A personal response to Fairy Bower Rorschach (2012)
Quilty, B 2012, Fairy Bower Rorschach, oil on linen, 120.0 x 130.0 cm each panel; 240.0 x 550.0 cm overall, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney Australia
Recently myself and three other Indigenous female artists travelled to Bendigo together to view the Ben Quilty exhibition.
We went with anticipation in the knowledge of Quilty’s capacity as an artist to reveal stories of human rights atrocities and trauma. He had previously demonstrated his ability to connect audiences to these stories through his almost sculptural portraits of the soldiers he had met in Afghanistan. Quilty is also a prominent figure in the current call to mercy for the two members of the Bali 9 (Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran) due to be executed in Indonesia. While not knowing Quilty personally, there was some recognition amongst us who saw another artist that was passionate about his work and identified his ability to contribute to and influence a discourse in Australian humanity. We had also made some assumptions about his values in regards to Indigenous Australians through noted connections to other Aboriginal artists including Warwick Thornton; believing that if he was able to collaborate and engage with Aboriginal artists, then he was likely to be sympathetic to our worldview.
Contrary to our anticipation to experience the exhibition we felt a deep apprehension. An apprehension that came from previous experiences of having our stories appropriated by non-Indigenous artists and inevitably misconstrued - whether intentionally or not. Too often have we witnessed non-Indigenous artists profit from our culture and stories - without permission, without knowledge and without understanding. We have all lived experiences of being talked about and excluded from our lives and past histories. This continues to happen through a range of areas, including government policy, media and most importantly for us as Indigenous women, in Art. These exclusions and even impositions placed on us as to who, or perhaps a more familiar terminology to us of ‘what we are’ has origins in a hierarchical privilege of gender and race; a privilege, which is deeply entrenched in mainstream Australian culture. It is also within this framework that both Indigenous people and women are often dehumanised and treated as objects in Art. It is the repetition of the experience of being dehumanised that essentially made us wary of this exhibition, despite Quilty’s track record as an advocate for human rights.
Without giving a blow-by-blow account of our experience of the viewing the work, it is important to say that we were saddened by the exhibition and left the gallery feeling disheartened, even betrayed by an artist we wanted so desperately to get it right. I should clarify what I mean when I say ‘get it right’, I mean for a non-Indigenous person to be able to interpret a story of Indigenous history respectfully, by following a protocol and including us rather than excluding us in the process. Standing in front of Fairy Bower Rorsharch (2012) did not give me the impression that any of this had occurred, rather it left me overwhelmed and angry without words. One of the other artists with me raised issues of spirit impacting on us while we stood there and she noted that there was something in the painting that wasn’t quite right. It was big, dark and foreboding and without knowing for sure it felt as if that if Quilty had achieved anything in this work, it was to anger an ancestor and or spirit who now sat within the work.
After returning home, several of us were motivated to write a response. Perhaps even open a dialogue with Ben Quilty about the work. I believe that Quilty’s intent was to highlight the atrocities that Aboriginal people experienced through massacres like the one that occurred at Fairy Bower Falls, however it’s important to explain why I felt the work did not do this and why I walked away feeling angry and betrayed.
In my response, I want to explore the key features of the painting itself and the words the artist uses to describe it. However the features of the work I highlight aren’t about composition, colour and balance etc. Quilty is an art technician and I’m not arguing about whether the work is a quality painting or not. Inevitably my concern is the connotations and cultural ramifications of the piece.
By Rorschaching this image of such a precarious site Quilty asks the viewer to reconsider their conception of this landscape as a place of idyllic beauty. The duplication and damage of the image echoes the disturbing and violent history this site may have witnessed. This work continues Quilty's exploration of Australian identity and history.
(Art Gallery of NSW 2012)
One issue in the statement is that the artist uses almost apologetic language when explaining the work to the viewer when he refers to
… the violent history this site may have witnessed…
The information on the wall at the gallery that described a scene
...where a massacre was thought to have occurred... (Bendigo Art Gallery 2015)
only repeats this vague use of language and provides a space for the viewer to dismiss what they are seeing.
According to Indigenous oral history it happened and while there appears to be no documented evidence of this event (Stephens 2012), there are hundreds of documented massacres, so the reality is this one happened too.
There could be several reasons as to why this language was chosen but had Quilty or the Gallery included factual information including the amount of Aboriginal people murdered and approximate dates of the massacre being referenced in the work, it would have reinforced the legitimacy of the story being told. Unfortunately this was our first impression of the exhibition at Bendigo Art Gallery.
I attempted to find out more information about how Quilty came to paint the work and what drove him to produce paintings such as Fairy Bower Rorschach (2012). In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald Quilty speaks openly about how he had been affected by his experiences of studying Indigenous history at Monash University.
He told the journalist
‘It changed him at a deep level to learn about the extent of this horror – and how we fail to heal that gaping wound by not honouring these sites’ (Stephens 2014).
Through out this article Quilty continues to refer to the places that the massacres occurred rather than the people. Furthermore in the artist’s statement on The Art Gallery of NSW website, Quilty asks the viewer to reconsider the landscape. He asks the viewer to focus on the place itself rather than the people that were massacred there. The people are absent in the work, like they are absent in the statement, the article in the Sydney Morning Herald and what appears to be the process as well.
In the catalogue for The Fiji Wedding which includes a collection of emailed conversations between the artist and well-known commentator Andrew Denton. There is one reference to Fairy Bower Rorschach (2012). On page 28 of the The Fiji Wedding catalogue (2013) there is a brief paragraph where Quilty provides some details about the massacre that occurred.
…There is a multi panel 6 metre Rorschach painting about a waterfall in the Southern Highlands where 30 Aboriginals were murdered sometime in the 1830s?...
(Denton 2013, pg 28)
In response to the email from Quilty, Denton states that an Illawara Elder had given Quilty his blessing to tell the story. Denton also states that Quilty had taken a course in Aboriginal history at Monash University at 22 years old (Denton 2013, pg 28). In the context of their conversation, Denton’s response seems to imply that having the qualifications and a blessing gave Quilty the impetus to depict Aboriginal history in his work without any further engagement with Aboriginal people or consultation. To be clear, there are plenty of scholars, anthropologists, archeologists etc who have all done study on Aboriginal people who through an emotional connection to our stories, feel a sense of ownership over their knowledge of our culture. After reading this, our initial apprehension of the exhibition felt justified as the idea that Quilty had some sense of ownership over that place and story because he had studied us is just another example of Aboriginal people being talked about instead of to.
While Quilty informs Denton that he received the blessing of an Elder from the Illawara (Denton 2013), nowhere has Quilty identified this man or the people he came from. What is the Elder’s name? Who are his people? This is his story to share, where is the public acknowledgement? A sceptic would ask why not name this Elder? Does he really exist? Does he have the cultural authority to give someone permission to talk about this story? In the end the people who ‘may’ have been murdered or who were to have ‘thought’ to be massacred are without a reference point and are nameless and faceless.
Essentially this is why I think the painting has failed and once again Aboriginal people have been excluded from the telling of their own histories to the benefit of a privileged white man, (acknowledging your privilege in this circumstance is not enough). We are absent from this work, in the image, in the story and in the process. I realise that there is power in painting landscapes and if anyone knows the importance of stories of country it is Aboriginal people; and there in lies the rub – we are the experts, why not include us, why not empower us and use your privilege to support us to tell our own stories? Instead we are invisible in this painting.
The saddest thing about this is that as an artist Quilty is a master of telling sad stories and seeking empathy from a viewer in his work. He has the ability to call people to action through his paintings and his passions, but he hasn’t done this with Fairy Bower Rorschach (2012). The differences being that in those works the people are present, they are human, they are unique individuals that an audience can relate to and empathise with. In Fairy Bower Rorschach Aboriginal people are a vague myth - a disappearing object, with which it appears, the artist doesn’t even know how to empathise.
Art Gallery of NSW 2013 ‘Collection:Ben Quilty’ retrieved 03 March 2015
Bendigo Art Gallery 2015 ‘Art Gallery - Exhibitions - Past Exhibitions - 2014 Exhibition Archive - Ben Quilty’ retrieved 03 March 2015
Denton, A 2013, Ben Quilty: the Fiji Wedding, ‘Heartquake: embedded with Quilty’ retrieved 03 March 2015, http://archive.tolarnogalleries.com/archive/Ben%20Quilty%20The%20Fiji%20Wedding%202013/
Stephens, A 2014, Artist Ben Quilty confronts colonial denial with Aboriginal massacre site art works, retrieved 03 March 2015,