The 1970’s tended to be a political decade. Many artists, writers and film-makers turned their attention to raising the publics political consciousness through their particular media whether the issue was feminism, politics, war, the environment, political persecution or aboriginal land rights, the arts generally became a powerful and potent voice which informed, educated and even outraged.
There is no question that the Australian Aborigines have suffered tremendously since the arrival of Europeans. Heavily endowed with strict religious beliefs and perceptions of white superiority, the Europeans attempted to educate, eradicate and infiltrate the indigenous population. It is Queensland painter Gordon Bennett’s desire to rewrite or re-paint the true course of Australian history.
Although Bennett’s aboriginality is important to him, he prefers to be thought of as an Australian artist. Bennett only discovered he was aboriginal when he was eleven His work is political- it is both Aboriginal and European- Australian history. Bennett claims that growing up not really knowing he was aboriginal in a Euro centric society placed him in a unique position. His art is about that strange sense of alienation- the alienation from himself, the viewing of himself as an outsider. Many of his views about aboriginal culture have been understandably formulated from a European perspective.
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Bennett’s work contains highly complex intellectual and visual references. Most paintings are concerned with individual identity as well as the identity of Australia as a nation in terms of it’s history and it’s concept of self. Each of Bennett’s paintings are loaded with layers of meaning and numerous parallel reference points. Bennett is not only defining Australian culture and Aboriginal history in his work, but also himself. Many of Bennett’s works allude to or overtly depict physical, visual and verbal violence of the history of black and white relations in Australia. Scenes straight out of outback Australia are set against destruction, decapitation and rape of Aboriginal figures.
Bennett’s most interesting work is titled Outsider and was painted in 1988, the year of Australia’s bicentennial. Outsider is confronting in it’s reminder that the period from 1788 onwards was a time of invasion and not something to celebrate. The work is a metaphor for the artists anguish at not belonging. Bennett contrasts his own feelings of isolation and social alienation.
A headless aboriginal figure in full ceremonial body paint has invaded van Gogh’s The Artists Bedroom at Arles. Having thrashed around the room blindly, dislodging painting, knocking over a chair and leaving imprints of blood stained hands on the walls, the invader now stands menacingly over the remains of tow other icons from European art –heads from classical Greco-Roman sculpture- which lie together on the bed, eyes closed. A stream of vibrant- red blood gushes from the neck of the headless figure to form the distinctive blue and white swirls in Starry Night. Another painting by van Gogh. This appears to be Bennett’s way of acknowledging the enormity of van Gogh’s contribution to the history of modern art.
This painting by Bennett is about many issues from Aboriginal deaths in custody to Bennett’s feelings of isolation. Frustration is also evident with the suggestion that it can lead people to suicide or self-mutilation, as in the case of both van Gogh paintings. The painting is rich in symbolism. The aboriginal figure complete with ceremonial paint is standing in van Gogh’s bedroom. The man is so frustrated and confused that his head explodes, with blood whirling into van Gogh’s turbulent sky. The classical heads with the closed eyes may relate to Europe, blind to the consequences of it’s actions and unwilling to acknowledge everything that has happened.
Gordon Bennett draws from the traditions and hierarchies that exist in the history of world art, and to explore issues relating to him as a person of Anglo/Celtic/aboriginal decent and as an artist. Some of Bennett’s paintings include the use of words or letters, occasionally reference to important art history figures. His painting are therefore literally and metaphorically about the language or art, culture and racism.
Gordon Bennett would probably define his ambitions as the attempts to outrage the innermost convictions of his audience. ‘My idea is that within the culture I live in, words like “male,” “female,” “black,” “white” have particular meanings that nobody bothers to think about anymore, so that by juxtaposing images and texts, my intention is basically to disturb that easy acceptance of the terms.”
Bennett’s work is neither just an act of violent denunciation nor simply any kind of one-dimensional activity. Rather, it is the record of the artist investigating pleasurable ways of producing paintings and bringing ideas together and his ongoing attempt to create work that might disturb people and provoke thought.
Over the last decade, Gordon Bennett has produced a powerful body of critical art that has ranged widely, in engaging with the iconography of Australian history, with the quest for purity in western modernism. He has consistently been concerned with the pain and violence of colonialism, and much of the power of his work arises from the way these themes have been drawn together. Although Australian colonial history is directly referred to in many of Bennett’s works, Bennett links the Australian conflict to a global history of slavery and racism. For Bennett, the expression of ideas and feelings always has a historical context, often one burdened by conflict and contradiction.
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