Sunday essay: tall ships, tall tales, and the mysteries of Eugenia Falleni

Eugenia Falleni in 1920. An Italian-born-woman-turned-Sydney-dwelling-man, 
Falleni was convicted of murder in 1920.

I’m an unlikely sailor of tall ships. Too clumsy, too prone to motion sickness, too white and nervous about symbols of colonisation. Nevertheless, in 2013 I found myself up the mast in the middle of the Tasman sea, surrounded by nothing but open ocean.

I was researching a novel about Eugenia Falleni, an Italian-born-woman-turned-Sydney-dwelling-man who was tried for the murder of his wife in 1920. As the commonly told version of the story would have it, Falleni “disguised herself” as a cabin boy and sailed from Wellington to Sydney on a Norwegian barque in the last years of the 19th century. According to some enthusiastic (but factually dubious) accounts, Falleni “roistered” around the Pacific, calling in at Honolulu, Papeetee, and Suva, drank with men, and passed as a man, but arrived in Sydney pregnant.

This “Norwegian barque” was a Schrodinger’s box, and Falleni was the cat. Falleni was man and woman in the same instant, and only tunnelling back through time, lifting a hatch on the deckhouse roof and peering in would decide the moment when Falleni, in the eyes of those watching at least, switched from one gender to the other. Many of Falleni’s biographers have tried to imagine the moment of the onlookers’ “discovery”. As a would-be novelist, I had to as well.

But where to start? Too under-confident in my concept to approach anyone from the transgender community, I started with the ship. If I could get the realist details of the external world right, I told myself, perhaps the interior, psychological uncertainties would resolve themselves in the process. Procrastination disguised as research, perhaps, but I did not know that then.

A Google image search of barques revealed that one was – bizarrely for the 21st century – sailing from Sydney to Auckland, almost exactly the reverse passage Falleni would have made in 1897. I lost a few hours clicking through links that led to sites, which led to my booking a berth as voyage crew on the STS Lord Nelson, set to leave Darling Harbour for Auckland on October 10 2013.

The Lord Nelson is not Norwegian, but wannabe time travellers can’t be too fussy. “Nellie”, as she’s affectionately known by those who sail her, is owned and worked by the South Hampton-based Jubilee Sailing Trust, an organisation established in the late 1970s to make off-shore sailing a possibility for those with special needs.

Stowing Sails of the Lord Nelson. JST

Despite Nellie’s mod-cons, my first night beyond the heads was a waking nightmare. The voyage crew slept below decks towards the bow of the ship in an area called the fo’c’sle. The fo’c’sle is far from the stabilising main mast, moves the most, and is the worst place to be if you are feeling queasy. It thrashed up and down, side to side, while we tried to sleep on shelves masquerading as bunks, our green faces nudging and retreating from the lee cloths that kept us in our beds.

We could hear the slurp and spray of the Tasman as it slammed against the porthole windows. Something aggressive barged at the hull repeatedly, and the aftershocks made the ship quiver like a dog in a thunderstorm. In my sleepless paranoid state I was convinced hammerhead sharks were head-butting the keel, trying to get at the tender voyage crew inside. (Later I would learn that the noise was made by the anchor rolling around in the anchor locker.)

Over the following nights, most of us gingerly made our way from our bunks to the stairs in the lower mess, then waited for the ship’s roll to help our weakened legs climb the stairs onto the deck. Once on deck we had to clip onto the safety wire that ran around the deckhouse and vomit into paper bags before flinging them into waves, which loomed five metres above us on the windward side of the ship, or dropped, suddenly, from beneath.

The ship would nuzzle into these waves, before rising on their peaks, tilting, then sliding down into a temporary gully. Why did I think this state of interminable queasiness would help me with a novel? I was literally, and figuratively, at sea.

All at sea

It was a feeling of motion-sickness that originally inspired me to write about Eugenia Falleni. In 2005, Sydney’s Justice and Police museum hosted City of Shadows, an exhibition of long-forgotten police photographs recovered from a flooded warehouse. I left the exhibition with the accompanying book, and later pored over the photographs for traces of the suburbs I thought I knew. One picture in particular captured my attention: a mugshot of a man in a cheap suit and tie, his short hair combed into a sideways part.

What struck me most was the melancholy in the subject’s eye; how brow-beaten he looked. To me, he seemed composed, but so close to the verge of a nervous breakdown that I was physically jolted out of being a passive viewer. I flipped to the back of the book to read a brief footnote:

Eugenie Falleni [sic], 1920, Central cells. When hotel cleaner “Harry Leon Crawford” was arrested and charged with the murder of his wife three years earlier, he was revealed to be in fact Eugenie Falleni – a woman and mother who had been passing as a male since 1899…

Turning back to the portrait of the sad man, his face — or my perception of his face — morphed into that of a woman’s. But in the moment that he, the sad man, morphed into she, the “cross-dressing murderer”, I have to admit that the thrill I felt was associated with my own jolt in perception; like the moment Escher’s black birds turn into white birds flying in the opposite direction. What would it be like to live your life oscillating between what others expected to see?

I had, up until this voyage at sea, written hundreds of thousands of words that did not ring true. Possibly this bad writing was due to a nervousness that what I was attempting was culturally insensitive. I am not transgender, I am not working class, I am not, and have never been, Italian. Should I even be attempting to write Falleni’s story? In the interests of forging the most respectful way forward (and appeasing my guilt), I did eventually meet with a trans man my supervisor knew. I was anxious going into the meeting, because I wasn’t entirely sure what I was asking from him. Did I want his permission? And if he gave it, what then?

My fears, it turned out, were founded. While he generously gave me his morning, he seemed a little frustrated by the need to have to explain that his experience as a trans man was going to be very different to another trans experience, especially one lived a hundred years ago. I flushed with embarrassment. Of course I didn’t want him to suddenly be the spokesman of the entire trans community, no, not at all.

Sitting across the table from him, my cold coffee growing skin as I babbled, I realised how condescending the categories of identity politics can be. While they are vital in giving the disenfranchised a collective voice, identity politics can also flatten the myriad possible expressions of how people might live between genders into one “type” — where one person’s experience can stand in for another’s.

Deviants to dysmorphia

Falleni told detectives that they dressed as a man for the economic opportunities. According to the local Sydney tabloid press, Truth, Falleni told detectives they “thought it better to give up life as a woman, because they worked for long hours for a small wage”. But Falleni also married two women and owned a dildo (also held in the Justice and Police Museum’s collection) — and presumably engaged in sexual relationships with women. Living at a time that did not have a language for what would now be considered transgender experience, it’s not surprising Falleni avoided citing sexual or instinctual reasons for passing as a man.

At the time of Falleni’s trial, the term used to describe anyone not living a hetero-normative existence was a “sexual invert”, a pathological condition of deviancy. Falleni’s barrister, Archibald McDonnell, vaguely suggested that Falleni was such an “invert” by arguing that Falleni had “the masculine angle of the arms”. The judge interrupted McDonell’s cross-examination of the government medical officer to ask if he was making an insanity plea, proving that, at the time, there was confusion about whether “sexual inversion” was a sexuality, a physiological type, or a diagnosis of mental illness.

But as historian Ruth Ford argues, it was not in the interest of the Crown to classify Falleni as an invert, because it would have “detracted from their case, which emphasised Falleni’s deceptive nature — her fraud and lies”.

Since Falleni’s arrest, various attempts have been made to categorise Falleni’s gender-crossing. In 1939, Dr Herbert M. Moran wrote that Falleni was a “homosexualist” and suggested their “disorder” was congenital. He wrote:

She was condemned even from her birth and her abnormality derived from the very nature of her being. The temperamental outbursts, the vulgar debauches, the filthy speech, were but minor manifestations of her interior disorder.

In his 2012 biography of Falleni, Mark Tedeschi diagnosed “gender dysmorphia”, reporting that

her female bodily attributes were like having an unwanted, additional limb attached to her body that she overwhelmingly felt did not belong to her.

Image of Eugenia Falleni
Eugenia Falleni in 1928, State Reformatory for Women. Justice and Police Museum, Sydney

Others have resisted classifying Falleni’s gender and sexuality. Alyson Campbell, director of Lachlan Philpott’s 2012 play about Falleni, The Trouble with Harry, admits to having initially wished to impose a lesbian subjectivity on Falleni’s story. However she conceded that neither lesbian or trans identities were “available to a person such as Falleni, navigating a way through the undocumented, secret world of being a female husband.”

I did not want to invade Falleni’s very private existential conundrum and claim their identities for my empire (read: my cv), and yet I couldn’t shake the story off.

What kept drawing me back was not an urge to answer the questions of who Falleni was (which are not my questions to answer), but rather an urge to come to terms with how Sydney dealt with the uncertainties that Falleni’s various identities posed. The shock remains fresh: Falleni’s trial occurred almost 100 years ago, and although the terminology we use to discuss cases like this has changed, the tendency to categorise and scrutinise “abnormal” behaviour hasn’t.

This was also a story about patriarchy, how its control is insidious and polices everyone — men and women and those who are neither or both — at every level of bureaucracy. Though my experience is by no means comparable to Falleni’s, this is something I have experienced first-hand.

A stranger amongst men

When the seas died down around Nellie, we were well clear of land. Surrounded by nothing but open ocean, my life now depended on something as small as a house, as buoyant as a bath toy, something only as strong as its shipwrights knew how to make it.

Sexual innuendo was social currency on the ship, and your first voyage was a test, to see if you could take it. It was fun, at first, to be around authority figures who couldn’t give a shit about “minding their manners” and affecting professional decorum. It helped that the first mate Leslie — a woman — had stripes, and was just as crass as the men.

I ended up staying on from Auckland to Wellington, this time as a trainee bosun’s mate, the volunteer crew responsible for maintaining the ship’s equipment. On this leg a watch leader presented me with a lock that had fallen off the ladies’ toilet door in the fo’c’sle, along with four very short screws. I found Leslie and the Captain in the chart room and asked Leslie what she thought I should do with it.

She looked at me incredulously. “Fix it.”

“Right,” I said, “but where are the screws?”

“You’ll have to get them from Mr Chips,” she said.

“Ah, but Pip,” the Captain said, “I’d be careful how you ask Chips for a screw.”

I found the second engineer, Mr Chips, on the stern platform with the first engineer, Marco, sitting in a coil of rope and sipping his third cup of tea for the day.

“Chips,” — I was already on the defensive — “I know how this is going to go, but I need four long screws.”

Chips said nothing for a while.

“Right,” he eventually said, “well you’ll find them in the container in the middle of the workshop.”

Marco groaned at the wasted opportunity.

Negotiating sexual innuendo with the cook was more precarious. When a handful of us were asked to scour the hot galley, I volunteered to scour the lard that had accumulated under and behind the ovens. At one point I had my torso wedged under the ovens, and my arse had nowhere else to be but high in the air. Derek the cook stood behind, supervising. The next day he sat beside me while I was sitting on the deck.

“I think you visited me last night in my dreams,” he said softly. “But you weren’t wearing French knickers when you cleaned the ovens, were you?” The comment was meant to be funny, but it made me weary. Really? I thought. Is this how it’s going to be? The game was: they prodded, and you deflected. It was both exhausting and boring.

Later, in the bar, I told Derek he was a sleaze. I said it publicly, and jovially, knowing “preciousness” would not be tolerated. Mr Chips inhaled sharply and Derek’s face fell. An unspoken rule of the ship became clear to me: women should take a joke, but an accusation of sexual impropriety — even if made in good humour — would not be tolerated.

Derek’s revenge came at dinner. My meal was loaded with so much chilli powder, I could barely swallow it. He didn’t talk to me for three days, but by the time we reached Napier he was cracking jokes about my “free passage” with a playful elbow in the ribs. I laughed along, to show him I could take it.

After we’d tied up in Wellington, Marco and I were taking a moment to recover from the wind over a cup of tea in the upper mess.

“So, what are you writing about?” he asked.

I told him the spiel. By then, I’d learned it by rote.

“Falleni…” Marco said, trying out the name, “so she was Italian? Of course she was. I bet she was hairy, too,” he chuckled, and shot a knowing look at Mr Chips.

As he did, I thought I saw a horse passing by on the dock outside. I did a double take. Yes, there was a horse out on the dock, being led by a woman in a shabby suit and bowler hat. She turned to look at the ship, and I saw her moustache, the whiskers growing out of her cheeks.

“Oh my God,” I said, and pointed out the window behind his back. He turned to look, and there were more women now, all in shabby suits and moustaches.

Marco turned back, unfazed. “So the wife, she had to know.”

“Well, apparently not,” I said, on automatic pilot, transfixed by the scene out the window.

“But how did they fuck?”

“With a dildo,” I said. “It’s on exhibit at…”

The women began to chant. They were on strike. They were re-creating the Great Strike of 1913 for the museum over the road, but it was the world of my novel and it was real and it was right outside the window.

Female union actors dockside in Wellington. Pip Smith
During the month I spent in Wellington, I wrote the first part of my novel that stuck. It had nothing to do with sailing ships, nothing to do with being a spokesperson for a transgender experience that was not mine to share, and everything to do with being a fish out of water: a stranger amongst men.


Eugenia Falleni was sentenced to death for the murder of Annie Birkett on October 6 1920, but shortly afterwards this sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Falleni was released from Long Bay Penitentiary in February 1931, after which they lived as Jean Ford, and built a successful business as a manager of “residentials”.

On June 9, 1938, Jean Ford sold her Glenmore Road “residential” business for £105, and on the same day was hit by a car on Oxford St. Ford was taken to Sydney Hospital, but died on June 10, aged 63. Throughout their lives, Falleni maintained their innocence.

A year after my voyage on Nellie, Suzanne Falkiner re-released her 1988 biography of Falleni with revisions and new information. There were details that hadn’t jumped out at me before. The main one suddenly rendering redundant months and thousands of dollars worth of research: Falleni probably didn’t travel to Sydney by a “Norwegian barque” at all. The son of one of Falleni’s New Zealand friends recalled that

the last time [Falleni] met my mother, [Falleni] told her that she was going to work her way as a stoker [someone who stoked a fire for a ship’s engine] on a ship to Australia, which she did. After she arrived in Australia, she [or someone who wrote for her] wrote to my mother saying she had arrived safe and that she hardly slept at all on board ship and kept an iron bar under her pillow for protection.

A stoker? On board a barque? Not likely. In becoming obsessed with the mysteries of Falleni’s identity, I had ignored details that were not convenient to my own myths. Or perhaps I wanted to go to sea, be at sea, a little while longer.


This essay was written by:

Pip Smith – [Tutor, Australian literature, Western Sydney University]

NB: in this article, I have chosen to refer to Falleni according to their surname, for its gender-neutrality, and have used the pronoun “they” when referring to Falleni’s collective self, and “he” or “she” for Falleni’s particular identities that presented as decidedly male or female.

Pip Smith’s novel, Half Wild, has just been published.





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How Dr G.Yunupiŋu took Yolŋu culture to the world

 Dr Yunupiŋu’s music is steeped in the 
culture of his people,the Yolŋu of northeast Arnhem Land.Dan Himbrechts/AAP

The music of Dr G. Yunupiŋu — who has died at the age of 46 from complications arising from a childhood illness — is steeped in the culture of his people, the Yolŋu of northeast Arnhem Land, and specifically in Manikay, the sacred song tradition performed by the Yolŋu when conducting public ceremonies.

Manikay is a medium through which the Yolŋu interpret reality, define their humanity, reckon their ancestral lineages, and evidence ownership of their hereditary homelands through their ability to sing in the tradition of their ancestors.

Dr Yunupiŋu drew immense strength and inspiration from this tradition, and particularly from the Manikay repertoires of his own clan, the Gumatj, and his mother’s clan, the Gälpu. Direct musical and lyrical quotations and references to ancestral themes drawn from Manikay repertoires are present throughout his original songs.

For example, both the melody and lyrics of the initial chorus of I was Born Blind (2008) stridently reference the strength that Dr Yunupiŋu drew from the eternal Gumatj saltwater crocodile ancestor, while the soulful lyrics of Bakitju (2011) echo sentiments of homesickness and loss found throughout Manikay repertoires.

In this way, Dr Yunupiŋu’s music has made Yolŋu values, as expressed through the Manikay tradition, accessible to audiences all over the world. Simultaneously, it has extended a decades-old popular music scene in Arnhem Land that deliberately encourages local youths to follow their culture by singing in their own languages.

Though born congenitally blind, Dr Yunupiŋu taught himself music from a young age and exhibited prodigious gifts. In his teens, he performed and toured the world with his family from Yirrkala in the band, Yothu Yindi, before returning to Galiwin’ku to form the Saltwater Band with his family there in the late 1990s. In 2008, his career as a solo singer and song-composer began.

During the late 1990s, around the time that Skinny Fish Music recorded the Saltwater Band’s first album, Gapu Damurruŋ’ (1998), I had the privilege of meeting Dr Yunupiŋu and spent considerable time in his midst. At the time, I was undertaking the first comprehensive study of Arnhem Land’s contemporary popular music scene and, when we spoke about his music, he stressed the fundamental importance of music as a means of encouraging Yolŋu children to follow their culture.

The Saltwater Band’s music was full of kinetic energy and youthful exuberance with fast and frenetic songs that blended ska rhythms with gospel harmonies commonly heard among church choirs on Elcho Island.

Yet also present were the seeds of the slower, more contemplative style for which Dr Yunupiŋu received international acclaim as a solo artist. In songs such as I was Born Blind and Bakitju, which Dr Yunupiŋu later recorded on his solo albums, the exceptional beauty of his voice rang true in a way that always left audiences completely enthralled.

Even before the Saltwater Band recorded its first album, Dr Yunupiŋu’s songs were wildly popular among Indigenous communities with thousands of copied and re-copied tapes of the band’s demos and live performances circulating throughout the Top End and Central Australia. Everywhere he went to perform on the regional circuit of Aboriginal festivals in Arnhem Land and beyond in the late 1990s, audiences would expectantly wait for him to appear on stage.

I can vividly recall the closing night of the Miliŋinbi Festival in November 1997, when the Saltwater Band was the final act to take the stage. Bands from Miliŋinbi and neighbouring towns played into the early hours of the morning and there had been whispers throughout the evening that Dr Yunupiŋu would indeed perform.

Entire families stayed outdoors in the cool post-midnight air to experience the catharsis of hearing him sing live and, when his performance finally brought the festival to close around 3am, the audience was utterly transfixed. His generous spirit shone through and his voice was nothing less than transcendent.

It was not until Dr Yunupiŋu’s passing that I realised he and I were the same age, and now I wonder why it is that his life expectancy was cut so short. What systemic disadvantages could have been addressed to prevent him and so many others living in remote Indigenous communities from dying so young. And what, amid so many failed efforts past and present to improve health outcomes for Indigenous Australians, can yet be done to prevent others from unnecessarily dying so prematurely?

In remembering Dr Yunupiŋu, Australia celebrates the life of a man who overcame immense personal and social disadvantages to make the world a better place though his love of music. Yet it is also confronted by a clear and present need to do better in supporting the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people living in remote communities.


This article was written by:

Image of Aaron CornAaron Corn – [Professor of Music and Director, Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) and National Centre for Aboriginal Language and Music Studies (NCALMS), University of Adelaide]


A maverick on fabric: the strange, unconventional art of Jenny Watson

Unconventional-art-of-Jenny-Watson Detail from Jenny Watson’s The Pretty Face 
of Domesticity, 2014, oil and synthetic polymer paint on velvet striped  
shantung. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Transit, Mechelen ©the artist

Is Jenny Watson Australia’s equivalent to Tracey Emin? Watson is about a decade older; she is less concerned with listing everyone that she has ever slept with and more obsessed with horses, but shares Emin’s interest in punk and street culture, feminism, the conceptual dimension of art and the use of unconventional materials. Both artists are also fine draughtsmen in the conventional sense of the word, but choose to break the rules and cultivate an intense, awkward line.

Image of Jenny Watson Rock Star
Jenny Watson Rock Star (detail) 2014 oil, synthetic polymer paint and Japanese pigment on rabbit skin glue primed damask; vintage plaster duck. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Transit, Mechelen ©the artist

These reflections on the art of Watson have been provoked by a substantial retrospective exhibition of her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. Jenny Watson: The fabric of fantasy is her largest show to date, with over 100 pieces spanning over 40 years and accompanied by an excellent catalogue largely written by the curator of the exhibition, Anna Davis.

Watson was born and trained in Melbourne, initially at the National Gallery School (subsequently known as the Victorian College of the Arts) and then spent a number of years travelling and living abroad, mainly in London, Paris and New York. She is quoted in the catalogue as saying,

I turned from the observation of the outside world to recording an inner space … I wanted to shatter the techniques I had learnt … to let a random uncontrollableness take hold of the work.

Image of White horse with Telescope 2012
Jenny Watson, White horse with Telescope 2012, synthetic polymer paint on rabbit skin glue primed cotton. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery ©the artist

Developing an interest in combining text and image; embracing techniques of collage and bricolage, and engaging with feminism and punk culture certainly gave her art of the 1980s and 1990s a sophistication and internationalism that was uncharacteristic for Australian art at the time and made it highly attractive to curators who wished to work on the international scene.

In Watson’s CV there is one entry that stands out from the rest: “1993 Jenny Watson, Australian Pavilion, Venice Biennale”. To represent Australia at the Venice Biennale is the highlight of any artist’s career and Watson had that opportunity thrust upon her at the age of 42. The circumstances for her selection may not be relevant for us today, but she felt at the time, and has told me on a number of occasions, that it would have been better if this had occurred a bit later in her life. However, the chance was not to be missed.

Image of Jenny Watson Tied Up,1993
Jenny Watson Tied Up,1993, oil on canvas with organza bow Courtesy and © the artist.Photograph: Carl Warne

Her exhibition at Venice, Paintings with Veils and False Tails, was quirky, unusual and controversial. Most of the oil paintings were of horses or girls with ribbons and false horsetails on red velvet and accompanied by inscriptions. One reads, “She realised she was in love with him after he visited the other girl for afternoon tea”, while another, “I feel like when Mum caught us smoking as kids”.

The combination of childish innocence, autobiography intertwined with fiction, adolescence and obsessions with horses, the “fab four” and pop culture of the 1960s, Twiggy and movie stars were part of the fabric that prepared the way for this significant exhibition.

Watson likes to think of herself as a rebel for whom a prohibition and a declaration that something cannot be done is sufficient incentive to try to do it – she is a compulsive rule breaker. Her major preoccupation in Venice was, in her words, “My decision to filter the life of a suburban girl through a conceptual lens [which] was a slow developing but key moment”. This remains a preoccupation throughout her art.

The other challenge that she has taken upon herself is not simply to succeed as an Australian artist, but as an artist on the world stage, who was born in Australia. The Venice Biennale gave her a brilliant platform from which to be picked up by international galleries.

Two of them did precisely that and Watson showed with some success and to some acclaim in Europe, America and Japan. Things generally came undone with the Global Financial Crisis of 2007/08 when sales largely evaporated and Australia and Australians once again became her primary market and audience.

Image of Jenny Watson, I’ve got a dirty pig on my mind 2013
Jenny Watson, I’ve got a dirty pig on my mind 2013 oil paint on cotton, grounded with rabbit skin glue frame. Image courtesy the artist, Galerie Transit, Mechelen and Verlag für zeitgenössische Kunst und Theorie ©the artist Photograph: Bert de Leenheer

Jenny Watson is, in some ways, a maverick artist in the Australian art scene. Although she is sometimes associated with Tracey Emin and Jenny Holzer through her extensive use of text, her strange and unconventional creations on cloth are immediately recognisable as uniquely her work.

Her love of the horses that surround her on her property in Samford, some 21 kilometres north west of Brisbane, keep her grounded, while her imagination still explores reality through the eyes of the little girl in the backblocks of Melbourne who sees and questions the structures of the physical world and its intersection with the world of the imagination.

This review was written by:

Jenny Watson: The fabric of fantasy is at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney until 2 October





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Politics of landscape: the 2017 Wynne Prize finalists

Wynne Prize 2017 finalist 
James Drinkwater, ‘Passage to Rungli Rungliot’,oil on hardboard, 180x360cm.
 © the artist Photo: Felicity Jenkins, AGNSW

The Wynne Prize is bestowed upon the best landscape painting of Australian scenery or best figure sculpture. This year, over a third of the finalists – 15 out of 42 – are Indigenous artists, and 11 are from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands in central Australia.

In fact there is an entire room dedicated to Aboriginal landscape paintings. It is unusual to have such a large portion of the Wynne dedicated to these works, and disorienting to discover them separated from the rest of the exhibition. Presenting these works on their own draws attention to the difference of Indigenous art within the wider Australian art sphere rather than integrating it.

Image of Angus Nivison, ‘Pernicious’
Wynne Prize 2017 finalist. Angus Nivison, ‘Pernicious’, acrylic spray-paint and charcoal on paper, 205 x 154.5 cm © the artist Photo: Felicity Jenkins, AGNSW

In the forecourt, a simultaneous exhibition, installed only this week, includes more works by APY Lands Art Centre artists. They were selected from the gallery’s permanent collection, and may have been pulled out to complement the Trustees’ selection for the Wynne. This is heartening, and no doubt heartfelt, but focusing on increasing the representation of a marginalised group can result in a compromise of the standard of works selected.

Overall, this year’s Wynne prize standard is as haphazard as previous years. This is perhaps partly the result of the Trustees behaving like curators, rather than prize selectors. Choosing a large number of finalists from the same remote region may have seemed like a means of strengthening the visual experience for visitors, whilst also complementing the showcasing of their permanent collection, but hanging them together creates a sense of tokenism.

Luckily, a truly alluring work diverts my attention from pondering these issues. It is a Nyapanyapa Yunupingu landscape, hung in an unassuming position, just outside the main room of Indigenous finalists. Yunupingu’s artworks are synaesthetic rather than only awakening a single sense. They sing and shudder.

The paint leaps from the bark and confounds my vision with images of other wildlife. The white forms, which are either wildflowers, humans or other vertebrate creatures are all of those species at once, as they dance across the dirt. Spend a little time in front of her painting and the gallery starts to melt away and be replaced by cicadas, a breeze rushing through spinifex grass and the distant sound of people murmuring.

Image of Wynne Prize 2017 finalist. Nyapanyapa Yunupingu,‘Landscape’
Wynne Prize 2017 finalist. Nyapanyapa Yunupingu,‘Landscape’ natural earth pigments on bark, 78x193cm © the artist Photo:Jenni Carter, AGNSW

The other stand-out work, and my pick for the most deserved finalist entry, is Juz Kitson’s poetically titled sculpture “That which provides safety and the possibility of growth, that which you can put your trust in”.

Testicle, bladder, labia, intestine or foetus? Kitson’s assemblage of fur, seed and porcelain shapes creates a sexualized and fetishistic object of worship. Think of a Game of Thrones cloak. Think of a death pyre of antlers. Think Haitian Voodoo ceremony. Think of a giant clitoris. Kitson’s work has all of these elements.

It sits outside human time and has the character of something that could have existed before human life and afterwards too. I couldn’t contain my curiosity about what materials Kitson used and so I messaged her on Facebook. The swift answer: Jingdezhen porcelain and Southern ice porcelain/terracotta clay along with paraffin wax, resin, polyester thread, merino wool, fox and rabbit pelt, Tibetan gazelle horns, teeth, echidna quills and Bodhi seeds.

Image of Wynne Prize 2017 finalist Juz Kitson ‘That which provides safety and the possibility of growth, that which you can put your trust in’
Wynne Prize 2017 finalist Juz Kitson ‘That which provides safety and the possibility of growth, that which you can put your trust in’, Jingdezhen porcelain, Southern Ice porcelain, terracotta clay, paraffin wax, resin, silk thread, merino wool, fox and rabbit pelt, Tibetan gazelle horns, teeth, echidna quills, bodhi seeds, marine ply and treated pine, 200 x 133 x 50 cm. © the artist Photo: Mim Sterling, AGNSW

A second reason Kitson’s work stands out for me is a political one: climate change. During an epoch of climate fear, and as we endure a lack of environmental leadership in Australia, there are many artists working to mediate these issues via their work. Art is a litmus test for public opinion and can be an effective way to disseminate important political ideas.

These ideas are mostly absent from the work of this year’s Wynne Prize finalists. Only Kitson’s brings to mind the concept of extinction, via the mass of horns, and nature’s deathly drive, through the overall image of a relic or artefact. Her work represents the remains of the human and the animal. It is futuristic, dark and a looming memorial for extinct species, one of which may be “the human” in years to come.

Views of Australia

There are some robust scenes of the Australian landscape in the finalist line-up. For instance, John R WalkerNicholas HardingAngus NivisonJames DrinkwaterJoshua Yeldham and Philip Wolfhagen all have highly competent and technically proficient paintings of conventional bushland scenery.

Several of these paintings draw upon classical compositions where the scene is framed by trees or picturesquely arranged around a “hero tree”. Or they comprise a composition where the view penetrates through recalcitrant scrub land. These are mostly patriarchal conventions of traditional landscape painting, which is a reminder of the prevailing gender bias of previous Wynne prize exhibitions.

Image of Nicholas Harding, ‘Wilpena eucalypt and wattle’,
Wynne Prize 2017 finalist Nicholas Harding, ‘Wilpena eucalypt and wattle’, oil on linen, 183x245cm. © the artist Photo: Mim Stirling, AGNSW

Kitson and Yunupingu, conversely, do not rely on traditional conventions of landscape painting. They open a door to a deeper experience of the material world, to that particular matter of being. Somehow, they make physical the spiritual, they make seeing a more multi-sensual experience, and so they change our perception of the natural world.

Jux Kitson’s work also has an enormous amount of working labour, discretely visible in each and every carefully formed and cast porcelain part. It heralds a strong political point about the epoch of the Anthropocene and the damage we have caused to the land.

Likewise, whilst in the gallery space, I was constantly drawn back to Yunupingu’s landscape. There, modest and silent, the bark painting calls me, in a personal way, into a desert scene where women walk across the sand dunes, and talk together for hours. It sends me into a spin of delirium, into a vortex to where there is a real experience of lakeside flowers, where I can hear the mourning groans of the land.

However, based on past experience, I suspect neither of these two powerful artists will win. Instead I contend that one of the brightly coloured APY Indigenous works, all hung together in the high-ceiling gallery space, will win the day.

They are big and bright and colourful. Whilst it is crucial that Indigenous art gains greater momentum in the ongoing accumulation of landscape imagery in Australia, it is also important to select artworks carefully for inclusion in the Wynne Prize exhibition and not to mistake politics for aesthetic value.

This review was written by:
Image of Prudence GibsonPrudence Gibson [Art writer and Tutor, UNSW]






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The Archibald finalists – and why Tony Albert deserves to win

 Detail from Tony Albert 
Self-portrait (ash on me), acrylic on linen. 102 x 102 cm. 
© the artist Photo: Jenni Carter, AGNSW

The formal announcement of the Packing Room Prize as a preview for the 2017 Archibald is a reminder of how the world has changed. For the last 26 years, Steve Peters and fellow workers in the packing room of the Art Gallery of New South Wales have chosen a favourite painting from the many hundreds of entries for the annual Archibald Prize. Without fail, the painting chosen is realistic in style, with paint applied in smooth layers. More often than not, the subject is either an attractive woman or a media celebrity. This year’s winner, Peter Smeeth’s portrait of Lisa Wilkinson combines both attributes.

Picture of Lisa Wilkinson AM, oil on linen
Peter Smeeth, Lisa Wilkinson AM, oil on linen, 100x150cm. © the artist Photo: Felicity Jenkins, AGNSW

The aesthetic concerns of those who received the 822 entries in the Archibald are not necessarily the same as those of the Trustees, who by the Will of J.F. Archibald are the only people entitled to judge. The Packing Room Prize came about from the cultural divide between the tastes of the decision makers and the workers who had to carry out their commands. For many years management made it clear that the Packing Room winner was not a finalist, and indeed it was hung just outside the main exhibition.

Picture of Finished packing, oil on canvas, 170x145cm.
Lucy Culliton, Finished packing, oil on canvas, 170x145cm. © the artist Photo: Felicity Jenkins, AGNSW

This year, not only is the Packing Room choice placed in the privileged space near the dais where announcements are made, but it hangs next to Finished packing, Lucy Culliton’s portrait of Peters. This embrace of the values of the workers who run the prize was a long time coming, but it can now finally be seen for what it always was – an annual people’s art prize where anyone can enter (though the odds against winning are even worse than Lotto).

Edmund Capon, the previous director of the gallery, very cleverly turned what was seen by the curators as the worst exhibition of the year into a serious fundraiser and marketing exercise. Visitors are now charged a hefty fee to see the once free exhibition. There are extensive public programs, including celebrity talks and live music.

Then there is the art. This year’s curator, Anne Ryan, has integrated the Archibald with the accompanying Wynne and Sulman exhibitions so that they appear less disjointed. This has enabled her to create a dazzling display of Aboriginal works from the Wynne Prize in the central court, traditionally reserved for the Archibald, and to place the Archibald entries in the more intimate spaces around the court.

Picture of Professor Gillian Triggs, oil on linen
Yvette Coppersmith, Professor Gillian Triggs, oil on linen, 137.5 x 110 cm. © the artist Photo: Jenni Carter, AGNSW

Perhaps it is a reflection of the times, but it is now rare to see a politician’s portrait. The best known public figure to make it through to the final 43 is Gillian Triggs, painted by Yvette Coppersmith. The second portrait of a lawyer is Luke William’s study of Remy van de Wiel, the QC who successfully defended those accused of forging work by Brett Whiteley. There is a sense of this lawyer’s flamboyance, not shown in his costume, but in his fly-away hair and prominent spectacles.

These legal portraits join staid studies of prominent men – Robert Hannaford’s portrait of the West Australian businessman Michael Chaney and Paul Newton’s portrait of the philanthropist Rupert Myer. The boys of Sydney Grammar’s Edgecliff Preparatory school have produced what has to be the first entry by school children – as well as the first entry by so many artists – with Goodbye Sir!, a farewell to their headmaster.

Despite the communally created pixelated style, this is nevertheless conceived as a very conservative image. I doubt it will be in the final short-list, but the Archibald is very much an exhibition of social history and it is a great novelty work.

Another “novelty” painting, Sophia Hewson’s Untitled (Richard Bell) places the artist provocateur as Mary Poppins’s chimney sweep in a Walt Disney landscape, complete with Bambi, bluebirds and the hills of the Sound of Music. It’s the kind of painting to bring a smile to even the most jaded visitor.

Picture - Untitled (Richard Bell), oil on board
Sophia Hewson, Untitled (Richard Bell), oil on board, 200x200cm. © the artist Photo: Mim Stirling, AGNSW

The space that holds the dais where speeches are made has Richard Lewer’s Liz Laverty, paying tribute to one of the great patrons of art. The late Colin Laverty and his wife Liz were collectors in the true sense, buying work they admired. They got to know the Indigenous artists whose work they collected, helping remote communities, encouraging others to see what they saw.

Picture of Liz Laverty, oil on epoxy-coated steel
Richard Lewer, Liz Laverty, oil on epoxy-coated steel 110 x 110 cm. © the artist Photo: Felicity Jenkins, AGNSW

This is not a “posh” portrait, rather it is painted with a deliberate naivety: just a woman in a black polka dot shirt, looking with love.

Traditionally, Archibald entries (and winners) have been over-large, emphasising the importance of the sitter in the scheme of things. However last year’s winner, Louise Hearman’s intimate portrait, Barry, as well as Sam Leach’s 2010 winner, Tim Minchin, show that size is not necessary for success.

The more intimate spaces of the installation advantage some of the smaller works. Kate Beynon’s self portrait, With amulets and their shadows, references her Chinese heritage with images of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, while her direct gaze quotes Frida Kahlo.

Kate Beynon, With amulets and their shadows, acrylic on wood, 25 x 20 cm. © the artist Photo: Felicity Jenkins, AGNSW

Self portraits are always popular with artists and there are quite a few this year. Madeleine Winch’s Facing the canvas incorporates the artist’s self-examination as a part of her study of her tools of trade. This is appropriate, as Winch often incorporates herself into her work.

My choice for winner

The painting I would like to see win is Tony Albert’s Self-portrait (ash on me). Albert has a long history of re-appropriating kitsch depictions of Aboriginal people, what he calls Aboriginalia. In recent years he has painted studies of ashtrays of kitsch Aboriginal subject matter, complete with stubbed cigarettes. Some of these have been made in collaboration with artists at Hermannsburg, including descendents of Albert Namatjira, whose art was turned to kitsch by commercial exploitation.

Tony Albert Self-portrait
Tony Albert Self-portrait (ash on me) acrylic on linen,102 x 102 cm. © the artist Photo: Jenni Carter, AGNSW

The self-portrait is an arrangement of these ashtrays, with his portrait head painted at the top of the arrangement, complete with two stubbed cigarettes. As an extra twist, this ashtray is captioned “Archibald Prize Art Gallery of New South Wales”.

Albert’s work is deceptively innocent. Each ashtray holds a different aspect of Aboriginality – each is shown as being treated with contempt as a receptacle for dead cigarettes. Yet he manages to make an apparently light-hearted portrait. It is such a clever work.

In the next week, the Trustees will come to the gallery to consider which of these finalists will gain the prize. The voting will take place on Friday morning. If they disagree, the final vote might be taken only minutes before the announcement (in 1996, it was delayed by about 30 minutes as some trustees found it hard to vote for Wendy Sharpe’s Diana of Erskinville). Then the circus will begin.

This review was written by:
Image of Joanna MendelssohnJoanna Mendelssohn – [Honorary Associate Professor, Art & Design: UNSW Australia. Editor in Chief, Design and Art of Australia Online, UNSW]


The Archibald Prize exhibition opens on Saturday 29 July, and is on view until 22 October. The exhibition will then tour in NSW and Victorian regional cities. Geelong Gallery 28 October 2017 – 10 December 2017 Murray Art Museum Albury 15 December 2017 – 28 January 2018 Grafton Regional Gallery 2 February 2018 – 18 March 2018 Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre 24 March 2018- 6 May 2018 Newcastle Art Gallery 11 May 2018 – 24 June 2018 Gouburn Regional Art Gallery 30 June 2018 – 18 August 2018 Glasshouse Port Macquarie 25 August – 7 October 2018






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Listen To Older Voices : Pat Wilson – Part 4

 Welcome to Listen To Older Voices,
a program produced by Rob Greaves for Wesley Mission Victoria and 
podcast through the Toorak Times and Tagg.

Listen To Older Voices presents the stories, views and opinions of our older citizens. It is predominantly in a life & times format, with interviewees reflecting upon their lives from earliest memories. An underlying principal of the program is to promote the concept of positive ageing, reinforcing the principle that older people have & continue to make a valuable contribution to both their local & wider community.

In this, the final program on Baby Boomer and successful recording artist Pat Wilson, Pat focuses heavily on issues other than music. She has a highly developed social conscience and talks with great passion on issues involving the ecology and climate science.

Pat values her life and this planet and expresses great concern for what is happening to planet Earth. In my mind Pat exemplifies the adage – “Think globally, act locally”. She sets out her concerns and in doing so reminds us that change for the better can and only will come about when people of good conscience speak out.

Click hear Pat Wilson – Part 4

Previous LTOV Programs can be accessed clicking on this icon – 



[Listen To Older Voices receives funding from the Commonwealth Government through the Commonwealth Home Support Program Program]

My time as a ‘scary girl’ on Doctor Who

 Sylvester McCoy was Doctor Who in 1987, 
when Julie Collins appeared as Leader of the Red Kangs in the TV show. 

In 1987, I appeared as Fire Escape, the Leader of the Red Kangs, in a Doctor Who tale of dystopian mayhem: Paradise Towers. In a dilapidated Tower Block, colour-coded gangs of “Kangs” – delinquent teenage girls – ran amok, whilst behind closed doors, sweet and endearing old ladies lured unsuspecting visitors into their apartment for tea, so that they could eat them.

The Kangs became allies of the Doctor – number seven, played by Sylvester McCoy – who went on to defeat the Hitler-like totalitarian Chief Caretaker, played by veteran British actor Richard Briers. The fans both loved and hated this story. The acting was at times way over the top. But on the plus side, Paradise Towers, a storyline written by Stephen Wyatt, contained great social commentary, critiquing the social upheaval of Thatcher’s Britain. The Kangs were seriously “scary girls”, and the streets were full of them.

The news this week that a woman – English actor Jodie Whittaker – will be the 13th Doctor Who has got me thinking about my time on the set of this classic show. Whittaker’s appointment to the role has been hailed by many and criticised by some purists. I think that it is about time a Wise Woman took control of the Tardis, even if the Tardis does not always do as it’s told these days. Reflecting on my brief time on the show, it is interesting that while women such as the Kangs were feisty, the Doctor’s female companions were there mostly to help show how clever he was.

Image of Julie Collins
The author as Fire Escape in 1987. author provided

My own personal association with Doctor Who – apart from hiding behind the couch as a very small person – began in the mid 1980s, when my partner at the time, Mark Strickson, was cast as Turlough, companion to the fifth Doctor, played by Peter Davison. I was so jealous! But over the next few years, I probably spent almost as much time on the set as Mark did. This was the era when John Nathan Turner (known as JNT) was the producer and the series was probably at its most economical.

Production was fast and furious. But despite the pressures, I was welcome on location and in the studio. I watched from the sidelines and even from the control room. One day when I entered the studio, the Daleks were there. They were really very scary, even though you knew the voices were coming from four small and elderly gentlemen sitting at a table in the corner with large microphones.

When I eventually got the call to audition for my own story on Doctor Who, it was unlike any audition I’d been to. Instead of sitting across a desk, having a quiet chat and perhaps reading a few lines of script, which was the norm, JNT and the director, Nicholas Mallett, had overturned the furniture and I was asked to improvise a life and death battle.

Working on Paradise Towers was hard work. You had to stay focussed; if at 10pm, your concentration was about to lapse, the production team was unlikely to retake a shot to fix up your performance.

One of the episodes in which Fire Escape appeared.

This was only Sylvester’s second outing as the Doctor, and he was quite nervous at times but his background as a stand up comic helped – and his wry sense of humour came to define his portrayal.

I met many of the Doctors over the years: the quietly dignified Pat Troughton; the charming Jon Pertwee; the ascerbic Tom Baker; the very kind Peter Davison; and the flamboyant Colin Baker.

In recent years, I also met Paul McGann, the eighth Doctor, who appeared in the movie, and he told me a story that shows how the character has evolved over the years.

The Doctor began his existence as a typical white, upper middle class, patriarchal male. While the casting of Peter Davison in 1981 sent shock waves through the BBC – I mean how could you have a young Doctor? – he was still the wise and nicely spoken patriarch.

Image of Paul McGann
Paul McGann as Doctor Who in 1996. BBC

McGann told me that when he was cast as Doctor Who, in 1996, he suggested that he play him as a Northerner in a leather jacket. But the producers insisted he play the Doctor as an Edwardian gentleman.

Yet in 2005, Christopher Eccleston became the ninth Doctor – as a Northener in a leather jacket. The Doctor was no longer quite so posh.

Peter Capaldi who played the Doctor from 2013 until now, might be seen as a return to the old model – the mature patriarch – apart from the fact he is Scottish. And yet Capaldi is quite different, more reflective, more self doubting. Ironically, considering the Doctor is not human, this incarnation seems more human and in need of support from his companions. For this reason, he is my favourite Superhero. The Doctor is in a sense Everyman and therefore, Everywoman.

The idea that Time Lords can change genders has already been established, and the Doctors can remember all their previous incarnations, so I do not think the change to a female Doctor will be earth shattering. Maybe Doctor number 14 will be a person of colour, that would be exciting.

This article was written by:

Postscript: After appearing in four Doctor Who episodes, the author went on to study zoology and do a PhD in ecological humanities … as you do.






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Explainer: ‘solarpunk’, or how to be an optimistic radical

 Solarpunk imagines a 
sustainable future, and what it might be like to live in it.

Punks (of the 70s and 80s kind) were not known for their optimism. Quite the opposite in fact. Raging against the establishment in various ways, there was “no future” because, according to the Sex Pistols, punks are “the poison / In your human machine / We’re the future / Your future”. To be punk, was, by definition, to resist the future.

In contrast, the most basic definition of solarpunk — offered by musician and photographer Jay Springett — is that it is a movement in speculative fiction, art, fashion and activism

that seeks to answer and embody the question ‘what does a sustainable civilization look like, and how can we get there?’

At first pass, then, Solarpunk seems to turn the central tenet of punk on its head. Its business is imagining the future. Moreover, perform an online “image search” for the term “solarpunk” and you will find colourful, leafy metropolises, flowing neo-peasant fashions and, perhaps, a small child standing next to a solar panel in front of a yurt.

How, then, are the bright futures imagined by solarpunks, worthy of the “punk” suffix?

Solarpunk’s optimism towards the future is the first concept that needs complicating here. Along with the original punks, there is a wide body of scholarship that critiques positive thinking. Feminists like Barbara Ehrenreich and Sara Ahmed, for instance, trace links between the capitalist establishment and happiness. They suggest that future-centred optimism serves the very system raged against by most punks of old.

An animated version of Barbara Ehrenreich’s criticisms of positivity.

Although optimistic, Solarpunk’s future imaginings do not fit neatly with current political regimes or economic systems. Self-described “researcher-at-large” Adam Flynn argues that the movement begins with “infrastructure as a form of resistance”. Solarpunks are in the business of dreaming a totally different system of energy delivery, essential services and transport. Quite different to behemoth of roads and coal-fired power plants we live amongst today.

In other words, Solarpunks resist the present by imagining a future that requires radical societal change. Radical, perhaps, but not radically impossible. Indeed, many of the technologies and practices that solarpunks draw into their imaginings already exist: solar and other renewable energy, urban agriculture, or organic architecture and design. Like sci-fi authors, solarpunks remix the present to produce an alternative future.

Apocalypse or utopia?

In a fictional sense, solarpunk sits across the table from “cli-fi”. In recent years, the term cli-fi has moved from a fringe concept to a marketable genre of fiction. Coined in the first instance by Dan Bloom, it has grown so big that scholarly researchers are able to produce studies of the conventionsNew novels and short story collections are now published in this category each year.

Cli-fi, in both film and fiction, tends towards dystopia. For film, watch The Day After Tomorrow, in which New York is flooded and frozen in climate mayhem, and Snowpiercer, where efforts to control climate change go dramatically awry. For text, look for Paolo Baciagalupi’s The Water Knife, in which drought has devastated the south western US. These are stories of failure, disaster, and social collapse. Crucially they represent the apocalypse as catalyzed in some way by climatic or environmental change: wave, snowstorm, drought. Cli-fi has really just replaced earlier anxieties (such as nuclear war) with new ones (such as out-of-control geoengineering).

In the Australian context, Briohny Doyle’s The Island Will Sink and James Bradley’s Cladetake up these themes. Here too, cli-fi can be seen in novels written before the concept existed, in what Ken Gelder calls “rural apocalypse fiction” such as Carrie Tiffany’s explorations of failed semi-arid land farming in Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living.

I teach “cli-fi” in a literary studies course, including Doyle’s and Tiffany’s novels, and I invite students to critique the apocalyptic nature of the genre. Is it a problem that the future is only imagined as spectacular disaster or slow decline?

Solarpunks argue that the problem with imagining such a dark future (or no future, for that matter) is that, while failure may be cathartic it thwarts the possibility of thinking about alternatives.

As a genre of writing, solarpunk has its predecessors. The Fifth Sacred Thing (1994) by Starhawk and Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston (1975) both imagine anti-capitalist, de-urbanised, garden-centric societies. Although Callenbach’s text is not a perfect utopia (as if there is such a thing), he is on record as stating the need for alternative future visions in a similar manner to solarpunks. In film, the work of Hayao Miyazaki provides a mainstream forerunner to the aesthetics and political challenges of the movement.

The trailer of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke

Discovering the rainbow

As a category of fiction, solarpunk remains a fringe dweller. Its few self-identifying authors describe their additions to the genre as a positive reaction to grim science fiction. Examples in this vein are Biketopia: Feminist Bicycle Science Fiction Stories in Extreme Futures and Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Ecospeculation. Solarpunk fiction is either self-published or supported by small independent presses, with mixed reviews.

On Instagram #solarpunk yields under 1,000 uses. Nevertheless, the aesthetic sensibilities of the subculture are starting to emerge. A few fashion enthusiasts post selfies experimenting with flowing fabrics, cool coloured lipstick and body piercings. If steampunk is when “goths discover brown”, solarpunk is when they discover the rainbow.

On Twitter, the hashtag is more common. It groups together self-published tales, fashion statements and even instances wherein the solarpunk project might be seen to break through into the present day, as in the case of electric buses. It also seems that, like its predecessors steam and cyberpunk, solarpunks do dabble in costumes (cosplay).

Image of the cover of the book - Sunvault
Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation is a collection of solarpunk short stories and art. Goodreads

It’s also political. Andrew Dana Hudson says that the subculture “posits a world of solar-energy abundance and then argues that we will still have need of punks. No magical tech fixes for us. We’ll have to do it the hard way: with politics.” To be solarpunk, then, is to mount a resistance to the mainstream present by imagining an alternative future.

The question that remains for me in all this is what differentiates a solarpunk from an ecosexual, or an ecofeminist technopagan, or an eco-afrofuturist or even a permaculturist? Or, indeed, other colourfully clad, politically oriented utopian movements?

Similarities abound, but the focus on the cultural change that will necessarily accompany the full transition to renewable energy is the defining feature of solarpunk.

This is what I find deeply compelling about the subculture. We usually ask “can renewables replace fossil fuels?”. It is an important question, but it does not grapple with the links between culture and energy. Thus instead solarpunks ask “what kind of world will emerge when we finally transition to renewables?” and their writings, designs, blogs, tumblrs, music and hashtags are generating an intriguing answer.

This article was written by:
Image of Jennifer HamiltonJennifer Hamilton – [Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, University of Sydney]






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Listen To Older Voices : Pat Wilson – part 3

 Welcome to Listen To Older Voices, 
a program produced by Rob Greaves for Wesley Mission Victoria and podcast 
through the Toorak Times and Tagg.
Listen To Older Voices presents the stories, views and opinions of our older citizens. It is predominantly in a life & times format, with interviewees reflecting upon their lives from earliest memories. An underlying principal of the program is to promote the concept of positive ageing, reinforcing the principle that older people have & continue to make a valuable contribution to both their local & wider community.


This is a special Baby Boomers edition and is the third program of a 4-part program featuring the Life and Times of Pat Wilson. 

In this penultimate program, Pat finishes the absolutely engrossing tale of the return of Ross and herself overland from the UK to Australia, a journey that involved largely hitchhiking, with some wonderful and terrifying stories. They arrive broke in Darwin and worked there for a while before returning to Melbourne.

It is also the now that Pat talks openly about Ross Wilson’s musical compatriot for many years – the much loved Ross Hannaford. Pat openly shares her stories of “Hanna” from the perspective of someone who met him early in his career when Ross Wilson was forming the Pink Finks, and as someone who spent a lot of time with him. Her insights into this wonderful man are shared openly with us and, in her words, he was the “sweetest, sweetest human being” she had ever met.

This part of her story also begins the tale of her career – her very successful career as Pat “The Bop-Girl” Wilson, and how this massive hit came about when she her husband Ross wrote it, with Pat recorded it, catapulting her into instant fame.


Click to hear Pat Wilson – Part 3

Previous LTOV Programs can be accessed clicking on this icon – 

[Listen To Older Voices receives funding from the Commonwealth Government through the Commonwealth Home Support Program Program]

Sunday essay : painting ‘The Last Victorian Aborigines’

 Detail from Percy Leason, Thomas Foster, 1934, oil on canvas, 
76.0 x 60.8 cm, State Library Victoria, Melbourne. 
Gift of Mrs Isabelle Leason, 1969 (H32094) © Max Leason

During the night of September 7 1936, the last remaining thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, popularly referred to by the name of “Benjamin” since his death, died in the Hobart Zoo. The official cause of death was neglect/exposure. Benjamin’s passing marked the extinction of a species.

Only 59 days before Benjamin died the Tasmanian government had introduced legislation to protect the species – a seemingly pointless gesture. The creature had been held captive in the zoo for three years before his death, and during that time my grandfather recalls seeing him.

To my mind, the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger is one of the single greatest tragedies in Australia’s history, so recently I asked my grandfather what it felt like being there; to which he replied: “Honestly, we didn’t think much of it at the time.”

Image of a thylacine
Benjamin, the last recorded Tasmanian thylacine. Wikimedia

Two years before the passing of the last Tasmanian tiger, artist and illustrator Percy Leason painted 46 portraits of Aboriginal people from Lake Tyers mission in Victoria. They were exhibited as The Last Victorian Aborigines and were designed to capture Aboriginal people before they became – as was popularly expected – extinct. Leason’s motivation to paint may have been rooted in salvage anthropology, but the images themselves have more to offer than a practical, ethnographic record.

Leason’s portraits are a window in time. They speak of a period when people were categorised by their blood. He labelled his subjects “full bloods”, a term used to signify that a person had no non-Aboriginal ancestry.

Although Australia has officially rejected the notion of blood quantum and genetic arithmetic, even today there is a popular and erroneous perception that it is possible to measure the proportion of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestry through “blood”. Light-skinned Aboriginal people frequently have their authenticity questioned and their identity challenged.

There can be no doubt that generations of settler Australians descend from Aboriginal ancestors, unacknowledged and unremembered: using the terminology of the day, half-castes gave way to quadroons and then to octoroons, and then for many they simply became “Australian”.

Of course, this too represents a kind of extinction. Although the idea that Aboriginal people were a dying race had circulated since the late 19th century, and it found renewed interest in the 1930s. This zenith of the extinction discourse also found form in Daisy Bates’s serialised articles, which were later edited into The Passing of the Aborigines.

That Leason almost simultaneously painted what he called the “last Victorian Aborigines” is emblematic of these ideas. For him, these portraits of what he called the last “full bloods” tied him to both the popular idea of extinction and salvage anthropology.

Painting of Thomas Foster
Percy Leason. Thomas Foster 1934 oil on canvas 76.0 x 60.8 cm State Library Victoria, Melbourne Gift of Mrs Isabelle Leason, 1969 (H32094) © Max Leason

Wistful thinking

Well regarded by his peers, Leason achieved significant status as an artist in his time. The Last Victorian Aborigines drew great crowds of people when it opened at the Athenaeum Gallery in September 1934.

The exhibition coincided with the Melbourne centenary, and at this time people all over the city were thinking about the future. Leason’s portraits spoke about the future, by depicting what he considered to be the past.

Reflecting on this now, I can’t help but wonder what curiosity it was that drew in audience members. It is clear from reviews of the time that both Leason and the wider community considered the portraits anthropological exercises; they were a catalogue of loss, a record of extinction. The audience might have acknowledged the tragedy and the melancholy sadness the images were thought to represent, but one wonders if many also considered them nostalgic, perhaps with the wistfulness of regret.

Natural scientist and anthropologist Donald Thomson photographed the same people Leason painted, and for the same reasons. In this way Leason saw himself as being like Thomson: both were impassive recorders, both were anthropologists, both were cataloguers, both were deliberately ethnographic in their approach. The difference was that Leason believed his portraits were superior to Thomson’s photographs.

Image of Donald Thomson
Donald Thomson, the Australian anthropologist.

There is undoubtedly a certain success in Leason’s portraiture that is lacking in Thomson’s photography. He captures a tenderness and humanity Thomson overlooks.

Leason’s gestural brushstrokes and delicate use of light suggest a hesitancy in his approach. He sees an elusiveness in his subjects: these are an ethereal, fragile people, on the brink of extinction. His portraits preserve and record them for posterity.

Thomson’s 50mm lens, however, is both literal and frank. It is possible, if not likely, that the stark and uncomfortable body language and expressions seen in Thomson’s photographs were also present in Leason’s studio. His chosen medium allowed Leason to capture an essence of his subjects that Thomson’s photographic techniques missed; painting also allowed him certain liberties that photography did not.

Photography, while never strictly objective, does at least have an obvious connection to reality. The subjects in a photograph exist as they appeared, at some stage or another.

Of course, subjects are posed, backgrounds contrived and compositions carefully curated, but the photographer is never able to entirely control the image. The subjects have agency, and they can and do “stare back”.

Painting, on the other hand, allows an artist a greater opportunity to interpret their subject. The way in which Leason’s portraits interpret their subjects infers a meaning that does not necessarily have any bearing on reality. They show a vanishing people, faces literally fading into the background – these Aboriginal faces are like water in your hands, slipping away. They are fuzzy.

Thomson’s photographs are undeniably real. They represent a culture that, despite Leason’s suggestions, is not going anywhere.

The logic of elimination

Artistic licence enabled Leason to frame his subjects so they seem aware of their supposed fate, giving this supposed fate an air of inevitability. In the 1930s there was a practical, economic advantage for settlers like Leason to suggest that Victorian Aboriginal people were becoming extinct. Aboriginal people were seen as an obstacle to land acquisition. The late historian Patrick Wolfe referred to this as settlement based on “the logic of elimination”.

Leason’s subjects were not passive. Edward Thomas Foster, like all Leason’s male subjects, was shirtless. His arms folded behind his back push forward his chest, clearly showing his scarification marks. While Leason had control over the painting, it appears Foster subverted his interpretation. His eyes are sharp and intense, perhaps more so than any other portrait.

Clara Hunt, a senior woman and noted weaver, was described by Leason as reluctant and shy. Her portrait is unlike the rest of his female portraits, as she is fully clothed. Her expression appears resolute, if not severe.

Mrs Hunt had disrobed for a photograph by Thomson earlier, but seemingly in an act of defiance she refused for Leason. Mrs Hunt was the oldest woman to pose for Leason, and perhaps it was due to her seniority and position that she was able to subvert the artist’s request.

Painting of Mrs Clara Hunt
Percy Leason. Mrs Clara Hunt 1934 oil on canvas 76.1 x 61.0 cm State Library Victoria, Melbourne Gift of Mrs Isabelle Leason, 1969 (H32096) © Max Leason


In the years since Leason’s death in 1959 his popularity and reputation have faded. The legacy of these infamous portraits, however, is still very well known. Perhaps most importantly they remain for contemporary Aboriginal people an important and elegiac reminder of their ancestors.

As a record of a dying race they inevitably failed. And yet many people have internalised the same logic of elimination that links authentic Aboriginality to blood. The term “full blood” may have been dropped in everyday conversation, but questions like “What part Aboriginal are you?” are still incredibly common for Victorian Aboriginal people.

Just as art played a part in creating this problem, it now plays a role in its solution. Contemporary Victorian Aboriginal artists such as Bindi Cole Chocka offer stinging reproach to those who have vilified city-based Koorie people for not being black enough, and mock outsiders’ obsession with the skin colour of Aboriginal people as a marker of their authenticity. While Aboriginal people are still sorted into classifications whereby dark-skinned Aboriginal people are accepted as authentic and fair-skinned Aboriginal people are seen as fraudulent, artists are provoking audiences to consider their own understanding of race and how their unexamined preconceptions might be inherently racist.

Image of Bindi Cole Chocka, pigment print
Not really Aboriginal, 2008, Bindi Cole Chocka, pigment print, 100.0 × 120.0. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists, 2016

It seems Leason never moved past the notion that Aboriginal people in Victoria were defined by their blood; however, years after painting the portraits, he did reflect back on the series and say:

the portraits of the Victorian Aborigines are only ethnographic incidentally, just as a Raeburn portrait is incidentally ethnographic in that it reveals an individual of the Scottish race.

This is an important point, because it shows that there was a moment when Leason eventually recognised the humanness of his sitters.

The 46 people in Leason’s portraits convey a duality: on one hand they exemplify his misunderstandings by seeming resigned to their fate; on the other they subvert it by refusing to disappear, by the continued existence of their culture today. They are depicted as resigned, when they were not. They are described as vanishing, when they were not.

Victorian Aboriginal people today do not find our identities rooted in blood quantums, but rather in our awareness, our histories, our characters, our families.

In what I can only describe as a historical coincidence, Percy Leason was born two years after my Aboriginal great-great-grandmother, in the same region. Land records list them as neighbours. Perhaps he played with her, or attended the school that was 50 metres beyond their property boundary – I will never know. Yet I can look at the portraits he created and wonder, was his sensitivity the result of lifelong contact, or is it a vicarious connection that has led me to such a sympathetic reading?

This essay was written by:

This article is published in the catalogue for the exhibition Brave New World: Australia 1930s, which is showing at the National Gallery of Victoria until October 15 2017.






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