Identity and its refusal

Australian artist, Gordon Bennett (1955 – 2014), spent most of his life and career struggling against how he was perceived. This struggle went from being an experience of extremely low self-esteem to producing a powerful and highly articulate art practice. Several years after his untimely death, Bennett’s work illuminates our understanding of how identity operates in our society.

Bennett was raised in a cultural climate where, until he was twelve years old, his Aboriginal mother was not a legitimate Australian citizen. For, it was not until a 1967 referendum when ‘Aborigines’ where given the right to be counted in the census as Australian citizens. Until Bennett was in his early teens he believed his father’s Scottish and English origins was his only heritage. He then realised his mother was Aboriginal. This began Bennett’s struggle with his self-identity, for at this point, his identity shifted from identifying with being in the mainstream of Australian society, to being Aboriginal. Overnight, Bennett went from being the ‘cowboy’ to be the ‘indian’, from ‘light’ to being ‘dark’. Of course, the binaries of dark and light are not true or real identities, but their ingrained pervasiveness and how he was perceived by others, created turmoil for Bennett.


Gordon Bennett, 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 https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/gordonbennett/education/02.html

Bennett’s 1990 painting, Self portrait (But I always wanted to be one of the good guys) describes this turmoil well. There he is, as a boy in a cowboy uniform, seemingly oblivious to the complexities of social identity operating upon him. But it is Bennett, the man who has chosen to paint this as his Self portrait. A Self portrait that is not attempting to describe his own physical appearance, rather it is describing how he has been represented by others. Bennett appears caught between the words, I AM LIGHT, I AM DARK. A colonial battle is placed in the background of the right panel. Bennett’s own identity has become a colonial war. The title (But I always wanted to be one of the good guys), suggests that this is an expression of desire to be perceived as being on the right side, the light side, the good guys. Bennett seems to be describing himself as torn away from the mainstream identity he thought he enjoyed and cast into the place of being ‘other’, the bad guy, the ‘indian’. But the painting is not a lament and Bennett never comes across as feeling sorry for himself; rather it is about the exposure of the structures of identity operating within Australian society. These structures are primarily based on a binary; if you are not part of the mainstream, you are something else, you are ‘other’.

When Bennett left school, he took on an apprenticeship with Telecom. During the years of working with Telecom, he witnessed considerable racism towards indigenous Australians until he quit to then go on to art school at the age of thirty. After later becoming well known as an artist with a powerful Post-colonial project, Bennett had to struggle against the politics of identity that continually labelled him as the ‘Aboriginal artist’ or ‘urban Aboriginal artist’. During considerable success through the 1990s, Bennett just wanted to be known as an artist, refusing to be labelled by race. It was not until he gained international recognition in the last years of his life, that Bennett began to be considered a ‘contemporary artist’.

Colin McCahon,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

The large letters I AM, are appropriated from New Zealand artist, Colin McCahon’s (1919–1987) Victory over death 2, of 1970. McCahon uses ‘I AM’ to question his own Christian faith and subsequent identity. ‘I am that I am’, from Exodus 3:14, is God’s response to Moses who had asked after God’s name. God’s response is actually a refusal to a name, or to be named. With letters towering at over two meters tall, McCahon’s monumental I AM impressed me powerfully when I saw it as a teenager. It seems to embody the sense of God being origin and of being infinity, all without being named.

Bennett’s appropriation of the I AM works on several levels. Firstly, it references a Judeo Christian tradition of spiritual identity based in God as origin and seems to be referencing a similar quest for identity as McCahon has. Except Bennett appears to be locked out from I AM by the experience of being labelled the ‘other’ identity. On another level, Bennett is quoting the words of a God who refuses to be named. Bennett’s painting is all about names and Bennett seems to be indicating that he, as a person, cannot be defined by the names being applied to him. So it seems that, if as in the Judeo Christian tradition, men and woman are made in the image of God, a God who refuses to be named, then Bennett exists beyond the names being placed upon him. With two powerful words Bennett seems to indicate his true identity as existing beyond all that has been placed upon him. Bennett refuses to be named.

Colonisation has been effective in taking hold of land, peoples, and resources by stripping away a true, complex and self-articulated identity expressed through culture, ritual and language. It replaced these identities with an imposed name, which, in many different ways, disempowered the bearer by denying their true nature. Bennett’s work often articulates the oppressive mechanics of identity in Australian society which have their origins in a colonial society. Self portrait (But I always wanted to be one of the good guys) gives us a clearer understanding of how these imposed identities operate, but it also goes deeper by indicating the nature of the human person as being an un-namable I AM.

Written by Marco Corsini

An open letter to Australia.

Dearest Australia,

This Australia Day I am going draw your landscape.

I’m not trying to make a political statement here, nor deny the significance and the impact of Australia day being on January 26th. On that point, I’ll just give my opinion and get it out of the way; I believe that the celebration of “all the things we love about Australia”* on the date of January 26th, is not going to enable all Australians to celebrate, no matter how much we would like them to. Once you understand the trauma from colonisation, you understand.

You will have to excuse my excesses with opinion and I should clarify that I have seen over four decades of life with you, Australia, in which time you have changed and so have I. I have loved you and at times have left you, but I remain utterly convinced that I belong to you.

I grew up as an Italian immigrant boy in country Victoria, speaking only Italian until I went to school. My mother did her best to connect me to you Australia, her new land. I remember when I was little, her encouraging me to collect images of the royals and paste them in a scrapbook. But it was not the royals, or when you were settled by Europeans, or even how big a figure Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser played in my father’s political narrative that formed my sense of belonging to you. OK, being invited to Canberra at the age of twelve to see Malcolm Fraser launch a book of Australian children’s cartoons, which included my cartoon, did have some impact on my sense of belonging, I admit, but now I am name dropping.

My little cartoon, in the wake of an Australian meat substitution scandal

It was the way you embraced my mother that first gave me a sense of belonging. My mother, taking my newborn sister to the health nurse when I was seven was the first time I remember feeling cared for by you. I think somewhere in my mind, I was aware that my mother had lost four siblings during their childhood, when growing up in Sicily. It seemed like people here in Australia, checked my sister at the health clinic, because they cared. My mother immigrated here as a young woman because her work as a seamstress in her Sicilian town would often go unpaid. She told me that after she began working for Zara Holt, Harold’s wife who ran a fashion label out of Toorak, she was delighted to receive a regular payslip. Growing up in your schools, or getting work often spoke of fairness and equity to me. Despite what I sometimes have perceived as a lack of empathy, I have generally experienced your laws and administration as fair. (I won’t mention much about your failings here, as I too have a responsibility to fix these.)

In primary school they taught us songs like ‘Kookaburra’ and read Dorothea Mackellar’s, ‘My Country’. I cannot forget her words or the images they evoked. Later your painters filled my mind with images of the bush. Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Arthur Streeton painted at Mentone, near where over a century later I lived and spent the morning of my wedding day swimming alone. I have flown over your incomprehensible distances, driven through you and stood at the edge of the world where the Nullarboor Plain meets the Indian ocean. I have ridden my bicycle across you like Sydney Nolan whose work told me that I could feel irrational in the face of your space. Then there’s Fred Williams, what can I say; his work told me I could be a painter and that I could paint the landscape again. Albert Tucker, who I met in the ‘bargain basement’ of Myer told me to keep painting, ‘paint, paint, paint’, he said. Oh, and Gordon Bennett who spoke of silence through his work and his life, and has now fallen silent. It is not just the space you have to be aware of here, but watch for the silence also.

Marco Corsini, Where I stand, 2010, oil on canvas, 100 cm. x 100 cm. Private collection

Your harshness, your heat, Australia, your vague horizons. My memory soaked with the landscape I grew up within. After seeing his father go broke growing tobacco on the harsh ground of Eldorado, my father retreated into town to work as a diesel mechanic, but many weekends and even some weeknights were spent on my families’ tobacco farms, where, he really wanted to be. He didn’t say much, but he once mentioned what it was like to be up through the night running the irrigation for the tobacco. He mentioned the stars. It must have looked like a William Robinson night sky. I worked on the land seasonally from the age of twelve; tobacco, hoe rasping dry earth and the end of the row quivering in the distance. Later, graduating to fruit picking and eventually to working for the state power company, all in the same district. I now count myself very fortunate that I was able to be so immersed in your land.

Your space and your silence. I am seeking the consciousness of Midnight Oil to rage for your heart and to echo your haunting beauty like young Iva Davies’, ‘Great Southern Land’. I belong to you Australia; I have to admit, I don’t think I completely understand you, but as I draw, I will try to.

Written by Marco Corsini

* https://www.australiaday.org.au/about-australia-day/

Maree Woolley

My Myna, Maree Woolley
My Myna, Maree Woolley
Big Foot, Maree Woolley
Big Foot, Maree Woolley

Next week, Enderby Studio Art Program will host guest artist, Maree Woolley. Maree has worked as a freelance illustrator and animator on numerous award-winning multimedia titles for broadcasters and multimedia production houses. 

Maree has a love of drawing. Her drawings are evocative notations of everyday objects and zoo animals. They are economical and skillful, often containing subtle, delightful narratives.

You can see more work at:

http://www.redbubble.com/people/woolleyworld
http://www.behance.net/woolleyworld

Children and art

The following is an excerpt from an e-mail I sent earlier today which may be of help in understanding what I am trying to do in the Young Artist Program.

Until the age of thirteen or fourteen a child needs to be reassured that their own creative processes including experimentation and failure are all valid. I am trying to allow the children to emulate the creative processes that I see a mature artist go through. By doing that I am hoping that the child will be equipped with confidence and creative processes to deal with the challenges of anything they choose to take on. At some point the child’s vision widens and seeing skills they do not possess; they choose to acquire those skills. It is at that point that a systematic direction can be given. To some degree these two aspects are present in every child at every stage so I am trying to read the child to know when to let them go and when to give direction and I do that every class.

If the child were to produce mermaids and dogs every week I would not see that as being any different from Fred Williams producing landscapes. My role then is not to distract from the child’s vision but to support them in developing that vision and give technical advice when necessary (which at this age, may or may not be taken on). My other role is to expose the children to art and art processes which I try to do although the children are often so absorbed in their own work they barely seem to notice.

Marco Corsini

Kevin Brennan will be asking; why do we make art and does art really matter?

Why do we make art and does art really matter? Kevin Brennan, our guest speaker this Tuesday the 5th and Friday the 15th, will be exploring these questions.

Kevin has worked in the arts and cultural arena for over 25 years as artist, producer facilitator and entrepreneur covering a range of art forms and practice. Kevin is fascinated by creativity and its practice as well as in public debate and policy frameworks. He has extensive experience in teaching, facilitating community engagement, writing strategy and analysis and developing policy in this field.

Kevin was Artistic Coordinator of La Luna Youth Arts (1990-94), Company Manager of Melbourne Workers Theatre from 1995-1999 and Programming Co-ordinator for the Art of Dissent Conference for Adelaide Festival and Melbourne Festival in 2002. He has served on numerous local and state government committees and advisory bodies.

Through his business United Notions Creative Solutions Kevin has worked strategically through consultations & research with small arts organisations, diverse communities, government and arts industry bodies and the broader community and tertiary education sectors. Among many other projects, Kevin was Executive Officer of Arts Management Advisory Group (Victoria) from 2005-2011, Specialist Arts Advisor for Deloitte’s Research into Small Arts organisations for Arts Victoria (2007). He has worked on the development of Arts & Culture Strategies for Shire of Cardinia, City of Kingston and Shire of Golden Plains. Kevin is a sessional lecturer in the Masters of Community Cultural Development Course at the Centre for Cultural Partnerships (Victorian College of the Arts) and lectures in the Masters in Arts Management course at RMIT.

Managing a Creative Project

Often, working creatively is seen as a completely intuitive, whimsical and spontaneous process. Nobody that I know, who is producing consistently, works in this way. While intuition and spontaneity do play a part in the creative process often it is just dogged persistence that gives results. I have put together the following chart to help manage and encourage persistence in the creative process.

Managing a Creative Project

Managing your creativity

It can be difficult to do creative work when you have limited time and have to maintain other responsibilities such as study, work and family. So how can you achieve the most with the limited time you have?

I have frequently struggled with this question and have put together the following thoughts based upon my own experience and that which I have observed in the lives of other artists.

Curiosity

Creativity is a part of life and should not be isolated to your work time. A curiosity and passion for life is a key element of getting ideas. Creative people usually have an interest in how things around them look, feel, smell, how people behave and what makes things work and not work.  They tend to appreciate other people’s creative work and the natural world. They observe and they reflect. So, although life may be busy, the many instances when we are engaging in our daily routines present many opportunities to use our natural curiosity and to be passionate about our existence. This engagement with life will breed new thoughts and ideas.

Space

You need a space to explore ideas playfully. This is a place for your creative work. Perhaps this could be a room, a corner, a desk or your studio. It can be a place where you leave special objects and your associated thoughts. This is a place where you leave your work and can return to it to see it again. It is a well organised space that has the materials you need, when you need them so that you can pick up on a thread of an idea quickly. When completing your creative work, you take the time to reflect on your work while cleaning and organising your space so that it is ready to receive you the next time you come.

Journal

Ideas and observations are a special insight and they need to be treated carefully so that we can all benefit. They can lead to great work but we have to be ready to record them as they come. A journal, a sketch book or book you can write in offers a place to jot ideas, sketch, observe, plan and play. It is a private space and you can put down whatever comes to mind regardless of whether it makes sense at the time. I keep several journals and pencils around me. I have one in the car and I usually travel with one. Although I am often away from my work space I try to maintain a discipline of drawing and writing in my journal. It becomes my little travelling work space.

Consistency

Be consistent in your work schedule even if it is only a few hours a week. Your commitment to journaling or working in your space is important for your creative development.  If you are like me you will find that periods of time pass when you are not able to be consistent. If you have been maintaining a curiosity and passion for the tasks you have been doing in your life, you probably have been creative in other ways and this will be useful for your work when you return.

Unclutter

Our minds need the freedom to process information and ideas. I find that my mind works better if I am able to release myself from worry, apprehension and needless distraction. I try to limit wasteful distractions, my ideas mostly coming from my daily experiences and reading. I think carefully about whether I need extra ‘things’ in my life as the more I have, the more my mind is occupied. I try to maintain a routine that allows me to free my mind at some stage in the day. Curiously, I’ve found that I get my best ideas while doing menial tasks such as washing the dishes. This document came to me while washing the dishes and was initially written on some serviettes.

The pressure we put on ourselves to be creative can also clutter our minds. For me it was a combination of a demanding life with the added pressure of coming up with new ideas that had for a period of several years brought my creative work to a standstill. It was only after walking away from the pressure to create that I found ideas began to flow again. I have learnt a lot from that experience. I now cycle my projects through a process of focusing on them then letting them go. I will work on the project until it is clear I am making little headway. I then leave it alone, switch to another project or task until from somewhere in my subconscious mind the solution to the problem emerges or until I am ready to return to the project with a clear mind. Then I repeat the process for the next stage of the project.

Set Objectives

Once you know which direction you want to go in then apply clear objectives and parameters to ensure you get there.

What is it you want to achieve?  What are the qualities your successful project will have? What is the strategy you can employ to get there? Who or what can help?

Feedback

Seek feedback from positive people whose judgement you trust and avoid exposure to people whose judgment you don’t trust. With sincerity and openness, you may find the opportunities to befriend people that have the knowledge and experience you seek.

Discuss your work with others as it develops and always be open to new perspectives.

Exposure

Find places to expose your work. If you have worked hard for your idea then you need to be a good advocate for it. Telling a story about the development of the idea will most likely draw some interest.

Rest

Take a break. After a heavy work schedule on a project you need rest your body and to free your mind so that you can return to living with a curiosity for life.