Local icons leave their mark

Circa 1880 decorated emu eggs really had a moment. Henry Steiner, an Austrian silversmith who came to Australia at the height of the gold rush, used one as a mount for an elaborate inkwell that also featured silver kangaroos hopping around its ebony base, a silver emu as a handle on the inkwell stopper, and a swath of ferns – which were all the rage in Europe at the time – supporting the egg itself. It was exquisite; it was luxurious; it was brazenly Australian. Melbourne was then one of the largest cities in the world and reputedly the richest. The Emu Egg – like a Faberge Egg but so much bigger – lets you know that.

Fast forward to 2015. Here’s a decorative but potentially useful pot, also topped with a figure: AFL footballer Nicky Winmar rendered in ceramic by Western Aranda artist Rona Panangka Rubuntja, rendering his 1993 St Kilda sweater to point to his skin, a gesture that has become emblematic of the fight against racist abuse in sport. The body of the jug shows the game, somewhat in the narrative manner of a Greek urn. It is emphatically colourful. It speaks of and for our time. Once again, it’s unashamedly Australian.

From left Rona Panangka Rubuntja's I'm black (Nicky Winmar) 2015; Henry Steiner, Inkwell c. 1880, silver, emu egg, ebonized wood.

From left Rona Panangka Rubuntja’s I’m black (Nicky Winmar) 2015; Henry Steiner, Inkwell c. 1880, silver, emu egg, ebonized wood.Credit:National Gallery of Victoria

“Sport is obviously a big issue in Australia,” says Emma Busowsky, curator of the latest exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery. Australiana: Designing a Nation, which contains these two objects. “But I think it’s an issue that will continue to be relevant. These ideas will endure even if they are interpreted very differently in the future.”

That’s one of the most remarkable things about Australiana; certain themes fascinate generation after generation, but no theme is fixed. In 1885 Arthur Streeton painted Manly Beach. Its famous surf, later the scene of numerous international carnivals, is limited to a small triangle on one side of its canvas; Streeton’s theme is light and shadow on a sandy beach strewn with picnickers. By 1939, Max Dupain photographed Bondi lifeguards from below and from behind; they tower over him like a couple of well-oiled gods. And exactly 50 years later, Anne Zahalka creates a staged picture (Bondi: Playground of the Pacific) shows various people in bathing suits assuming strikingly heroic poses in front of a painted background. The centuries-old beach culture was now ripe for deconstruction.

Pub scene by Rennie Ellis (above); Russell Drysdale's Moody's Pub, 1941 (top left); John Brack's The Bar, 1954 (full details).

Pub scene by Rennie Ellis (above); Russell Drysdale’s Moody’s Pub, 1941 (top left); John Brack’s The Bar, 1954 (full details).

Then there are the pubs: Russell Drysdale’s Moody’s Pub (1941), a country pub with a group of men loitering outside; John Bracks The bar (1954), a much darker picture with a stoic barmaid reminiscent of the famous Manet picture; and finally Rennie Ellis’ Queensland pub from 1982, crammed with lavishly underdressed men you can almost smell.

Another photo of Ellis, Fitzroy Extrovert (1974) features a young man leaning out of a car window, brandishing a beer. Fifty years later, Busowsky says, we may not see him the way his first audiences did. Larrikin or lout? “It’s a hilarious image, but these days we’re being briefed on the public health messages about drinking and stuff like that,” she says. “I think that’s working with historical material: we interpret it as curators for a contemporary audience. In that way, it’s an endlessly fascinating work.”

Australiana curator Emma Busowsky:

Australiana curator Emma Busowsky: “It’s a big topic and a big conversation.”Credit:Leon Schots

The Bendigo exhibition is a collaboration between the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australiana Fund, a largely voluntary organization that raises funds to purchase Australian artwork for the Prime Minister’s and Governor-General’s official residences. The fund was set up at the instigation of Tamie Fraser, wife of then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, after a visit to the White House in 1976 where she admired Jacqueline Kennedy’s collection of so-called Americana. The idea is to buy furniture and decorative art to be used by everyone who lives there, says fund chairwoman Jennifer Sanders.

“We work together to make sure the needs of the homes are met, you know, the very practical needs, whether it’s dining tables and chairs or display pieces.” The point is to have as little in storage as possible. Sculptures for the garden are a current focus.


Not surprisingly, most of the first donations were fine pieces from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some were made in Europe but with materials or motifs from the mysterious Great Southern Land, home of marsupials. Loans to the exhibition from the Australiana Fund include some magnificent Art Nouveau bowls made in France by Emile Galle but featuring eucalyptus leaf motifs, and an 1877 vase by Royal Doulton with etched kangaroos. The collection also places an appropriate emphasis on pieces with historical or political references, particularly those related to former residents.

However, historical memorabilia come with their own complications. The Fund has named Bendigo a mezzotint by British artist Thomas Gosse The founding of the settlement of Port Jackson in Botany Bay, New South Wales. Drawn in 1799, just 11 years after Captain Arthur Phillips’ fleet landed, it shows the newcomers unpacking their belongings in front of a pine tent.

“This is a completely propaganda image of the British occupation. The artist never left England,” says Busowsky. “The title alone is problematic. We would not use words like “establishment” and would be wary of a word like “settlement”. There’s always this balance between interpreting this material and understanding how politics and agendas have shifted to re-read history through a new lens.” Quite rightly, she argues: an exhibition is a contemporary event. It is an intervention in itself.

With that in mind, she decided against taking white pictures of Indigenous Australians. There are no Aboriginal ethnographic photos taken of the white arrivals, no mid-century household goods adorned with boomerangs, and no souvenirs featuring Indigenous figures with spears. “I worked alone for most of this process,” says Busowsky. “I have no Aboriginal heritage. So it’s something I was very, very aware of; For example, there is some incredibly interesting work by early colonial photographers that I did not feel qualified to photograph.” A contentious case was the magnificent work of Robert Prenzel, a Prussian carpenter who came to Australia in 1888 and was known for his enthusiastic use of Australian hardwoods which he felt would lend themselves to detailed carving.

Robert Prenzel, sideboard, 1913; Rowan, Blackwood.

Robert Prenzel, sideboard, 1913; Rowan, Blackwood.Credit:Leon Schots

“Some of his carvings contained Aboriginal caricatures,” says Busowsky. “I didn’t include anything like that in the exhibition. I find them offensive and unnecessary.” Luckily, Prenzel has also carved many waratahs and wombats.

At the same time, the gallery has highlighted work by indigenous artists who spun these ill-conceived commercial images for their own ends. “I think that’s the key to this material. It needs to be led by First Nations artists,” says Busowsky. Tony Albert, a leading example of this recapture of the image of the indigenous exotic, has been collecting what he calls ‘Aboriginalia’ since childhood and recycling it in his own work.

From top left: Jenny Kee, Blinky jumper, 1979; Linda Jackson, Black Cockatoo, 1977; Paul McCann Saltwater Crocodile Dress 2022.

From top left: Jenny Kee, Blinky jumper, 1979; Linda Jackson, Black Cockatoo, 1977; Paul McCann Saltwater Crocodile Dress 2022. Credit:Leon Schots

“There is a lamp named collision which contains mid-century ashtrays depicting caricatures and appropriated images of Aboriginal art,” says Busowsky. Indigenous designer Paul McCann creates ball gowns with images of saltwater crocodiles and ornate flowers “and some of that tourism industry bad luck and trash to reclaim and celebrate as well”. The vitality of these works is a centuries-old response to artists like Prenzel, who shared a common expectation that indigenous people would become extinct.

McCann’s colour-splashed, crystal-encrusted dresses, in turn, evoke such flights of fancy as Jenny Bannister’s Opera House Dress (1979) and Jenny Kee’s Koala sweater, including Princess Diana’s favorite Blinky Bill sweater (1979). That’s what the word “Australiana” means to most people: tea towels, ashtrays, sweaters. So the lines between grandeur, humor and kitsch have never been quite clear since the emu eggs.


Take the dresses Prue Acton designed for Olympic athletes to wear at the opening ceremony of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, with their green and yellow kangaroo border prints: they’re not that far from a souvenir tea towel . And Ken Done’s colourful, scrawled scenes from Sydney – which have literally had a second, very successful life on tea towels and the like – are currently enjoying a fashion revival. “I think he’s actually a really interesting artist,” says Busowsky. “Younger generations of fashion designers in particular look back on this heyday of Australiana with affection and give it a new validation or twist.”

Whether this lively good humor reflects or describes something called an Australian identity is up for debate. Certainly this identity will never be uncomplicated, but the general mood of Australiana: Designing a Nation is festive.

Kenny Pittock with his Neapolitan Scoop, 2022, (above) and Razz Raspberry Sunnyboy, 2023.

Kenny Pittock with his Neapolitan Scoop, 2022, (above) and Razz Raspberry Sunnyboy, 2023.

“I would hate if it was just a celebration of Australian culture, but maybe that comes naturally,” says Busowsky. As she reminds me, the whole exhibit culminates in a room filled with Kenny Pittock’s commissioned mockups of 100 flavors of ice cream, a mural of a “rainbow” paddle pop, and lots of ice cream-related family activities. “Hopefully this will end up being a happy moment,” she says.

“Look, it’s a big topic and a big conversation, and I don’t know if it’s going to cover everything. I don’t see how it could be possible, but hopefully it’s at least a platform for some discussions.” With the chance of golden gaytime at the end: It doesn’t get more Australian than that.

Australiana: Designing a Nation takes place from March 18th to June 25th at the Bendigo Art Gallery.

https://www.smh.com.au/culture/art-and-design/larrikins-louts-and-paddle-pops-local-icons-leave-their-mark-20230314-p5cs25.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_culture Local icons leave their mark

Jaclyn Diaz

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