National Gallery of Victoria Education Resource

Gordon Bennett

Gordon Bennett


Ideas and Influences – Early work

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.


Personal background – Family, memory, experience

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

Gordon Bennett, The coming of the light 1987

Gordon Bennett
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

Framing experience – The coming of the light

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.

History lessons – Colonial and postcolonial perspectives

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

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, The Bounty on Sydney Harbour

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, Elders from Northern Territory, Chalmers Street, Redfern. Long March of Freedom, Justice and Hope, Invasion Day, 26 January 1988, 1988

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


Gordon Bennett, Untitled 1989

Gordon Bennett
born Australia 1955
Untitled 1989
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.

Postcolonial perspective – The coming of the light

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.

Postcolonial perspective – Untitled

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.

Art college - ideas theories and questions

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


Aboriginal deaths in custody
A major issue that came to the fore in the 1980s due to the large numbers of Indigenous Australians dying while in prison. It was perceived that these deaths directly or indirectly involved police authorities. A Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody was established in 1987 to investigate these serious concerns. This commission also investigated the standard of care of Indigenous Australians whilst in custody.
Abstract Expressionism
A style of painting generally associated with a group of artists who worked in New York in the late 1950s. These artists used colour and paint expressively in their work to convey feelings and moods. Their paintings are characterised by shallow pictorial space and all over composition. Abstract Expressionist paintings are generally non- representational, but some include figurative elements.
Action Painting
A style of painting developed and used by Abstract Expressionist artists in New York in the 1940s, in which movement and gesture are used to create strokes and marks that suggest energy and emotion.
Alter ego
In psychology, it is the second self, or a person with a second personality.
A collective term that describes English, Irish and Scottish cultural heritage.
In the visual arts appropriation involves using existing images, such as the artworks of other artists within a new work in order to create new meanings and ideas. These existing images often convey powerful meanings that artists build on, challenge or critique when they use the image. Appropriation is a strategy commonly associated with postmodern art. Appropriation is not plagiarism as the artist is not trying to copy or quote from the artwork in order to claim it as his/her own idea.
The study of the origin and behaviour of human kind. This includes religious and cultural customs and beliefs.
Australian Perspecta
A biennial exhibition which began in 1981 and ceased in 2000. Initiated by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, its main aim was to showcase contemporary Australian art.
Basquiat, Jean–Michel (1960–1988)
An American artist of Puerto Rican and Haitian descent. His raw, expressionistic style reflects the influence of graffiti and Jazz music. His work addressed issues of ‘black’ culture and identity, especially in the context of American society.
Bicentenary or Bicentennial
An anniversary of two hundred years. The Australian Bicentenary in 1988 marked two hundred years of European occupation in Australia. Bicentennial celebrations commenced in January 1988.
An image or portrait that exaggerates and distorts the appearance of a person or object but is still recognisable.
A non- representational form of abstract art associated with Constructivism, (c1919–1934), that originated in Moscow. This art movement favoured art for social purposes and is often aligned to Socialist regimes.
Widely accepted and understood ways of doing something. Meaning is often communicated in visual language by convention. The use of black to represent death for example is a widely recognised convention in Western culture.
Cook, Captain James (1728–1779)
An English Explorer, Navigator and Cartographer. He is recognised as having charted many unknown landmasses, such as New Zealand, Newfoundland and Hawaii, as well as the Antarctic Circle, during his voyages in the Pacific Ocean. He is most famous for ‘discovering’ Australia in 1770.
Deconstruct or Deconstruction
A way of breaking down and analysing images in order to discover, recognise and understand the underlying ideas within an artwork and to ‘construct’ new meanings.
De Stijl
Literally translated means ‘the style’. The name of a group of artists and designers in Holland (c1917– 28), who believed that art could achieve a new utopian and spiritual harmony by reducing images to basic elements, such as vertical and horizontal lines, primary colours and black and white.
The basis of Indigenous Australian belief systems and spirituality. The land is viewed by Indigenous Australians as a record of ancestral activity. At the beginning of time, ancestor spirits rose from beneath the earth and through their travels and activities produced the landscape, laws and customs we know today. The Dreaming is not static and continues to permeate everyday living. Individuals are born into the land and obtain a spiritual association with a dreaming totemic ancestor, usually an animal or plant from the area.
An intellectual movement that developed during the eighteenth century, in many European countries, and the United States. It advocated reason above emotional or spiritual knowledge. It marked a time when scientific knowledge became the measure of all learning. Enlightenment thinkers believed that systematic thinking could be applied to all spheres of life to develop the individual, society and the state.
The description and study of various cultural and racial groups. The study of a particular human society to learn and understand its culture.
Viewing the world from a European perspective. This perspective often assumes the superiority of Western culture.
Expressionist or Expressionism
A style of art that emphasises personal feelings, responses and thoughts rather than objective representation of subject matter. This is often achieved through expressive use of art elements, materials and techniques such as gestural marks that reveal the artists’ feelings.
The systematic and deliberate destruction of a race of people.
Hebrew Scriptures
Refer to Old Testament books within the Bible that tell the story of the special covenant between the Israelites and their God.
A body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class or culture.
A term of German origin meaning ‘to make cheap’. It refers to art that is in bad taste or an inferior copy of an existing style.
Malevich, Kazimir Severinovich (1878–1935)
Malevich was a Russian avant- garde artist as well as an important member of the Suprematist movement. He pioneered geometric abstract art.
Means ‘to imitate’.
Modernist or Modernism
In this context refers to the major artistic movements in Western art between about 1860–1970 when art seemed to ‘progress’ from the naturalism of Impressionism to the abstract and non- representational art of the 1950s and 1960s. These art movements were often radical at the time and challenged many social, political, religious or artistic values.
Mondrian, Piet (1872–1944)
An important Dutch artist associated with De Stijl. His artworks are characterised by their grid- like compositions and a palette limited to black and white and the primary colours. While many of his artworks look simple they are complex and deep investigations into space and form. For Mondrian the grid was the basic structure to convey the essence of all things.
Moët et Chandon prize
Was a prestigious art prize awarded annually to artists under the age of 35. The successful artist was awarded $50,000 and a studio for a year in the Champagne district of France. Usually 25–30 artworks were chosen from thousands of entries as finalists. These works formed the basis of an annual exhibition that toured the major state galleries.
In art this term often refers to artists that work using two or more different art forms and/or materials within their art practice.
A mixture of materials, forms, motifs or styles in an artwork. These may be borrowed or appropriated from a range of different sources.
Perspective or Linear perspective
Perspective is the illusion of three- dimensional space on a flat surface. Linear perspective is a mathematical drawing system developed during the Renaissance that assisted artists to create an illusion of three dimensional space on a two dimensional surface. This drawing system involves the use of vanishing points and a horizon line.
A style of painting where different colours are painted side- by- side, using small regular dots. From a distance the colours blend in the viewer’s eye (optical mixing) to create new colours or tonal effects. This style was developed by French artist Georges Seurat (1859–1891).
Pollock, Jackson (1912–1956)
American painter associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement, specifically Action painting. Pollock’s Action painting reflected a radical approach to painting that involved dripping and pouring paint directly onto a canvas rolled on the floor. Pollock was inspired to work on the floor by the sand paintings of the Navaho Indians. Gesture and movement played an important role in Pollock’s work, allowing him to create spontaneous marks on canvas and to express emotion and raw energy.
Set of ideas developed in reaction to colonialism. Colonialism is associated with the forced settlement and control of an area of land (colony) by an outside political or geographic power. Historically, colonising powers have imposed their own cultural, social and other values on the places and people they colonise. Post colonialism is a movement away from colonial power, and the cultural, economic and other dependencies associated with it. Post colonialism questions previously accepted views of history and also recognises the cultural, social and other rights of indigenous people.
Applies to wide ranging developments in philosophy, architecture, art, literature and culture that have influenced contemporary society since the 1970s. It was generally a reaction to modernism (see modernism for definition). In the visual arts it involved a rejection of many of the ideas and values associated with modernism. Humour and irony were often used to question established ideas and approaches. Many postmodern artworks include images or forms appropriated form earlier art styles or popular culture.
Preston, Margaret (1875–1963)
An Australian artist influential during the 1920s–1940s. She attempted to create a uniquely Australian art by developing imagery that reflected Australian colours and style. Preston believed that Aboriginal art provided the key to establishing a national art and used many motifs and colours inspired by Aboriginal culture. She was one of the first Australian artists to recognise the importance and significance of Aboriginal art, but many later artists and Aborigines saw her approach as trivializing or reducing Aboriginal art to kitsch (see kitsch for definition).
An art style that reacted against the ideas of the Enlightenment (see Enlightenment for definition). It highlights tribal cultures that appear to be free from the restraint of Western culture. In art it is an attempt to capture the raw essence and mystical beauty of objects and images, however it is now understood that this is a simplistic interpretation of other cultures.
A process that investigates mental processes, by examining the ‘unconscious’. This often involves the study of dreams. Many mental disorders can be understood and treated by studying the unconscious. Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) developed this theory in the late 1880s. This study had a strong influence on the arts in the 19th century, especially the Surrealist movement instigated by artist/poet, Andre Breton (1896–1966).
Reynolds, Henry (born 1938)
An eminent Australian historian and published author. Much of his recent research and articles have highlighted the violent conflict between Indigenous Australian and European colonists during the colonisation of Australia.
A derogatory and racist term used to describe people of ‘mixed blood’. This term literally means a person that is one quarter black and was mainly used in the United States in the 19th century. It tries to quantify how ‘black’ or ‘white’ a person is.
Are signs or symbols that carry meaning beyond their literal interpretation. They stand for or represent different meanings and ideas.
Sovereign rights or Sovereignty
The right to act as the supreme law making authority.
Terra Nullius
A Latin term which translates as ‘Empty Land’ or ‘Nobody’s Land’. Captain Cook declared Australia to be ‘Terra Nullius’ when he sailed into Botany Bay on April 28th 1770, so that he could claim Australia for Britain. This proclamation ignored the fact that hundreds of different groups of Indigenous people occupied the land.
Is a religious philosophy which has its basis in Buddhist thought. It proclaims the unity of the universe and that all religions have a portion of spiritual truth, and therefore will help humanity evolve to greater perfection.
A painting that is divided into three separate sections. This idea developed during the Middle Ages when altar pieces were made in three parts. The central panel was usually flanked by smaller panels on either side and told a religious story or an episode in the Bible.