Unmasking the hidden history of colonial Western Australia

Christopher Pease, Reaper, 2015, 168x294cm - Copy
Christopher Pease b. 1969, Minang/Nyoongar Reaper 2015 (detail). Oil on muslin on board (42 panels), 168 x 294 cm. Courtesy the artist and Gallerysmith, Melbourne

From an early age Western Australian artist, Christopher Pease displayed a talent for the arts. His mother Sandra Hill and brother Ben Pushman are also well-known Noongar artists with works included in many significant collections including AGWA, Janet Holmes à Court Collection, Kerry Stokes Collection and the National Gallery of Australia.

Trained as a graphic designer, Pease dabbled in art throughout his studies and later while working in hospitality. It wasn’t until 1999 that he produced his first serious painting titled Noongar Dreaming. This painting depicts Australian Rules football great Graham “Polly” Farmer’s nephew Peter Farmer standing on the Perth freeway which bears Polly’s name.

Another significant piece of artwork by Christopher Pease titled Reaper is currently on display in AGWA’s WA Journey Gallery as part of the Foundation’s annual appeal. Made up of 42 panels, this impressive artwork relays an important message about colonial Western Australia and its darker history.

AGWA’s Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, Carly Lane hosted a live Q+A with Christopher about his work.

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 Artist Christopher Pease with AGWA’s Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Carly Lane. 

Carly Lane: So, Reaper; what is it about? In twenty-five words or less.

 Christopher Pease: In twenty – I don’t know if I can do that. When you’re an artist you find yourself looking back a lot. When you’re a Noongar artist, you’re always looking back. The first references came from my family; my mum, my aunties who would tell stories. After that, you look at the artwork that maybe other people don’t. Like Revel Cooper, I love his work. Then I was going into the museum archives, looking at artefacts and for Noongar iconography specifically, to find a Noongar visual aesthetic. I was trying to build my own visual language and then I stumbled across the Louis de Sainson prints.

Carly Lane: Who is Louis de Sainson?

Christopher Pease: He was a French watercolourist and draughtsman on the ship Astrolabe which sailed down to Albany in 1827 for a couple of months, and he did some really interesting stuff. There was a lot of early colonial artists that did work that I kind of was interested in because there was no photography and there is this translation that occurs. So, the drawings are made here, and then they go back to London where they’re turned into an aquatint, an etching – a lithograph and so there are sometimes weird things that happen in the translation. You don’t know exactly what’s real, and what’s accurate and what’s not accurate, so I’ve seen a lot of kind of questionable things. Robert Dale’s piece was the big one.

Carly Lane: Who is Robert Dale?

Christopher Pease: Robert Dale was a British Lieutenant who in 1829 arrived at the Derbarl Yerrigan (the Swan River) on the HMS Sulphur, and he ended up being the assistant surveyor to John Septimus Roe. He did a lot of surveying and was involved in projects all throughout Perth.

Carly Lane: He was about 19,

Christopher Pease: Yes

Carly Lane: But had already built up this skillset

Christopher Pease: Yeah, his skills were amazing. In 1832 he was in Albany, from January to May and during this time he wrote the account of King George’s Sound and did a series of sketches on top of this hill looking south overlooking King George’s Sound, and that was a panorama. The original panorama is three metres long, it’s a really beautiful lithograph – coloured lithograph – and I wanted to tackle that for years, like really early on, but I just didn’t feel confident in doing it. Finally, a couple of years ago, maybe four years ago now, I thought “That’s it, I’m going to tackle this work.”

Carly Lane: I feel like there’s a bit of déjà vu, because I do want to tell the audiences that we recently had the panorama that Robert Dale drew, and Robert Havell printed up in the Botanical: Beauty and Peril exhibition, and there was another work by artist Sohan Ariel Hayes that was a response to that print that was in the show as well.

Christopher Pease: Yeah. So, Robert Dale, at the same time that he was down in Albany, so was Yagan. Yagan was a cultural warrior here in Whadjuk territory and at the same time, the grants were being opened up in Perth. You’ve got private land ownership happening on the Derbarl Yerrigan, on the Swan River. There was an odd series of events that led to Yagan killing William Gaze. Yagan was caught and sentenced to death, but an outspoken settler named Robert Lyon convinced the judge to send him to Carnac Island instead. He ended up going to Carnac Island and then he escaped by boat back to the mainland. He later appeared at Lake Monger, doing Gidjee (spear) demonstrations, throwing, dancing, and also, in the Perth Botanical Gardens he was involved in events as well, so he was kind of given this kind of unspoken pardon, I guess.

Carly Lane: Julie Dowling, her painting titled Yagan 2016, talks about that event or, you know, it depicts the event at Lake Monger where he was throwing spears.

Christopher Pease: Yeah, yeah, they – they were, you know, throwing targets. You know and there’s a big article in the Perth Gazette where they remarked how amazing he was – Yagan was – his prowess in throwing, you know, weapons.

Carly Lane: From what I understand about your most recent exhibition Minang Boodjar, it was a series of six paintings that all looked at King George Sound, and the Dale and Havell Panorama.

Christopher Pease: Reaper recreates the first part of the panorama and there’s a lot of interesting things happening in it. And there’s a lot of the things Robert Dale depicts in the panorama that is quite accurate. In the background, so you can see in the top right prescribed burning that was happening, so yeah there was a lot of prescribed burning. We can see in other parts – in the painting – there was possum hunting. So, some of the things that he was depicting were quite accurate. What happened was in 1833, Yagan was caught trespassing up where I used to live up in Swan Valley near Ellenbrook. He was caught trespassing and he was shot by two brothers, beheaded, and his head was put in a tree and smoked. Robert Dale ended up acquiring the head and in 1834 he went back to London where he looked to make a deal for Yagan’s head. It was during this time he met Thomas Pettigrew, who was a surgeon working in London. He was an antiquarian and he made a deal with Robert Dale for Yagan’s head. Pettigrew would host dinner parties in his home and after dinner, he would display his curiosities to his guests and Yagan’s head was part of that. As a souvenir, each guest was also given a print of Robert Dale’s panorama.

Apart from the back story, there’s obviously the lines in the painting that’s actually the real map of the exact area where the drawings took place and that relates back to Robert’s Dales work as a cartographer and surveyor.  I decided to divide it up to represent the cutting up the land and putting up boundaries. The reaper is the reference to death and if you look at tarot cards it also means change which is quite significant for that period as well. It was a fitting image that works well with what was happening at the time.

Reaper is currently on loan and we are asking for your help to give it a permanent home in the State Collection. Find out here

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DONATE

Donate by contacting our Foundation office on 08 9492 6761 or email foundation@artgallery.wa.gov.au

Wirnan

014_AGWA_20190206_Photo by Rebecca Mansell
Wirnan, Waringarri Aboriginal Arts
By Jan Goongaja Griffiths, Artist, Waringarri Aboriginal Arts

As a group from Waringarri Aboriginal Arts in the East Kimberley, we are proud to present our Wirnan Project as part of the Desert River Sea: Portraits of the Kimberley exhibition.

“Wirnan” is a traditional Miriwoong word that describes the trade and exchange of gifts from one tribe to another. The trade of Wirnan is a way of keeping each of us connected through sharing and most importantly giving each other ideas and making artefacts. Collecting is connecting to our Country to know who we are and our children and how we used to communicate and talk and understand each other’s ways. To respect and understand our Country.

When we began this project, we had the privilege and permission to listen to one of our leaders (who has now passed) talking in Miriwoong language. She spoke about how the four Indigenous tribes came together to a special place, to trade their gifts at Argument Gap.

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Jan Goongaja Griffiths from Waringarri Aboriginal Arts

It took us a while to brainstorm and to draw what Wirnan meant to us. When our map of drawings was finished, we hung it up, sat back and looked at it. We saw that we had drawn similar pictures to express Wirnan of the old and the now. So, we decided to make four coolamons as it was the main artefact used for carrying all sorts of things. Two coolamons, made traditionally from wood and paperbark, to acknowledge our ancestors from the past that walked from different directions to trade their gifts such as spears, boomerangs, spearheads, dances, songs, corroboree, ochre and traditional marriages. And two more coolamons, made with steel and ceramic, to represent our present day with similar trades, but with gifts such as food, blankets, material and money. We laid out many rocks separated in four different colours to represent the tribal boundaries. One of our highlights was going out on Country to collect what we needed for our project, to make it bigger and better, more special and meaningful.

Our Wirnan project needed more to be done, so we added a projector to show video clips and photos old and new of our people and culture. We included artefacts that we’d made with wood and ceramic at our art centre and a fire to represent the traditional dance that took place to celebrate the coming together of the tribes.

Making the Wirnan project was a big challenge for our group, but in the end, we did it. There was heartache and emotions for the dedication of two of our leaders who had recently passed away and our inspiring group who had poured our hearts and soul into this project. We can now stand proud and say that we have accomplished our Wirnan project as one strong cultural group, reminding us of how our tribal groups came together as one big family those many, many years ago.

Thank you to everyone that has made the journey, travelling near, far and wide to the Art Gallery of WA on Noongar Country as one, to share our legacies, to exchange our stories and art in different mediums. Our Wirnan project is all about this, sharing, giving and exchanging.

Desert River Sea: Portraits of the Kimberley is showing at AGWA until 27 May 2019.