This section focuses on some of the key ideas and influences that contributed to the development of Gordon Bennett’s work in the late 1980s. Bennett’s art practice since this time has been marked by some significant stylistic shifts. However, the ideas and influences evident in early works, such as The coming of the light, 1987 and Untitled, 1989, continue to play an important role in the artist’s practice. They also provide useful interpretive frameworks for many artworks in the exhibition.
During his childhood in the 1950s and 60s, Bennett lived with his family in Victoria and Queensland. He has described his upbringing as overwhelmingly Euro-Australian, with never a word spoken about my Aboriginal heritage. Gordon Bennett 1
Bennett’s Aboriginal heritage came through his mother. An orphan from a very young age, she was raised on Cherbourg Aboriginal Mission in Queensland, and later trained as a domestic at Singleton. This was common practice among young Aboriginal girls and women. Eventually Bennett's mother ‘earned’ an official exemption that allowed her to leave the Mission. But the oppressive and restrictive laws that governed the lives of Aboriginal people in Australia until the late 1960s continued to impose on her life. For example, at the time Gordon was born she still had to carry her official exemption certificate with her, and she lived in fear of her son being taken from her . 2
I can’t remember exactly when it dawned on me that I had an Aboriginal heritage, I generally say it was around age eleven, but this was my age when my family returned to Queensland where Aboriginal people were far more visible. I was certainly aware of it by the time I was sixteen years old after having been in the workforce for twelve months. It was upon entering the workforce that I really learnt how low the general opinion of Aboriginal people was. As a shy and inarticulate teenager my response to these derogatory opinions was silence, self-loathing and denial of my heritage. Gordon Bennett 3
Bennett married in 1977. He and his partner bought a house and settled in the suburbs of Brisbane like other young couples. However behind the neat facade and pleasantries of suburban life, Bennett was haunted by racism and the same derogatory opinions of Aboriginal people that he quietly endured in the workforce. 4
He has identified with the experience of the fair complexioned, African-American conceptual artist Adrian Piper, who wrote:
Blacks like me are unwilling observers of the forms racism takes when racists believe there are no blacks present. Our experiences in this society manifest themselves in neuroses, demoralization, anger, and in art. Adrian Piper 5
Bennett’s art explores and reflects his personal experiences. Among these is the harrowing struggle for identity that ensued from the repression and denial of his Aboriginal heritage. He acknowledges that much of his work is autobiographical, but he emphasises that there is conceptual distance involved in his art making .
… my work was largely about ideas rather than emotional content emanating from some stereotype of a ‘tortured’ soul. Gordon Bennett 6
born Australia 1955
The coming of the light 1987
synthetic polymer paint on canvas
(a-b) 152.0 x 374.0 cm (overall)
Collection of the artist, Brisbane
© Courtesy of the artist
Photography: Brenton McGeachie
In The coming of the light, 1987 the mirror at the bottom left-hand corner of the painting represents Bennett’s own shaving mirror. The facial features reflected in the mirror are blurred and distorted by roughly painted words – typical racist remarks about Aboriginal people. These racist terms confront an Aboriginal figure represented as a jack-in-the-box, as he is violently jerked from the box that contains him. The alphabet letters on the boxes represent the building blocks of language we learn in childhood, the ABC. The racist terms in the mirror start with the same letters. Attention is focused on the power of language, specifically the way it can be used to define and confine people. Bigger ideas and issues therefore frame the reference to Bennett’s personal experience. These include questions related to how social and cultural structures such as language, religion and history shape experience and perceptions of race and identity.
I first learnt about Aborigines in primary school, as part of the social studies curriculum … I learnt that Aborigines had dark brown skin, thin limbs, thick lips, black hair and dark brown eyes. I did drawings of tools and weapons in my project book, just like all the other children, and like them I also wrote in my books that each Aboriginal family had their own hut, that men hunt kangaroos, possums and emus; that women collect seeds, eggs, fruit and yams. The men also paint their bodies in red, yellow, white and black, or in feather down stuck with human blood when they dress up, and make music with a didgeridoo. That was to be the extent of my formal education on Aborigines and Aboriginal culture until Art College. Gordon Bennett 7
The repression of Aboriginal heritage that Bennett experienced was reinforced by an education system and society dominated by a history built on the belief in Australia as terra nullius. Narratives of exploration, colonisation and settlement failed to recognise the sovereign rights (or sovereignty) of Australia’s Indigenous people.
Like many of his own and earlier generations, Bennett’s understanding of the nation’s history was partly shaped by the sort of images commonly found in history books. Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay 1770 by E. Phillips Fox, for example, depicts Captain James Cook ceremoniously coming ashore at Botany Bay to claim the land for Britain. In images such as these, Aboriginal people are often absent or relegated to the background. These visual representations of history present the colonisers as powerful figures and as the bearers of learning and civilisation in a land of ‘primitive’ people who have no obvious learning or culture.
E. Phillips FOX
Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay 1770 1902
oil on canvas
192.2cm x 265.4cm
National Gallery of Victoria,
Gilbee Bequest, 1902
January 26, 1988: Spectator craft surround tall ship The Bounty on Sydney Harbour as it heads towards Farm Cove while a formation of air force jets are in a fly-past overhead, part of the First Fleet re-enactment for Australia’s Bicentennial
gelatin silver photograph
© Newspix / News Ltd, Sydney
Brenda L. Croft
Gurindji/Mutpurra born 1964
Elders from Northern Territory, Chalmers Street, Redfern. Long March of Freedom, Justice and Hope, Invasion Day, 26 January 1988 1988
gelatin silver photograph
50.4 x 37.6 cm (image); 50.4 x 40.5 cm (sheet)
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
© Brenda Croft/Licensed by VISCOPY Australia
born Australia 1955
oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas
(1-6) 30.0 x 30.0 cm (each)
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
Gift of Doug Hall 1993 (1993.281)
© Courtesy of the artist
Photography: Richard Stringer
Bennett’s final year at art college in 1988 coincided with the Bicentenary of European settlement of Australia. Celebrations continued throughout the year and gave renewed focus to traditional images and stories of the nation’s settlement history. A fleet of tall ships sailed around Australia as part of the commemoration of settlement. They became a potent symbol of the celebrations.
By the late 1980s there was also a growing awareness within Australian society of the injustices suffered by the Indigenous population as a result of their dispossession. The Bicentenary celebrations triggered increased activism, protests and public debate related to Indigenous issues. For example, Aboriginal deaths in custody was recognised as a significant issue.
Like many others at that time, Bennett was inspired by the work of the historian Henry Reynolds.Reynolds wrote books and articles about the history of Australian settlement as a story of invasion and genocide. This contemporary questioning and revision of the traditional, narrow euro-centric view of history reflects a postcolonial perspective.
Since the late 1980s postcolonial dialogues and debates have become increasingly common in Australian society and politics. They provide a useful framework for considering the ideas and issues related to Australia’s colonial history, which Bennett addresses in his art.
The coming of the light refers ironically to a term used by Torres Strait Islanders to describe the arrival of the missionaries who brought Christianity to the Islands in 1871. In the Christian tradition light is associated with goodness and righteousness while darkness is associated with evil. The coming of the light suggests questions about the impact of Christianity on Indigenous cultures and people. These questions include how traditional characterisations of light and darkness have influenced perceptions and experience of race and culture. Bennett’s appropriation of the work of New Zealand artist Colin McCahon (1919-1987) in The coming of the light suggests questions related to religion and faith. The dark monochrome colour and text in the right-hand panel of The coming of the light refer to McCahon’s 1959 text- based Elias series of paintings, in which doubt and questioning in relation to Christian belief are central themes.
The coming of the light also explores ideas, issues and questions related to the Enlightenment values central to colonialism. The arms that extend in opposite directions across the two panels of the painting represent different perspectives on the impact of the Enlightenment. One hand holds a torch – a symbol of Enlightenment values that is also seen in The Statue of Liberty in New York – that sheds light on darkness. However the hand in the opposite panel controls and threatens the Aboriginal figure represented as a jack- in- the- box. The jack- in- the box is surrounded by symbols, including the grid- like buildings and alphabet blocks, of the knowledge, systems and structures that represent an ‘enlightened’, civilised society. The focus on reason, scientific learning and progress that characterised the Enlightenment (suggested by the measuring marks on the torch) lead to many significant discoveries and new ways of understanding the world. However these ideas and values simultaneously oppressed Indigenous people and their cultural and knowledge systems.
In the late 1980s Bennett turned to the source of his own Eurocentric education and began to make works using images based on those found in social studies and history text books. Bennett was drawn to images that had accumulated meaning as signifiers of colonial history and power. Placing these images in new relationships, he sought to deconstruct them by exposing, subverting and questioning the values and ideologies implicit in them.
In Untitled, 1989 Bennett works with a selection of images associated with the familiar story of the ‘discovery’ and ‘settlement’ of Australia. These images include scenes featuring tall ships, the landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, and several scenes that reveal the violence and tension that often characterised the relationship between colonisers and the colonised. Such images have defined the nation’s settlement history for many generations of Australians. Bennett presents each image with a single word, written in capitals, that boldly asserts a new meaning for them. For example, placing the word DISPLACE under the image of Captain Cook coming ashore at Botany Bay focuses attention on the dispossession of Aboriginal people rather than on the ‘discovery’ of Australia. The word DISPERSE was used by the colonisers to represent the killing of Aboriginal people. The strategy of word association effectively subverts the values and meaning traditionally associated with the image.
The final panel in the sequence of six images in Untitled is a black square. In the context of the other panels, which are all figurative, this black square could be seen as an absence, and possibly a representation of the oppression of indigenous voices by history. However Bennett’s use of the black square in this and other works also reflect his ongoing interest in the work of the influential Russian abstract artist Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935). In Malevich’s work the black square is seen as having a strong and even spiritual presence. Viewed in this context, the black square in Untitled could be seen as a resilient black presence, asserting itself in the settlement narrative that Bennett deconstructs.
The juxtaposition and sequencing of words and images in Untitled is unsettling. New perspectives on familiar images and stories are presented. In this way, Bennett effectively exposes and questions the constructed and value-laden nature of language and history, and how they shape our understanding of the world.
At Art College I somehow felt that I belonged. It was a haven, a world of ideas, theories and concepts ranging from the chemical structure of paint to the socio-psychological and political structure of human societies and cultures. Gordon Bennett 8
Ideas and theories associated with postmodernismand postcolonialism, which were widely influential in the late 1980s, were of particular interest to Bennett. While still at art college he adopted some of the critical and aesthetic strategies associated with postmodernism and postcolonialism. The strategies he used include appropriation and deconstruction, to critically engage with the complex issues related to identity, history and culture, which have been the focus of much of his work for the past twenty years.
Integral to both postmodernism and postcolonialism was questioning the authoritative systems, structures and discourses that attempt to fix and define knowledge, identities and belief. This questioning is clearly evident in Bennett’s early work, including The coming of the light and Untitled, in which aspects of the settlement history of Australia, language, religion and the Enlightenment are interrogated. Questioning and the freedom to question remain at the core of Bennett’s art practice.
If I were to choose a single word to describe my art practice it would be the word question. If I were to choose a single word to describe my underlying drive it would be freedom. This should not be regarded as an heroic proclamation. Freedom is a practice. It is a way of thinking in other ways to those we have become accustomed to. To be free is to be able to question the way power is exercised, disputing claims to domination. Such questioning involves our ‘ethos’, our ways of being, or becoming who we are. To be free we must be able to question the ways our own history defines us. Gordon Bennett 9
|1.||Gordon Bennett, ‘The manifest toe’ in Ian McLean & Gordon Bennett, The Art of Gordon Bennett, Craftsman House, 1996, p. 20|
|2.||Gordon Bennett, ‘The manifest toe’, p. 15|
|3.||Gordon Bennett, ‘The manifest toe’, p. 21|
|4.||These experiences are clearly reflected in the Home sweet home series 1993-4|
|5.||Gordon Bennett, ‘The manifest toe’, p. 27|
|6.||Kelly Gellatly, ‘Conversation: Bill Wright talks to Gordon Bennett’ with contributions by Bill Wright, Justin Clemens and Jane Devery, Gordon Bennett (exh. cat.), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 2007, p. 97|
|7.||Gordon Bennett, ‘The manifest toe’, pp. 20-21|
|8.||Gordon Bennett, ‘The manifest toe’, p. 27|
|9.||Gordon Bennett, ‘The manifest toe’, pp. 10-12|