HEGEMONY AND EMPIRE | Christopher Pease

HEGEMONY AND EMPIRE | Christopher Pease

JUNE 2024

Water is the Ngoorp (blood) of the land that feeds the Koort (heart). The Boodjar (land) is the body, and the body cannot live without blood. If blood cannot flow to one part of the body it will die. If the blood is poisoned the body will die. Christopher Pease (1)

Museum collections and archives have been a source of inspiration for Christopher Pease throughout his career, these repositories holding both the hopes and ambitions, as well as the travesties and tragedies, that were set in train with the colonisation of this nation. However, as a Minang/Wardandi/Bibbulmun man, the unique history of the surveying of the Western Australian coastline and interactions between early settlers and Nyoongar people that can be found in these historical documents also function as an important form of restitution. Disconnected from his cultural lineage until high school, when his mother – a member of the Stolen Generation, reunited with her family, Pease’s paintings quietly but insistently challenge the colonial record, while also asserting the continuation of First Nations culture and ongoing connection to Country. What originally started in 1999 as a search for Nyoongar visual iconography within the historic record, became an introduction to a rich source of content, ripe for re-interpretation and re-evaluation through his work. As he has recalled, ‘There’s always been questions about the accuracy of the old prints.… I think there are many truths in the images, but there’s an element of propaganda as well.’ (2)

Like the work of Gordon Bennett (1955-2014), whose practice was an early influence, Pease uses historical imagery as a palimpsest, overlaying his own iconography on painted versions of early visual sources. The conversation between the two creates a kind of jostling between the past and present, which are read against each other, rather than in dialogue. As such, Nyoongar custodianship of and connection to Country is seen alongside the settler desire to “tame” and control the land. This can be witnessed in both the colonial imagery that he appropriates in his paintings, which frame the landscape as if ready for consumption, as well as the building plans that float above the seascape in a work such as Minang Boodjar Bidi, 2023, symbolising the shift to the colonial concept of private ownership of the land. However, in Pease’s “world view”, the outline of this individualistic acquisitive ambition appears faint (or weak) in comparison to the strength of the white line that meanders across the canvas, leading the way back to Country.

The symbol of the target has become something of a signature for Pease, appearing once again in new works such as Minang Boodjar 3 and Target 5 (both 2023), hovering over the landscape as a defiantly ambiguous but constant presence. On the one hand, its concentric circles signify a gathering place or campfire, but it equally holds both art historical associations and real-world gravitas – calling to mind American artist Jasper Johns’ iconic Target series (1955-61), while simultaneously foregrounding the implicit violence of the target’s role as a place to aim your shot. Indeed, in The Whalers 1 (2024), Pease has located the target on the body of the whale as it faces its imminent death, this gentle giant of the sea killed to supply for oil for lamps and whalebone for women’s corsetry. The mamang (whale) is an important wardan barna (sea animal) for the Minang, but its presence in the waters off the south-west coast of Western Australia, and further south, at locations such as King George’s Sound, also attracted whalers, forever altering the Minang way of life.

The scenes pictured in paintings such as Minang Boodjar 3 and Target 5 seem suspended at the moment of “before” and “after”, the uneven power balance that lies at the heart of first contact and colonisation (and its reverberating inter-generational impact) as yet unleashed on the landscape and its original custodians. The group of figures in Minang Boodjar 3 appear white and ghost-like, as if foreshadowing what lies ahead of them, yet in this moment before their world turns upside down, they dance – both a source of joy and also, the traditional way of learning about Country, where lyrics and actions are tied to the landscape. Pease returns to the iconic Panoramic View of King George’s Sound, Part of the Colony of Swan River, 1834 by Robert Dale, as the stylistic premise for these paintings, the complex and gruesome story behind the image and its maker throwing into question the “truth” of historical documents, and in particular, Dale’s picturing of the conciliatory relationship between the Nyoongar and their colonisers, which is captured in the original image by a handshake between a Nyoongar man and a British soldier. (3)

The oscillation between the past and present that occurs in Pease’s work is far from an abstraction, and his postcolonial project elegantly demonstrates the way in which the past continues to inflect and impact our present. Given that the targets in his work have now assumed the colours of the Palestinian flag, Pease is also clearly equating the death and devastation of the Australian colonial project with one that sadly, continues to unfold elsewhere today. (4)

Essay by Kelly Gellaltly  

Kelly is a curator, writer and arts advocate and director of Agency Untitled.

(1) Christopher Pease quoted in Christopher Pease: Lost in Translation, Gallerysmith, 16 December 2021, https://gallerysmith.com.au/blogs/exhibitions-christopher-pease/lost-in-translation-christopher-pease, accessed 11 April 2024
(2) “Recovering a Stolen Past”, seesaw magazine, 7 August 2019, https://www.seesawmag.com.au/2019/08/recovering-a-stolen-past, accessed 11 April 2024
(3) Lieutenant Robert Dale of the 63rd Regiment, was a military topographer, soldier, explorer and artist who was stationed at King George’s Sound, near Albany in Western Australia, between 1829 and 1833. Despite Dale’s depiction of amicable relations between the Nyoongar and the British in the panorama, when Dale returned to England in 1833, his drawings for the engraving were accompanied by the decapitated and preserved head of Nyoongar leader Yagan, who had been murdered at Swan River in 1833.
(4) Conversation with the artist, 19 April 2024.