After the Dreaming’ Boyer Lectures, a series of radio lectures presented by prominent Australians each year on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), beginning in 1959.
Dr Kate McMillan is an artist and academic at King’s College London. Her work incorporates a range of media including sculpture, film, sound, installation and photography. McMillan is interested in the linking narratives of forgetting and place, often focusing on the residue of the past.
Images courtesy of The Sidney Nolan Trust.