Using the medium of painting, Helen Johnson weaves and overlays historical and contemporary signifiers to establish points of tension and reflection. Using large-scale paintings mounted to a structure that zigzags through the gallery, she creates an economy of images within and between paintings; some are given precedence, others made barely legible. The paintings are the size of theatre backdrops, in excess of the body, becoming sets before which to act.
In one painting, a man masturbates as the lyrics to the Australian national anthem are whispered into his ear: ‘for those who come across the seas we’ve boundless plains to share,’ a far cry from some of Australia’s current strict immigration policies. He stands before an image of Queen Victoria overlaid with handcuffs, whips and shackles used to punish colonial convicts. Hands reach from inside this image to smear the paintwork.
This body of work re-situates 19th century images of the White man as an imperialist brute, a sycophant and a greedy solipsist, scaling them up and reasserting them – they are the founding historical legacy for non-Indigenous Australians. The works repurpose and re-examine images of rituals used by colonists in an attempt to legitimise their occupation of Australia, ‘civilised’ procedures that thinly masked widespread massacres, dispossessions and attempted destructions of sophisticated, ancient cultures.
Prompted by the artist’s experience obtaining her ‘Certificate of Aboriginality’, Megan Cope’s video work ‘The Blaktism’ is a high-energy performance and ritual that sees a young female ‘fair-skinned Aborigine’ undertake a sacred ceremony in which she receives the rite of authenticity validated by authorities ever present in the Australian cultural landscape. The sacred ceremony itself results in a satirical cultural assimilation dance party whereby all Australians are liberated, celebrated equally and transgressively renewed through physical and gestural adjustments.
‘The Blaktism’ seeks to challenge audience members by showing the absurd nature of racial classification and disdain for cultural self-determination in the 21st century.