Installation view of “Not Niwe, Not Nieuw, Not Neu” at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, 2017. Courtesy 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

Not Niwe, Not Nieuw, Not Neu

4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
Australia New Zealand

“Not Niwe, Not Nieuw, Not Neu”—all pronounced “not new”—an exhibition with artworks by five contemporary Indigenous artists and one 18th- and 19th-century English botanist, is Micheal Do’s first endeavor at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. The show examines the unchecked spread of colonialism throughout the Asia Pacific region following the so-called search for and exploration of Terra Australis Incognito (Latin for “unknown land of the south”) by James Cook in his epic voyage from 1768 to 1771.

Do’s conceptual starting point is Cook’s journey, which took him through Brazil, Tahiti and New Zealand—before the captain stumbled upon Australia. The botanist Joseph Banks, who accompanied Cook, amassed 30,000 specimens of flora over the three-year journey.

The 18th-century Western superpowers—England, Germany and Holland—reaped many benefits from colonial expansion, and saw the region as a basket of resources ready for plunder, repressing the indigenous inhabitants who have called these lands home for millennia. The Indigenous artists in “Not Niwe”—Daniel Boyd (Australia), Newell Harry (Australia), Fiona Pardington (New Zealand), Michael Parekowhai (New Zealand), James Tylor (Australia)—have an axe to grind as they consider the destructive spread of colonialism, as well as the physical misery and cultural genocide experienced by their forebears. (Aside from these five artists’ works, Joseph Banks was represented by copperplate engravings of two of his botanical illustrations in the exhibition.)

NEWELL HARRY, (left) Circle/s in the Round: Malayalam Racecar, (center) Circle/s in the Round: Level Rotor, (right) Circle/s in the Round: White Whine, all 2010, neon, 135 × 110 × 5 cm. Photo by Document Photography. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

With three neon works from his “Circle/s in the Round” series (2010)—Avid DivaLevel Rotor and Malayalam Racecar—Harry elegantly deals with how language, here presented in palindromic wordplay along with flashing bullseye targets, could not escape fundamental changes brought about by colonialism. In her still-life photography, Pardington, a Maori artist from New Zealand, appropriates the visual language of the Old Masters of Western Europe to create somber images that are rife with allusions to extinction.

Two subtle installations by New Zealand’s Parekowhai explore how European settlers introduced new animal and plant species to his native land. The artist specifically considers the common house sparrow, 100 of which were released in New Zealand between 1866 and 1871 to combat swarms of crop-eating insects, though the birds went on to become grain-consuming pests themselves. Parekowhai’s “Beverley Hills Gun Club” series (2004) involves several stuffed sparrows, each of which is given a name. For example, one work in the series is titled Alex Hamilton, named after the American Founding Father and Secretary of the Treasury who engaged in a pistol duel with Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr in 1804. The duelling pistols used by the men were made in England by London-based gunsmiths Wogdon & Barton. Hamilton was mortally wounded in the duel with Burr, and is one of the last people in America to die in this fashion. Here, by invoking that episode from American history, Parekowhai is alluding to the danger of invasive colonial weapons.

MICHAEL PAREKOWHAI, (left) Alex Hamilton, (center) Dave Douglas, (right) J.D. Jones, all 2004, from the series “Beverly Hills Gun Club,” sparrows, two pot paint and aluminum, 78 × 13 × 10 cm each. Photo by Document Photography. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

Parekowhai’s other works in the exhibition are also rooted in species introduced to New Zealand, and were executed with considerable aplomb. The title of The Moment of Cubism & Nude Descending a Staircase (2009), borrows from an essay by art critic John Berger that was published in 1969, and a painting by Marcel Duchamp created in 1912. In his text, Burger dealt with many themes, including how exploitation, commodification and colonization are key factors in Western existence. Parekowhai interrogates these ideas via three lemon tree saplings and the palette they sit on, all cast from bronze. The lemon tree was introduced into New Zealand in the first half of the 19th century, and Parekowhai sees it as one example of colonial imports that have literally taken root in his homeland.

MICHAEL PAREKOWHAI, detail of Alex Hamilton, all 2004, from the series “Beverly Hills Gun Club,” sparrow, two pot paint and aluminum, 78 × 13 × 10 cm. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

MICHAEL PAREKOWHAI, The Moment of Cubism & Nude Descending a Staircase, 2009, hand-finished bronze, patina, 78 × 13 × 10 cm. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

Daniel Boyd is a painter whose works seduce the viewer with their aesthetic refinement and then clobbers viewers about the head with biting political intent. In “Not Niwe,” he showed four paintings, including King No Beard (2008) and Sir No Beard (2009), whose titles reference how Aboriginals thought Captain Cook and his crew were women, as they had no facial hair. Both canvases appropriate portraits of 18th-century British figures; Boyd recasts King George III and the botanist Joseph Banks—the first president of the Royal Society—as murderous pirates with eye-patches (the former even has a parrot perched on his shoulder). The artist makes an appearance in Sir No Beard as a severed head stuffed into a glass jar. Banks once sent such a “gift”—the preserved head of a resistance leader named Pemulwuy—to Philip Gidley King, then governor in Australia, and wrote that it “caused some comical consequences when opened at the Customs House,” but was “very acceptable” to anthropological collectors.

DANIEL BOYD, (left) King No Beard, 2008, oil on linen, 167 × 122 cm, collection of Clinton Ng; (right) Sir No Beard, 2009, oil on canvas, 153 × 137.5 cm. Courtesy the artist; Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney; and STATION, Melbourne.

DANIEL BOYD, Up in the Smoke Tour #13A + B, 2011, watercolor and archival glue on photocopy in Natural History Museum skull boxes, 25 × 18 × 5 cm (each). Courtesy the artist; STATION, Melbourne; and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

Boyd’s two other artworks—Decommissioned Skull Boxes, Natural History Museum, London (2013) and Up in Smoke Tour #13A + B (2011)—feature repurposed storage boxes that the artist acquired during a 2011 residency at London’s Natural History Museum. The cardboard cases of Decommissioned Skull Boxes—smaller than a shoebox for adult’s footwear—held Aboriginal remains taken from Australia without consent. On the inside of the two boxes of Up in Smoke Tour, Boyd has painted a scene of the HMS Endeavour, the ship that took Cook and his crew to Australia, rendered in the style of his signature dot paintings.

“Not Niwe, Not Nieuw, Not Neu” was a remarkable exhibition that cleverly explored colonialism through the practice of five artists (and one botanist) who maintain a balance in their work between sharp aesthetics and intellectual coercion. “Colonialism” is such a dirty word in the Australasian region—rightly so—and to be European is to be tarred with the colonial brush. Being British, I felt suitably chastened when I left the gallery.

Installation view of “Not Niwe, Not Nieuw, Not Neu” at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, 2017. Courtesy 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

Michael Young is a contributing editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

Not Niew, Not Nieuw, Not Neu” is on view at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, until December 10, 2017.

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