My last experience of putting paint on canvas was in secondary school
but Australia Day seems like a good day to get creative. I want
to capture something of who we are and how we see ourselves in 2004.
I've been visualising "We Australians" standing in a post-modern
global village; a village whose fabric is tested by climatic disasters
and violent upheavals of the human heart - terrorism, ethnic cleansing,
a stabbing on a city street.
This figure in the centre of the painting, like a Sir Sidney Nolan
"Ned Kelly", is one who is a part of yet stands out from
the landscape. This "We Australians" character can be
either male or female and while not uniquely Australian in all their
traits, they are distinctly Australian.
I am going to paint a central figure who no longer feels the alienation
of someone born on a distant shore. They are finding their way on
the world stage and they carry with them an independent streak and
an awareness of the need to do things their way entwined with a
sense of community, a sticking-by-your-mates loyalty - a Bali bombing
There's a "get out and do" fibre twitching in their DNA.
They can combine play and work, as the Sydney Olympics evidenced,
along with that other central tenet - approachableness (recall the
"friendliest games ever"?).
But how do I capture this person? Some things must be avoided. This
is a painting and I don't want to end up with a cartoonist's caricature.
So there will be:
- no akubra hat, even though they sell well and are practical in
a land of skin cancer;
- no beer in the right hand, although we still seem to "love
to have a drink with Duncan";
- no stubbie shorts, despite the fact we still cling to a working
class egalitarianism even as the gulf between the well-to-do and
the rest of us widens;
- no thongs (and I don't mean G-strings) despite my baby boomer
generation leaving limpid country regions to embrace the coast in
In the 60s and 70s these items would have been symbolic of a male
caricature but if I am to believe McLeod's Daughters most
of them now apply equally to women. Despite ratings that suggest
this image sits well with us and overseas perceptions, these are
not the accoutrements for our central figure in 2004.
So how do I paint "We Australians"?
Do I go for whorls of Ken Done colour juxtaposed to suggest balance
and confidence in the midst of incongruity?
Do I go for a surrealist image which shows someone who doesn't get
wound too tight, someone who doesn't take themselves too seriously;
yet below that surface they struggle to have a joke in a work environment
which demands more and more, to the point of soul weariness?
Do I go for a geometric, cubist figure that suggests someone sophisticated
in issues of sex and sexuality, art and culture, politics and economics,
development and the environment?
Do I go for a Koori image whose dots don't need to be joined to
evoke understanding because this person has a big view of their
small place in the world? There's a self-deprecating quality to
how they perceive themselves. They are creative and visionary. Unencumbered
by the dominance of the northern hemisphere imposing itself on the
world, they simply forge their own way in that world, in the world.
It seems I might have to resort to a "Ned Kelly" series
to express the multidimensional character of "We Australians",
especially if I am going to express the view that this person is
part myth, part aspiration and part reality. National identities
always combine these three elements.
not paint your own picture of Australian identity, whether
from your perceptions as an Australia or, if you live elsewhere
in the world, of your percerptions of Australians? Responses
can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
attributes like being matter-of-fact, saying what we think or not
being "airy-fairy" merge myth and aspiration with reality
like some alternate version of the three primary colours or the
textured layers of paint on the canvas.
And what landscape should our central figure be a part of, yet step
Being an east coaster and a southerner doesn't fully inform or encapsulate
the breadth of our wide brown land tied (tide) with a blue ocean
I could go for a Pro Hart actively sparse red-centre look or a Jeffrey
Smart minimalist industrial landscape. I almost need a Sydney Olympics
opening ceremony panalopy of images scattered in the background
to indicate place.
And then there is the history connected to place. How has our Christian
and carnal (charnel) roots added to our national psyche? Convict
family skeletons, once shunned, are now embraced. Other skeletons,
often black, have been dug over extensively to embrace forgiveness
and a better future. And on matters of forgiveness and wholeness
and fresh starts and better futures there seems to be a bit of Jonah
in us in that we tend to run from talk about Christ and faith.
You're recognising a pattern here aren't you? It's the same problem
as with the central figure. A Ned Kelly series is needed to paint
diversity, to capture time and place in a land of three time zones,
in a land of terrains more varied than Dorothy McKellar could eulogise,
in a land where multicultural history has merged with a black foundation.
But I like neatness. I like simplicity. I'd like one painting, hung
in the National Gallery, to express it all. "We Australians",
a painting you can identify with and aspire to be.
Maybe on this Australia Day you will help me out and paint a stroke
or two, rich in colour, on that canvas, just by being who you are
Harkness is associate editor at Sight.