Artist Ben Quilty confronts colonial denial with Aboriginal massacre site art works

Andrew Stephens, The Sydney Morning Herald

In the beautiful southern highlands of NSW there is a glorious spectacle of nature called Fairy Bower Falls. It sounds magical, secluded and full of promise, as if it might be a tranquil sanctuary. One of Australia's most talented contemporary artists, Ben Quilty, once painted it – not once, but twice on the same canvas, a Rorschach-style mirror image that heightens the site's majesty.

Yet, there is something innately disturbing, as there is in many Rorschach imagery. In the 1830s two young white male immigrants with guns are believed to have shot and killed the population that lived at Fairy Bower Falls. Oral histories – there are no written documents – report there were scores of children and adults present. The only images of that place we are likely to see, though, are tourist shots of white pleasure-seekers from the 19th century.

Quilty gives us two images of it, just as there are two contested histories.

"Before the 1830s that place was continually being filled with the noise of singing and of children and families who had been using that place for thousands and thousands of years," Quilty says. "And in one day in 1834, that place went silent and all that was left was the sound of running water."

It remains astonishing for Quilty that many sites of massacres of indigenous people around Australia remain unmarked, and without suitable commemoration. At the same time, he is not surprised, given the country's history of violence, theft, denial and mismanagement around indigenous affairs. That massacre sites can be conveniently ignored continues that trend.

One of the most significant episodes in Quilty's education was studying indigenous history at Monash University in the 1990s when he was introduced to one particular text cataloguing massacres of indigenous people. It changed him at a deep level to learn about the extent of this horror – and how we fail to heal that gaping wound by not honouring these sites.

"They are never signposted, they are never acknowledged, and our children don't know they exist," Quilty says. "And it is with a sense of shame that we ignore them. But the thing about the arts is that by acknowledging places like [Fairy Bower Falls] you are really enriching the culture. Politicians are fundamentally failing to recognise that by honouring and commemorating those places you enrich society, you don't damage it."

In 2008, the prime minister of the day, Kevin Rudd, made an apology to Aboriginal people for all they have suffered since colonisation. Quilty admired and welcomed that ("Sorry was better than nothing," he says), but words need to be followed with serious, continuing action, he says, and making amends requires sustained hard work. 

His contribution is to paint these sites. When he was asked by the revered Saatchi Gallery in London to be the first Australian to have a show there, it was centred on a series of his works dealing with issues around indigenous Australia and his own colonial heritage. Fairy Bower Rorschach is one of those paintings.

Quilty is now installing the entire Saatchi show at Bendigo Art Gallery and says the 20 large works were exhibited at Saatchi when curator Nigel Hirst approached him wanting to show a slice of the contemporary Australian art scene. He felt Quilty - winner of the Brett Whiteley Travelling Scholarship (2002), the Doug Moran Prize (2009), the Archibald Prize (2011) and this year's prestigious Prudential Eye Award for Contemporary Art - was making work that went to the heart of major issues.

The starting point for works like Fairy Bower Roschach is, curiously, Quilty's experiences with traditional landscape painting. "Having grown up a white boy in the western suburbs of a big city in Australia, you have this idea that we live in a country whose artists are all about responding to the landscape," he says. "That was the public education system that you were given – a very Western, British sense of what the landscape was about. That it was big, it was grand, that there's sense of a real struggle to overcome the landscape."

Strangely, though, Quilty discovered – as he began his own artistic career – that the Australian landscape is actually very taboo for artists "because there have been people practising in the landscape as artists for 40,000 years".

"And so all of my observations of the landscape – and it is a very complicated issue – but they are very much based on observation, just looking at the landscape, the way it looks rather than the history and spirituality that must come out of 40,000 years of living on a place."

Quilty says he has therefore never made paintings of the landscape without "somehow trying to tackle the notion that as white people we really don't understand it and we can only look at it in a two-dimensional sense". 

He says "one of the most tragic but also one of the most dynamically interesting things for an artist is that we do live as white people on a land that is so riddled with an intense cultural history that we still barely acknowledge it".

To investigate that history and talk about the white colonial involvement in it is the exciting side of the coin – and so he began the journey of researching his family's history in Australia and began to place himself – or, at least, a "kind of humorous lineage of white patriarchal colonial history starting with Captain Cook and ending with me" – at the centre of some art works, all of them set in landscapes that were massacre sites.

"I am in the favoured position of [being] a straight white man to tell stories and people expect I am coming at it with an open mind," he says. "But saying that, I think it is also important to tell the story with elegance and subtly. I never want to have a political line."

While riding between politics and telling stories, he hopes to shape a better place and he thinks landscape painting is a beautiful way to tell those stories.

"In that sense I am a storyteller, and I don't want it to be too didactic. That said, a wall panel is imperative [in an exhibition] explaining that [the site] is an unmarked Aboriginal massacre site."

Quilty insists the paintings are autobiographical. His Irish, colonial blood runs back five generations. "By putting myself in it I can tell it as a subject and willing participant, without sermonising. It is the truth and my experience." His research revealed a Quilty who was clearly involved in a massacre. "We were not related but we might easily have been. It is my history and I can't help but think I am implicated – if I don't think about it and talk about it then I am not just implicated, I am guilty of covering it up."

By facing such truths, we will "very quickly build a whole beautiful layer in society that is not here yet". He has seen such a layer in Germany, where taking cultural responsibility for the Holocaust has made the country heal, and also propelled it into being a cultural, creative and economic powerhouse. 

"And we in Australia still haven't done it [faced the past] and it is 160-170 years old. The thing about confronting is you become more dynamic and powerful. I believe that in years to come, if we do acknowledge those places [of massacre] and commemorate them in the same way we commemorate battle sites from the First World War, we will become such a dynamic culture."

Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald, December 12, 2014.

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