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Gordon Bennett

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Laura Molan

on 31 August 2011

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Transcript of Gordon Bennett

Gordon Bennett During his childhood in the 1950s and 60s, Bennett lived with his family in Victoria and Queensland. He has described his upbringing as "overwhelmingly Euro-Australian, with never a word spoken about my Aboriginal heritage." - Gordon Bennett Bennett’s Aboriginal heritage came through his mother. An orphan from a very young age, she was raised on Cherbourg Aboriginal Mission in Queensland, and later trained as a domestic at Singleton. This was common practice among young Aboriginal girls and women. Eventually Bennett's mother ‘earned’ an official exemption that allowed her to leave the Mission. But the oppressive and restrictive laws that governed the lives of Aboriginal people in Australia until the late 1960s continued to impose on her life. For example, at the time Gordon was born she still had to carry her official exemption certificate with her, and she lived in fear of her son being taken from her I can’t remember exactly when it dawned on me that I had an Aboriginal heritage, I generally say it was around age eleven, but this was my age when my family returned to Queensland where Aboriginal people were far more visible. I was certainly aware of it by the time I was sixteen years old after having been in the workforce for twelve months. It was upon entering the workforce that I really learnt how low the general opinion of Aboriginal people was. As a shy and inarticulate teenager my response to these derogatory opinions was silence, self-loathing and denial of my heritage. Gordon Bennett 3 Bennett married in 1977. He and his partner bought a house and settled in the suburbs of Brisbane like other young couples. However behind the neat facade and pleasantries of suburban life, Bennett was haunted by racism and the same derogatory opinions of Aboriginal people that he quietly endured in the workforce. 4 Bennett’s art explores and reflects his personal experiences. Among these is the struggle for identity that happened because of the repression and denial of his Aboriginal heritage. He says that much of his work is autobiographical, but he emphasises that there is also some distance involved in his art making .
"… my work was largely about ideas rather than emotional content emanating from some stereotype of a ‘tortured’ soul." -Gordon Bennett Early Life Influnces Works "I first learnt about Aborigines in primary school, as part of the social studies curriculum … I learnt that Aborigines had dark brown skin, thin limbs, thick lips, black hair and dark brown eyes. I did drawings of tools and weapons in my project book, just like all the other children, and like them I also wrote in my books that each Aboriginal family had their own hut, that men hunt kangaroos, possums and emus; that women collect seeds, eggs, fruit and yams. The men also paint their bodies in red, yellow, white and black, or in feather down stuck with human blood when they dress up, and make music with a didgeridoo. That was to be the extent of my formal education on Aborigines and Aboriginal culture until Art College." - Gordon Bennett The repression of Aboriginal heritage that Bennett experienced was reinforced by an education system and society dominated by a history built on the belief in Australia as terra nullius(latin for land belinging to no one). Tales of exploration, colonisation and settlement failed to recognise the rights of Australia’s Indigenous people. Like many of his own and earlier generations, Bennett’s understanding of the nation’s history was partly shaped by the sort of images commonly found in history books. Images of Captain James Cook ceremoniously coming ashore at Botany Bay to claim the land for Britain. In images such as these, Aboriginal people are often absent or relegated to the background. These visual images of history present the colonisers as powerful figures and as the bearers of learning and civilisation in a land of ‘primitive’ people who have no obvious learning or culture The "coming of the light" is a term used by Torres Strait Islanders to describe the arrival of the missionaries who brought Christianity to the Islands in 1871. In the Christian tradition light is associated with goodness and righteousness while darkness is associated with evil. 'The coming of the light' explores ideas, issues and questions related to the 'enlightenment' values central to colonialism. One hand holds a torch – a symbol of enlightenment that is also seen in The Statue of Liberty in New York – that sheds light on darkness. However the hand in the opposite panel controls the Aboriginal figure represented as a jack- in- the- box. The jack- in- the box is surrounded by symbols, including the grid- like buildings and alphabet blocks, of the knowledge, systems and structures that represent an ‘enlightened’, civilised society. However these ideas and values oppressed Indigenous people and their cultural and knowledge systems. In the late 1980s Bennett turned to the source of his own European focused education and began to make works using images based on those found in social studies and history text books. Bennett was drawn to images that had accumulated meaning as signifiers of colonial history and power. In 'Untitled' (1989) Bennett works with a selection of images associated with the familiar story of the ‘discovery’ and ‘settlement’ of Australia: tall ships, the landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, and several scenes that reveal the violence and tension that often characterised the relationship between colonisers and the colonised. These images have defined the nation’s settlement history for many generations of Australians. Bennett presents each image with a single word, written in capitals, that creates a new meaning for them. For example, placing the word DISPLACE under the image of Captain Cook coming ashore at Botany Bay focuses attention on the dispossession of Aboriginal people rather than on the ‘discovery’ of Australia. The word DISPERSE was used by the colonisers to represent the killing of Aboriginal people. "I decided that I was in a very interesting position: My mind and body had been effectively colonised by Western culture, and yet my Aboriginality, which had been historically, socially and personally repressed, was still part of me and I was obtaining the tools and language to explore it on my own terms." Gordon Bennett In 'Outsider' (1988) Bennett makes reference to two paintings by the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh. Vincent’s 'Bedroom in Arles' (1888) "…a decapitated Aboriginal figure standing over Vincent van Gogh’s bed, with red paint streaming skywards to join with the vortex of Vincent’s starry night." - Gordon Bennett Van Gogh’s original bedroom evokes a feeling of peace and harmony. In Bennett’s painting the bedroom becomes the site of violent conflict. It contains a headless figure of an Aboriginal man. A gush of blood red paint shoots into the sky from his body. Bloody handprints are stamped across the walls. This imagery points to the violent suppression of Indigenous people and culture in the nation’s history that was thrown into focus by the Bicentenary celebrations, which were occuring when the image was painted. The circular forms in the sky are inspired by the brilliant bursts of light in van Gogh’s Starry night and are similar to the symbols often used in Aboriginal ‘dot painting’ to represent significant sites. The sculpted heads on the bed remind us of the Classical art and learning of Western culture and with eyes closed, these heads appear as blind, mute and lifeless witnesses to the surrounding conflict and struggle. Bennett used strategies such as deconstruction and appropriationto present audiences with new ways of viewing and understanding the images and narratives that have shaped the nation’s history and culture.

Deconstruction: A way of breaking down and analysing images in order to discover, recognise and understand the underlying ideas within an artwork and to ‘construct’ new meanings.

Appropriation: using existing images, such as the artworks of other artists within a new work in order to create new meanings and ideas. These existing images often convey powerful meanings that artists build on. Appropriation is not plagiarism as the artist is not trying to copy the artwork and 'Starry night' (1889).
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