‘Colony’, National Gallery of Victoria

I was really curious to see how NGV were going to carry off their parallel exhibitions – ‘Colony: Australia 1770-1861‘ and ‘Colony: Frontier Wars‘ – the aim of which was to explore Australia’s complex colonial past. It is such an interesting idea to take European artistic responses to colonisation and contrast them with indigenous artistic responses.

This is a stunning ‘must see’ exhibition but I was, however, immediately disappointed by how the potential for a conversation between these two exhibitions was compromised by the fact the they were physically separated by several floors. It was also disconcerting that ‘Australia 1770-1861’ was a large pay exhibition while the indigenous ‘Frontier Wars’ was free and confined to only a few galleries. In fact the size and sheer richness of the ‘Australia 1770-1861’ exhibition meant that many I have spoken to have only visited ‘Australia 1770-1861’ as they ‘ran out of time’ to visit the ‘Frontier Wars’ exhibition.

One of the things I loved about ‘Australia 1770-1861’, however, was the sheer mass of riches contained within it. The exhibition reflected the colonial collecting practices that created it. Galleries were double and even triple hung and the quantity of material on display extravagant. Notable was a long cabinet containing dozens of daguerreotype and ambrotype photographic images. I particularly enjoyed the way the curators pulled together multiple versions of the same image or the same subject matter. It really portrayed the richness, strangeness and abundance of the plant and animal life that early colonists encountered. Some items, like the Dixson collectors chest, were just breathtakingly beautiful.

Less successful in my mind was what felt like the random placement of indigenous material amongst this European material. The opening of the exhibition with its display of indigenous spears was visually dramatic but its connection to the chronological display of European artistic endeavour unclear and at worst a cliché. The other examples of indigenous arts throughout the exhibition also felt token and lacking in the depth of interpretation that surrounding white Australian material had.

‘Frontier Wars’ was an angry and emotional response to the ongoing repercussions of colonisation – quite a contrast to the ‘Australia 1770-1861’ exhibition downstairs which reflected the documentary and scientific themes which run through it and felt a little clinical in comparison . My favourite piece in this gallery was the pile of shields with museum-style labels reading ‘once known’ in place of the ‘artist unknown’ in the downstairs gallery. A comment on the huge stockpiles of indigenous material that was collected but also on the limitations of traditional museum and gallery labelling of artworks, highlighting the lack of concern these collectors had about the individuals who crafted them. In a reverse of the galleries downstairs there were a few white Australian works in this exhibition too but while I think the intention was for these to be disruptions they didn’t operate like that to me.

Reviews of ‘Colony’:

Visited: 7 April 2018



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