I grew up in Cairns, and my relatives… we all grew up by the sea, so we are saltwater people. My family live at Giangurra on the way to Yarrabah(1), so whenever we have a family gathering we go back there. We are known as the ‘beach dogs’ and so we have that kind of connection to the beach and the water. We hunt food in the saltwater – it’s a big part of who we are as a people. I think we have a special connection to the water.
My approach to history painting is more lateral. The idea that the surface is made up of multiple lenses – cultural lenses – it’s a way of bringing more people into the work and it’s a way of telling a story about who I am, but also connects to as many people as possible.
Looking at the history of Blackbirding(2) – in Australia making a work that relates to that is also connecting all those people back in Queensland and northern New South Wales who have that connection to that history.
In 2011, I was artist–in–residence at the Natural History Museum in London. My starting point there were the watercolours of the First Fleet collection. Not everyone knows that the Museum has close to 30,000 individuals (skeletal remains) in their basement. I think it was really good for the Museum to allow me to work with this material that was quite a sensitive subject. That’s where the watercolour of the fish comes from – the First Fleet collection. Basically the fish didn’t look too happy to be in the library in the Natural History Museum in the special collections, so I had to bring the fish back to Sydney – so that’s where that work came from.
Sydney, April 2014
(1) Yarrabah is just south of Cairns in far north Queensland.
(2) Blackbirding is a term used to refer to kidnapping or coercing people through deception to work as labourers.