Daniel Boyd’s solo exhibition Treasure Island, currently on view at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, is a deeply political and personal interrogation of Australia’s colonial history.
Boyd is a Kudjala, Ghungalu, Wangerriburra, Wakka Wakka, Gubbi Gubbi, Kuku Yalanji, Yuggera and Bundjalung, with ni-Vanuatu heritage. His work overturns the apple basket of accepted white Australian history and presents the mess of bruised fruit.
For many, the true stories of racism, exploitation and violence towards First Nations people in Australia will come as no surprise, but Boyd loads the data with emotion and affect.
One of the featured artwork features a large Aboriginal map showing several language group areas and with the words “Treasure Island” on its side. This refers to the imperial notion of Australia as Terra Nulliusa land of free resources to steal or mine.
Inspired by the iconic tales of Robert Louis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island and collector from what Boyd describes as “fetish objects of the Pacific” and countless ethnographic archival images, Boyd creates his disturbances.
The works on display reflect the breadth of Boyd’s critical investigation of the cosmos, patterned navigational charts, Plato’s cave allegory and dark matter in space and history.
We Call Them Pirates Out Here (2006) presents the viewer with a familiar image of Cook’s first landing at Kamay (Botony Bay), in 1770. Boyd re-presents Cook as a pirate, stealing unceded land illegally.
In Boyd’s hands, the scene becomes chaotic rather than messianic. But the stain of power is still there.
The false truth can be disturbed, but the violence has already been done. Decolonialism is not yet achieved.
Read more: Terra nullius interruptus: Captain James Cook and the absent presence in First Nations art
I asked Daniel Boyd if non-Indigenous people would ever be able to understand life in the same way as First Nations – as multiple and complex, as holistic and connected and as poetic? He has answered:
when indigenous peoples relate to the place, to the sea, the land and the sky, then this knowledge can be transferred.
Boyd’s exhibition is exactly this transfer of knowledge to the public. It features a central hall of artwork dedicated to Australia’s ‘blackbird’ period, when people from the South Seas islands were brought to Queensland as slave labor to work on the sugar cane plantations.
Boyd tells me that his own great-great-grandfather, Samuel Pentecost, was forcibly taken from Malakula Island, Vanuatu, and brought to Queensland to work without pay.
On the backs of slaves
In The Secret Medicines of Slaves, historian Londa Schiebinger writes that slaves were thrown into mass graves at the end of rows of cotton or sugar cane if they died of exhaustion or malnutrition on the spot. I read that slaves were only fed bananas or mute cane which caused their tongues to swell and the verbal reactions to stop.
As Boyd tells me, Queensland’s economy was built on the backbone of the free labor of First Nations and Pacific Island peoples. Wages were stolen and people were exploited.
Along with domestic servitude, this free labor created capital and profit for generations of white Australians.
Boyd continues these unsettling tales with a painting of an imperial ship, full of produce. The artist tells me that Joseph Banks “discovered” the Tahitian breadfruit as a species useful for feeding plantation slaves, so the breadfruit was transported aboard the ship Bounty to Jamaica, a another site of plantation slavery.
The brutality continued through Australian history and into Boyd’s own family line. Samuel’s son, Boyd’s great-grandfather, was stolen from his parents at Mossman Gorge and taken to Mission Yarrabah.
Boyd transfers an image of Harry Mossman, photographed by anthropologist Norman Tindale, for this exhibit. This is one of the most plain and simple portraits in the exhibition: it has a calm, proud and direct appeal.
Adjust our focus
Boyd’s use of tiny dots of glue on the surface of his works references traditional painting but also acts as lenses. These adjust our focus and help us see the real stories, no matter how painful, painful and shameful they are.
They are emblematic of how light (Western knowledge) can blind us to what we need to see (dark truth). The mostly white dots are portals to better see the hidden stories.
Boyd’s art dispels white Australian propaganda that erases information about slavery, the Stolen Generation and the early years of white settlement. He encourages audiences to see the true stories that lurk in the shadows.
It’s not easy, but facing the truth is the first step to decolonizing our Australian history.
Daniel Boyd Treasure Island is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales until January 2023.