National Gallery of Victoria Education Resource

Gordon Bennett

Gordon Bennett


Exploring Identity – Self-portraiture

Identities come from somewhere, have histories, and like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Gordon Bennett 1

At the heart of all human life is a concept of self. At the heart of the artwork of Gordon Bennett is a journey to find that self amidst the cultural and historical inequities created by European settlement in Australia. Gordon Bennett uses self- portraits to question stereotypes and labelling. While self- portraits usually address issues of personal identity, Bennett uses this form of representation to also look at issues of identity on a national scale. Immersed within a ‘White’ European culture, he was unaware of his Aboriginality until his early teens. He described this knowledge as a ‘psychic rupturing’. 2 All that he had understood about himself and taken for granted as an Australian had ruptured.

… all the education and socialization upon which my identity and self worth as a person, indeed my sense of ‘Australianness’, and that of my peers, had as its foundation the narratives of colonialism. I had never thought to question those narratives and I certainly had never been taught at school to question them… only to believe them. Neither had I thought to question the representation of Aborigines as the quintessential ‘primitive Other’ against which the ‘civilized’ collective ‘Self’ of my peers was measured. Gordon Bennett 3


Self-Portraits – Perceptions of self

Gordon Bennett, Self portrait (But I always wanted to be one of the good guys) 1990

Gordon Bennett
born Australia 1955
Self portrait (But I always wanted to be one of the good guys) 1990
oil on canvas
150.0 x 260.0 cm
Private collection, Brisbane
© Courtesy of the artist
Photography: Phillip Andrews

Colin McCahon, Victory over death 2 1987

Colin McCahon
New Zealander 1919–1987
Victory over death 2 1970
synthetic polymer paint on unstretched canvas
207.5 x 597.7 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Gift of the New Zealand Government 1978
© Colin McCahon Research & Publication Trust

Since his days as a student, Gordon Bennett has experimented widely within the realms of traditional self-portraiture by incorporating his own face within his work… he has always maintained a healthy scepticism of simple investigations of the self that remain divorced from the broader conditioning forces of history and culture. Thus within the examples of self- portraiture that thread through Bennett’s oeuvre, there emerges a more subtle and abstracted engagement with this genre; and one from which the artist’s likeness is entirely absent. Kelly Gellatly4

Gordon Bennett’s art challenges us to question the stereotypes and racist labelling of Aboriginal Australians found in some history books written for and by Europeans. Bennett’s art is not always easy to look at. It confronts the bigotry and discrimination suffered by Aborigines, using a rich visual language based in both Aboriginal and Western traditions.

Self portrait (But I always wanted to be one of the good guys), 1990 questions how stereotypes create a sense of identity. Bennett investigates the way stereotypes are constructed by exploring words and images in opposites. The powerful image/word ‘I AM’, while central, is accompanied by statements of opposite, ‘I am light – I am dark’. Bennett’s portrait of himself as a four- year old boy dressed as a cowboy as the ‘I’ is juxtaposed with images of Aborigines as the ‘AM’. Clear visual divisions are created with distinct black areas as well as large white areas. The title of the work itself is unsettling. It exposes the pain these stereotypes create. Bennett attempts to destroy the stereotypes to question notions of identity. His use of 'I AM' emphasises this. It acts as a question with many possibilities and answers. European history has stipulated that being Australian has required anyone that does not fit into such a ‘Eurocentric’ category is different, other and therefore unworthy.

They had the power to make us see and experience ourselves as ‘Other’. Gordon Bennett 5

This artwork is constructed of obvious layers: The layers of dots, reminiscent of Aboriginal Western Desert dot painting, with lines of perspective – a Western tradition. Layers of images superimposed with words. ‘I AM’ is borrowed from a well known art work, Victory over death 2, 1970 by New Zealand artist Colin McCahon (1919–1987) . It is also a direct reference to biblical stories in the Hebrew Scriptures. This rich interplay of words and images raises many questions. The simplicity of ‘I AM’ suggests a universality of thought. It is open to self revelation, self redemption and a myriad of rich images of self that can be built upon. McCahon uses ‘I AM’ to question notions of faith. Bennett uses it to question notions of self. ‘I am that I am’, Exodus 3:14 is God naming self. It is at once a name revealed and something like the refusal of a name. If God cannot be contained, can humanity be contained by stereotypes and labels?

I decided that I was in a very interesting position: my mind and body had been effectively colonized by Western culture, and yet my Aboriginality, which had been historically, socially and personally repressed, was still part of me … I decided that I would attempt to create a space by adopting a strategy of intervention and disturbance in the field of representation through my art. Gordon Bennett 6

Bennett determines in Self portrait (But I always wanted to be one of the good guys) that labels and stereotypes have no relevance to a healthy construction of identity.

Self-Portraits – Cultural and historical identities

Gordon Bennett, Self portrait (Ancestor figures) 1992

Gordon Bennett
born Australia 1955
Self portrait (Ancestor figures) 1992
chest of drawers, watercolour, photocopies, lead, rocks, masking tape
(variable) (installation)
Collection of the artist, Brisbane
© Courtesy of the artist
Photography: Phillip Andrews

My approach is very personal. You might even say that every work to date has been a self- portrait, in that what inspires each work is my own day- to- day experience of living in Australia. Gordon Bennett 7

Bennett as a ‘cultural outsider’ of both his Aboriginal and Anglo–Celtic heritage does not assume a simplistic interpretation of identity. His art attempts to depict the complexity of both cultural perspectives. Self portrait (Ancestor figures), 1992 deals with broader issues of cultural identity as well as personal identity. The installation is filled with images of his family and Constructivist-style drawings made by the artist. Black angels replace traditional white cherubs. As a self- portrait, the artist seems to be present everywhere within the installation but is in fact nowhere. The dresser draw labelled ‘self’ is closed while the drawers for ‘history’ and ‘culture’ are ajar. Bennett indicates the need to be reconciled within the context of culture and history to develop a full sense of identity. An understanding of self in the context of family is not enough.

The mirror, a recurring symbol within his work, is not a two- dimensional illusion but a literal construct. The viewer does not confront the artist, but self. Bennett uses this symbol because:

In the mirror everything is possible because nothing is there. Ian McLean 8

What emerges for all who take part in this piece is in fact an examination of the self. The ‘I am’ from Self portrait (But I always wanted to be one of the good guys) is replaced with ‘We all are’.

The inclusion of the grid as the foundation of the installation appears to confirm this. The grid and perspective lines are another recurring symbol in Bennett’s work. In European tradition these are seen as a means of mapping and defining space. It alludes to ownership and territory. It recalls the way stereotypes, labels, identities and systems of thought are fixed. On each corner of the grid are the letters A B C D . While these may indicate the way maps are constructed to find different locations, they also represent the first letter of racial slurs. Identity is fixed and self is understood in the context of words such as Abo, Boong, Coon and Darkie . The ‘Other’ is clearly marked out as not only different but by necessity inferior.

These contrasting and complex meanings and ideas are not accidental. Bennett purposefully constructs these layers to blur fixed ideas and raise questions about the way identity is constructed. He uses his self as the vehicle to do so.

Self-Portraits – Deconstructing stereotypes

Gordon Bennett, Self portrait: Interior/Exterior 1992

Gordon Bennett
born Australia 1955
Self portrait: Interior/Exterior 1992
synthetic polymer paint on canvas on pine frames, leather stock whip, paper tags
(1–2) 187.0 x 60.0 x 25.0 cm (each) (1–3) (variable) (installation)
Collection of the artist, Brisbane
© Courtesy of the artist
Photography: Phillip Andrews

You have to understand my position of having no designs or images or stories on which to draw to assert my Aboriginality. In just three generations, that heritage has been lost to me. Gordon Bennett 9

Blood is a potent symbol and has historically been a measure of Aboriginality. In the past ‘Quadroon’, was a socially acceptable term used to label Indigenous people as a way of establishing genetic heredity. The ‘purer’ the bloodlines, the more Aboriginal you were. Mixing of pure ‘blood’ with European ‘blood’ was feared by Europeans, ‘authenticity’ was at risk and identity diluted. As an Australian of both Aboriginal and Anglo Celtic descent, Bennett felt he had no access to his indigenous heritage. He states:

The traditionalist studies of Anthropology and Ethnography have thus tended to reinforce popular romantic beliefs of an ‘authentic’ Aboriginality associated with the ‘Dreaming’ and images of ‘primitive’ desert people, thereby supporting the popular judgment that only remote ‘full–bloods’ are real Aborigines. Gordon Bennett 10

Gordon Bennett explores these ideas in Self portrait: Interior/ Exterior , 1992. Once again, the arena of self- portraiture becomes a vehicle to take over and challenge stereotypes. Here he exposes the truth of colonial occupation – it was a ‘bloody’ conquest. Bennett depicts self as a black empty vessel, coffin- like with lash markings almost disguised by a thick layer of black paint. Literally opening up this black skin of paint are the words ‘cut me’. They act as deep welts created when tissue scars. Gouged into the skin like a tattoo, these markings will never heal or fade away. They powerfully describe pain and violence. Bennett only uses two colours, symbolically, red and black.

There is no physical body. The coffin- like box acts as the body, both inside and outside are scarred with ‘Pollock’ inspired lashes of paint. These scars are not just physical they are also emotional. This imagery is reinforced by the whip neatly hanging on the wall beside the ‘body’. Ultimately, this piece, one of a series of ‘welt’ paintings, explores identity through pain, exploitation and suffering. Bennett does not wish to romanticise or sanitise this ‘bloody’ history. The viewer is challenged to face it. The blood splashed and flowing under the layer of black skin does not discern the colour of the skin it contains, only the potency of life. Bennett challenges the viewer with contrasting identities. The oppressors, those who use the whip, and the oppressed, those enslaved by the whip. These opposites are not absolute. Bennett is more interested in exploring what lies between .

My work is often seen as about exploring my identity in order to secure it, like I’m searching for it, like I’ve lost it somewhere, which is the total opposite to what I’m doing. Sure, I’m exploring identity, but I’m trying to make it obvious about how open it is; how it’s a process of the negotiation of these different sites of memory, human relations. It is all those other things, and it shouldn’t be closed off. It shouldn’t be a thing that constricts nor should it be an imposed thing, from outside oneself, like a prison. Gordon Bennett 11

Bennett’s art practice attempts to remove the obstacles that interfere with a positive development of self.



  1. Gordon Bennett, ‘The manifest toe’ in Ian McLean & Gordon Bennett, The Art of Gordon Bennett, Craftsman House, 1996, p. 33
  2. Ian McLean, ‘Towards an Australian postcolonial art’ in Ian McLean & Gordon Bennett, The Art of Gordon Bennett, Craftsman House, 1996, p. 99
  3. Gordon Bennett, ‘The manifest toe ’ in The Art of Gordon Bennett, p. 22
  4. Kelly Gellatly, ‘Citizen in the Making: The art of Gordon Bennett’ in Gordon Bennett (exh. cat.), National Gallery of Victoria, 2007 p. 16
  5. Gordon Bennett, ‘The manifest toe’ in The Art of Gordon Bennett, p. 34
  6. Rebecca Lancashire, ‘Blurring the lines of history’, The Age, Monday 5 May , 1997
  7. Gabriella Coslovich, ‘Bennett puts on a brave face’, The Age, 28 April, 2004
  8. Ian McLean, ‘Towards an Australian Postcolonial Art’ in The Art of Gordon Bennett, p.105
  9. Zara Stanhope, ‘How do you think it feels?’ in Three Colours , Gordon Bennett & Peter Robinson (exh. cat.), Heide Museum of Modern Art , Melbourne, 2004 pp. 22-24
10. Gordon Bennett, ’The manifest toe’, in The Art of Gordon Bennett, p. 32
11. Gordon Bennett & Chris McAuliffe, ‘Interview with Gordon Bennett’ in Rex Butler (e d.) What is Appropriation? An Anthology of Writings on Australian Art in the 1980s and 1990s. IMA Publishing, Brisbane, 2004, p. 277
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.