Paradise Again

Fiona Foley, Native Blood detail 1994

During British settlement, Australia was often imagined as a kind of paradise – actively marketed by the British Empire during the colonial through to post-war era as a legitimate way to escape industrialised London, to an untamed land of abundance and latent possibility. Early landscape representations by artists such as Eugene von Gerard and Abram Louis Buvelot depict a lush, fertile landscape, abundant with natural resource and beauty. Today the prevailing idiom of the “lucky country” built on the backbone of the dreams of migrants seeking a better life, seems to be giving way to anxiety over Australia’s role in a global era of displaced peoples as explored by Richard Lewer’s work, I wish I was as lucky as you, 2013 and Advance Australia Fair, 2013.

19th Century representations of Aboriginal people were depicted in painting and later photography as living in a kind of Eden on earth. Contemporary artists such as Fiona Foley and Brooke Andrews have sought to disrupt early portrait photography which romanticised first Australians as `noble savages’, symbolizing the innate goodness of humanity when free from the corrupting influence of civilization. These romanticized representations of Aboriginal people were increasingly used in the establishment of national identity during the 20th century, and works such as the Wembley ware jugAustralian Native 1956, commissioned as a commemorative souvenir for the 1956 Olympics is a classic example.

Paradoxically, while these images were used for nation building, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were not recognised as citizens until the referendum of 1967. Commercial representations of Indigenous people did not acknowledge the many different nations, peoples and tribal groups within Aboriginal Australia, but rather created a stereotyped representation of an Aboriginal person. The commercialization and profiteering of Indigenous culture is a subject explored in Danie Mellor’s ceramic work Materially Cultured (an allegorical scene of a bastard history) 2008.

The Christian idealisation of paradise on earth and its notion of `first peoples’ is described within biblical stories of the Garden of Eden, introduced to Australia’s first people via the mission settlement program. The ideas inherent within story-telling as a means to understand creationism and our relationship to the Australian bush are themes explored in both Tracey Moffatt and Bern Emmerich’s work. While a secondary theme explored in the exhibition is around ideas of beauty, and the allure of ‘otherness’ as expressed through notions of skin, colour, and body modification. Paradise as an imaginary construct, necessitates an understanding of self within the picture of the paradisiacal landscape, and as such notions of beauty and self, play into how we perceive paradise, as a kind of unattainable place on earth.

Beauty as defined as belonging to someone ‘other’ or different to ourselves, has been a powerful tool for the beauty industry which has perpetuated cultural mythologies of whiteness in Asia at the same time as promoting tanning products in the West.  Ideas of beauty in relation to skin, is also relevant within Indigenous culture, where scarification was practised. These themes are explored in the exhibition in the work of Julie Bartholomew, Pat Brassington and Janet Fieldhouse.

Despite the looming prospect of environmental and social catastrophe, the exhibition title `Paradise Again’ points to the historical conceptualisation of Paradise on earth as a returning idiom which provides a mechanism through which the future can be envisaged as a better place. Through the SAM contemporary collection, this exhibition explores the idea of Australia and its future, as a kind of imagined paradise and foregrounds the fractured reality and shifts in cultural identity stemming from these ongoing themes.