Bungaree: The First Australian is an exhibition of commissioned artworks by fifteen emerging and established contemporary NSW Aboriginal artists to acknowledge and critically re-interpret the story of Bungaree (1775-1830). Prominent curator Djon Mundine tasked the artists to investigate and establish a dialogue with one of colonial Australia’s most enigmatic and misunderstood figures, a Garigal man from Broken Bay who, in circumnavigating the content with Mathew Flinders (1802-03) was coined “the first Australian”. Nearly two centuries after Bungaree etched himself into the Australian consciousness, Mosman Art Gallery hosts a groundbreaking show seeking to uncover the man dotted in myth.
There are eighteen colonial portraits depicting Bungaree, making him the most painted figure in Sydney at the time, yet there has been no portrayal from an indigenous perspective – until now. Previous depictions (some politically and racially charged), from Pavel Nikolaevich Mikhailov (1786-1840) to Charles Rodius (1802-1860), have provided an immense source of information and influence for the exhibiting artists. In the words of artist Danie Mellor, “because your dealing with mostly historical accounts, there are elements of his character that remain quite enigmatic.” His distinctive military and naval outfits, alongside his gift for humour and mimicry, made him a popular subject for portrait painters. This is evident in Warwick Keen’s print, The many faces of Bungaree, taking the Warhol-esque multiple to Mikhailov’s drawing – eighteen powerful yet aesthetically contrasting portraits illuminate the way historical records are susceptible to manipulation.
[LEFT] Warwick Keen, The many faces of Bungaree. 2012.
[TOP RIGHT] Pavel Nikolaevich Mikhailov, Bungaree, 1820.
[BOTTOM RIGHT] Charles Rodius, King Bungaree, 1829.
The opening night, (Saturday, September 1), provided a positive reflection of each parties commitment to the project and an overwhelming sense of community support. I entered passing the function room, where attendees gathered in force to enjoy a glass of wine before the speeches would commence. I would seize this chance to wander the gallery and encounter the works alone and uninhibited – returning for the speeches and smoking ceremony.
The success of Bungaree: the First Australian undoubtedly rests within the range of unique interpretations – featuring artworks by Frances Belle Parker, Mervyn Bishop, Gordon Syron and Fiona Foley (among other notable inclusions). Nonetheless, my encounters with the work of Daniel Boyd and Danie Mellor held particular resonance. Boyd’s untitled video works delve into a visual experience that melds both figure and landscape. The meteoric movements of luminous dots allow the viewer to see the dark matter surrounding cultural objects, removing the predetermined consequences of a western viewpoint, Boyd stresses the viewer sees the complete cultural aesthetic.
Daniel Boyd, Untitled, 2012. HD Video.
Danie Mellor, Tempting Fruit (the peaches of Georges Heights), 2012.
Danie Mellor’s Tempting Fruit (the peaches of Georges Heights) proved both popular and thought provoking for many. Mellor illuminates the tropes of classical pictorial language – vanitas still life and the fruits of labour. The work shows Bungaree and his family in a surreal landscape of produce, which the artist describes as, “symbolic of the overwhelming importance that settler culture placed on the need to cultivate, propagate and transform the countries and territories of the First People."
One of the more unexpected elements this show provided was an unusual sense of empathy and clarity toward the life and story of Bungaree. Each of the fifteen artists have returned Bungaree to a point of centrality; a dot in a visual spectrum that has come to represent an understanding of this colonial narrative within twenty-first-century Indigenous experience.