Gordon Bennett

Gordon Bennett quote 1

Born in 1955 in Monto, Queensland, Gordon Bennett lived and worked in Brisbane before his unexpected death in 2014. His bold and humane art challenged racial stereotypes and provoked critical reflection on Australia’s official history and national identity. Bennett was one of Australia’s most significant and critically engaged contemporary artists, addressing issues relating to the role of language and systems of thought in forging identity. He rejected racial stereotypes and freed himself from being categorised as an Indigenous artist by creating an ongoing pop art inspired alter ego, John Citizen, who he considered to be ‘an abstraction of the Australian Mr Average, the Australian Everyman’. In the late 1990s Bennett began a dialogue with the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a New York artist who shared with Bennett a similar western cultural tradition and an obsession with drawing, semiotics and visual language.

Untitled (dismay, displace, disperse, dispirit, display, dismiss) 1989
Untitled (dismay, displace, disperse, dispirit, display, dismiss)  1989

Bennett has combined six key scenes in the process of colonisation – the arrival of the fleet, the raising of the Union Jack, the murder, imprisonment and demoralising of Aboriginal people – with stencilled words that stamp the brutality of that process. Using a palette that successively darkens from white to black, he tracks the dismay of Aboriginal people at the invasion of their land to their dismissal as inhabitants of it, using the visual and verbal language of oppression that was integral to the colonising process. To ‘dis’ something in English means not only to disrespect; when used as a prefix it reverses and undoes the meaning of the root word, and can thus ‘refer to negation, opposition, separation, or deprivation’. The repetition of ‘dis’ in each word in Untitled (dismay, displace, disperse, dispirit, display, dismiss) sets up a rhythm; a beat which marches in grim lockstep with each image to its termination in the empty black square of ‘dismiss’.

Gordon Bennett quote

Angels 1993. Soft ground etching
Angels 1993, soft ground etching

Gordon Bennett’s art tackles and confronts the complex histories of European colonisation and the narratives of Western art history. His suite of soft ground etchings directly reference the early twentieth-century Russian artist Kasimir Malevich’s painting Black Square of 1915; and the French artist Yves Klein’s passion for the colour ultramarine blue. Historically, Malevich’s painting is considered ground zero; the complete erasure of representation to create a space of feeling and perception. In a related way, Klein’s obsession with ultramarine was an attempt to capture the boundless transcendence of the void, the skies and infinity. Depicting diving boards, angels and black squares Bennett’s etchings reference these utopian ideals, questioning whether it is possible to leap into these so-called essences of Western art history after more than 200 years of dispossession.

All text and images sourced from the MCA, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

Possession Island (Abstraction) 1991
Possession Island (Abstraction) 1991

Image source Tate Modern from article Five things to know: Gordon Bennett

Myth of the Western man (White man's burden) 1992
Myth of the Western Man (White man’s burden) 1992

On the blue-blocked sections are dates, the following information was provided by the artist:


1788 Colony established. Flag raised.

1796 First legally sanctioned massacre of Aboriginal people – Hawkesbury River area – troops sent from Parramatta.

1799 – First murder trial of five whites for the murder of two Aboriginal boys – found guilty but released – pardoned three years later.

1802 – Pemulwuy killed and decapitated, his head sent to England.

1803 – First colony established in Tasmania

1804 – First massacre of Aboriginal people in Tasmania, at Risdon Cove.

1813 – Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson cross the Blue Mountains into Wiradjuri land.

1824 – Massacres of Wiradjuri people.

1838 – Myall Creek massacre in northern New South Wales. First white man hung – against public opinion and in a retrial after acquitted in first trial – for the murder of Aboriginal people. This creates a climate of secrecy around further murders.

1857 – Yeeman people (near Roma, Queensland) massacred.

1861 – Largest massacre of whites by Aboriginal people in reprisal for hundreds of Aboriginal deaths, at Cullin-la-Ringo Station, Queensland by the Kairi people.

1869 – Tasmania, William Lanney – touted as the last Aboriginal male – died. His grave is looted and skeleton stolen.

1876 – Tasmania, Truganini – touted as the last Aboriginal female – died. Her skeleton is put on display (against her last wishes) in the Tasmanian Museum.

1928 – Coniston massacre in the Northern Territory, near Yuendumu. Those responsible vindicated in an official (cover up) inquiry ending 7 February 1929.

1971 – Yirrkala, Gove Peninsula, land rights thrown out of court.

1972 – Aboriginal Tent Embassy set up in Canberra. Gough Whitlam elected and Blue Poles by Jackson Pollack purchased for Australia (public outraged).

1976 – Truganini’s bones cremated and her ashes dispersed in the wind.

1992 – Mabo case is won – Terra Nullius overturned.

Information provided by the artist

Untitled (reference to Colin McCahon's 'Valley of the dry bones') 1988
Untitled (reference to Colin McCahon’s ‘Valley of the dry bones’) 1988
Notes to Basquiat (in the future art will not be boring)
Notes to Basquiat (in the future art will not be boring) 1999

Gordon Bennett’s paintings in the late 1980s and early 90s were informed by theories about appropriation – the borrowing of images from other artists and visual sources – and by post-colonial theories about identity and history. Appropriation allowed Bennett to refer to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal art, and situate his painting in a fluid area between these two overlapping forms of contemporary art.

Images and information sourced from Art Gallery of NSW

Triptych Requiem, Of Grandeur, Empire 1989
Triptych: Requiem, Of Grandeur, Empire 1989
If Banjo Paterson was black 1995
If Banjo Patternson was Black, 1995

Image sourced from QAGOMA, Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art

Further reading: Article written by Richard Bell for the Guardian


Author: awenewene

Renee Noble Maori girl living in Melbourne Visual Arts student concerned

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