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Darren Siwes

 
 
   

“To date, the artist’s signature style has been that of physically inscribing himself into the landscape as a ghostly or real Indigenous presence, and in moving beyond this to the landscape of the mind, the imaginary, Siwes is charting new territory. He is also moving into the private sphere and, as dramaturge rather than subject, explores restrictive bourgeois ideas of colour. Ideas many prefer to keep behind closed doors.”

(excerpt from Mum, I want to be Brown by Catherine Speck, 2006)

 
   
Works chronology  
   
Miscellaneous Misperceptions Just Is Mum I Want To Be Black Oz Ominum Rex Et Regina dalabon mulaga13  
     
Essays  
 
Once Upon A Time, A Little Bit Long Time Past by Brenda L Croft, 2013
 

Once upon a time, in a land far away from here, a few years before the end of the nineteenth century a baby boy was born into the British Royal House of Windsor. Although his name was Edward, his family and friends knew him as David. In 1936, he was crowned King of England, Edward VIII, but he remained on the throne for less than a year before abdicating in order to be with his already married mistress, American divorcée, Wallis Simpson.
However, a decade and a half before this momentous event another less well-known event allegedly took place. Immediately in the wake of World War I the twentieth Prince of Wales toured the Antipodes, as directed by King George V. Visiting New Zealand first, before travelling on to Australia, it was during a short sojourn in Sydney that the young Prince had a dalliance with a very beautiful socialite, Miss Mollee Little.
According to urban myth, which has only grown with passing time, Mollee and the Prince were inseparable during his time in Sydney and it was aboard HMS Renown that a child was sired. After parting ways Miss Little had a son the following year, supposedly the bastard child of the Prince of Wales.
There is a slight problem with this story - little David Anthony, known as Tony, was ostensibly not born until 1923, a year after Mollee had married Roy Chisholm and by which time the Prince of Wales had been gone from these shores for three years. Family connections remained however with the briefly crowned Edward VIII taking the role of Tony’s godfather and both families kept in touch over many years. Gossip continued throughout the decades regarding Tony’s heritage, particularly as his appearance seemed to mirror his supposed biological father, which for many was more than enough to be more fact than fiction:
They had the same easy smile, the same blond hair, same corset-and-cholera good looks. Dead ringers. The prince was also Tony's godfather, which some saw as a euphemism for a less-convenient truth.

Roy appears to have harboured an adventurous streak. Leaving his family behind after losing money on property in NSW, he went prospecting for gold in Queensland for a time, before his luck turned after winning a land ballot in World War II, securing Bond Springs Station north of Alice Springs.
It was here that Tony supposedly fathered at least two children to Aboriginal mothers, a girl, Barbara and a boy, Jimmy. This was a familiar occurrence on the frontier, with hundreds of mixed-race children resulting, many of whom were removed by authorities as part of the insidious policies enacted upon the Stolen Generations. The children of Tony Chisholm are known as Barbara Chisholm and Jimmy Anderson and their stories are readily accessible on the internet, so I do not feel that I write out of turn in naming them. Better to be named and known than to be denied.

In 1987 in Darwin I met Barbara, a stunning Aboriginal woman whose nickname was Barbarella. A friend of my cousin’s, Barbarella’s incongruous blonde hair somehow perfectly suited her beautiful dark-skinned features. We joked that surely she was the most attractive

Toohey, P, ‘A right royal bastard’, The Bulletin, 11 January 2008, further reading http://au.groups.yahoo.com/group/residentmonarchy/message/14

Murdoch, L, ‘Stolen children say time for apologies is past’, The Age, 4 June, 2004. Further reading, see http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/06/03/1086203564156.html

  Ibid as in 1

 

The Dalabon and the idea of perfection, by Marcia Langton, 2011
 

For at least a decade, Darren Siwes, now well known for his works of art using cibachrome phototechnology, 1 has been fascinated with various artists, philosophers and mathematicians from different ages who proposed ideas of perfection and the correlations between the divine proportions to be found in ‘man’ and nature.  This might seem unusual for an artist who is usually classified crudely as simply an Aboriginal artist. His ancestry is both Dalabon and Dutch, and he is equally proud of both as the sources of his cultural heritage. As these beautiful photographic works (Gicleé prints on Fine Art Pearl paper) demonstrate, the ideas of Euclid, Pacioli, and Leonardo da Vinci have enchanted him, but so too, the works of Plato and several others. Does perfection exist? Or is it an ideal? Despite the centuries-old debate on this binary, it is a fact that the concepts used by Siwes in these depictions of his Dalabon relatives in their landscapes near Weemol in the Northern Territory of Australia, the golden ratio and the Fibonacci number sequence, exist both as ideals and in the world. Many examples cited in the history of this strange concept have been disputed, but it is clear that there are recurring instances of the proportion in nature, one being the golden ratio expressed as fractal patterns in a type of crystal. 2

“The Golden Ratio”, or phi, discovered by Euclid more than two thousand years ago, is a remarkable mathematical proportion. In his great work, Elements, at Book VI, Definition 3, he defined the golden ratio in this way: ‘A straight line is said to have been cut in extreme and mean ratio when, as the whole line is to the greater segment, so is the greater to the less.’ This is also stated as ‘Two quantities are in the golden ratio if the ratio of the sum of the quantities to the larger quantity is equal to the ratio of the larger quantity to the smaller one.’ The golden ratio is an irrational mathematical constant, approximately 1.61803398874989. 3 Euclid’s idea of the golden ratio was later discussed by Pacioli in his work De Divina Proportione (Of Divine Proportion). Pacioli was a Franciscan friar who wrote De Divina Proportione in Milan between 1496 and 1498. It was published in Venice in 1509. The illustrations of the regular solids in De Divina Proportione were drawn by Leonardo da Vinci while he lived with and took mathematics lessons from Pacioli.

A 12th century Italian mathematician, Leonardo Fibonacci discovered the “Fibonacci numbers,” a sequence of numbers where each successive number is the sum of the two previous numbers. This begins with 1, and proceeds as follows: 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, etc. Mirroring the golden ratio’s mathematical constant, any given number in the Fibonacci sequence is approximately 1.618 times the preceding number. 4 This relationship between the golden ratio and the Fibonacci numbers is another fascinating aspect of the mathematical ratio that has gripped Siwes’ imagination. He uses the Fibonacci sequence, by arranging the images into groups of eight in this catalogue: ‘There are eight images of men, counting the cover, looked at one way and looking at it in reverse there are eight images of women, therefore remaining consistent with the Fibonacci/Divine sequence,’ Siwes explained to me.

In his artist’s statement, Siwes draws out the inspiration of the various ideas of beauty and perfection in these photographic works of his Dalabon kinfolk: ‘‘Vitruvian Man’ is about linking human form to perfection as shown through proportion, using the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio.’ In reference to Leonardo da Vinci’s illustrations of polyhedra in De Divina Proportione, he uses the idea of the golden ratio to frame his Dalabon kinfolk in the brooding landscapes of their country in the Northern Territory. They are framed in a circle and square, used together as a symbol of the essential symmetry of the human body, and by extension, of the universe as a whole as proposed by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in Book III of his treatise De Architectura. By framing them in the golden ratio, or divine proportion, he challenges ‘conscious and subconscious notions and viewpoints of perfection by layering it with less familiar Aboriginal cultural and Aboriginal social viewpoints and perspectives.’ His aim, he writes, is to infuse the perfect form of the ‘Vitruvian Man’ with Aboriginal culture, country, creation and religion. But as well, as rich, mythico-realist portrayals of people in place, the images also contrast divine proportion, or perfection, with the ideas about ‘racial inferiority’ that shaped the present day order of things for Aboriginal people and burdened them with social and economic inequity.  Such beautiful images are a stark corrective to this history.

For Siwes, Dalabon culture, which also poses ideals, believed at least by the Dalabon to be real, is the perfect place to express his own version of these principles. The Dalabon ideas of creation which are expressed in the sacred narratives are recast here by Siwes in his use of the landscapes. He was instructed by his Dalabon women relatives to have regard for the distinctly gender-specific ‘country’ of his people. After several injunctions as to where he may and may not point his camera, he photographed the Dalabon women in ‘women’s country,’ and similarly, under instruction from his brother, Johnny (who does not appear in the photographs), and other Dalabon relatives, he photographed the men in ‘men’s country.’

Such laws in the Aboriginal world have been inherited by present day people from ancestral beings. These ancestors are more than human, more than superhuman, and are responsible for the nature and appearance of the world as we experience it today. These wondrous ancestors, or nayunghyungki in the Dalabon language, established waluno, the absolute law, the rules governing the world. 5 Aboriginal people are descended from these beings, and are said to have some of their ‘essence.’ The division of places into men’s and women’s space is a part of this design that was established during a mysterious and enchanted period in the sacred past.
Language, too, is inherited from these ancestors. Nowadays speakers of Dalabon live in the communities of Weemol and Beswick (where Siwes visited while working on this project), and also Barunga, all in Arnhem Land, a former reserve that has been returned to the traditional owners as special Aboriginal titles held by Aboriginal trusts. The communities are located east of the town of Katherine. The Dalabon residing at Weemol returned there in the 1970s. This was an important centre of Dalabon culture and the return to this homeland marked a turning point in their postcolonial history. The linguist Dr Ponsonnet recounts, ‘When farmers eventually colonized that area, the populations living there were deported to settlements (villages created and managed by the government) closer to Katherine. Some speakers returned to Weemol in the 70s, while others remained in the old Beswick and Barunga settlements.’ 6 

It is possible to understand, then, the great commitment to being in ‘country’ that the stances of the Dalabon subjects display in these photographs. And we are better able to understand Siwes’ commitment to showing their relationship to their country by posing them as ‘Vitruvian’ men and women. They are expressions of the ancestral and sacred order of things.

Marcia Langton

 

1  The artist wrote to me to answer my question about how to describe the photographic process. His reply was as follows: ‘Cibachrome images can be described as images which are exposed from transparencies rather than negatives, essentially it is a positive to positive print process. This is how I used to print images in earlier works where I photographed at night. The process is almost obsolete and there are very few people still printing this way.’
2  See UR: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-01/haog-grd010510.php; Accessed 15 September, 2011.
3  For an account of the golden ratio, see Mario Livio, (2002). The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, The World’s Most Astonishing Number. New York: Broadway Books
4  For the source of this information, see URL: http://www.investopedia.com/terms/f/fibonaccilines.asp#ixzz1XziLTnhV; Accessed 15 September, 2011.
5  See ‘A few words in Dalabon’ at URL: http://www.sorosoro.org/en/dalabon; Accessed 15 September, 2011.
6  Dr Maïa Ponsonnet, Centre for Research and Documentation on Oceania (CNRS, Marseille) & Australian National University (Canberra) at URL: http://www.sorosoro.org/en/dalabon; Accessed 15 September, 2011.

Bibliography

Euclid, Elements, available at URL: http://aleph0.clarku.edu/~djoyce/java/elements/elements.html; Accessed 15 September, 2011.
Livio, Mario (2002). The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, The World’s Most Astonishing Number. New York: Broadway Books

 

 
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A Profile of Symbolic Exchange, by Ric Spencer, 2008
 

Oz Omnium Rex Et Regina is a new series of works from Darren Siwes, new in so many ways it could be called a rupture in his methodology. Gone is the time-lapse photography Siwes has made his own, subsumed on this occasion by the solidity of a political proposition. What if a future head of state were Aboriginal? What if the Obama aura that is currently sweeping the USA spread to the land down under? What if, What if? Hope springs eternal.

Siwes’ new series of works is timely, post Sorry Day we must now give ourselves, as a nation, the opportunity of looking forward, pondering if you like new possibilities. In its materialism perhaps Oz Omnium Rex Et Regina is a rupture in Siwes’ methodology but in its consideration of his cultural history this series again questions the combined elements of the artist’s Dutch background and Aboriginal heritage. It is a mix of the classical and the nostalgic, of rule and deprivation, and throughout the legacy of his own work Siwes has contemplated himself as a counterpoint, a nexus even, of these two political positions.

In this combination of Dutch and Aboriginal history we may also augment a discussion
on exchange value. The Dutch of course colonised through trade, setting up that bastion of industry The Dutch East India Company. Its base in Jakarta brought wide spread trade to South East Asia but of course trade with Indonesia was something the Aboriginal people of the North were doing long before the Dutch East India Company arrived. The Dutch and the Aboriginal past give us vivid examples of the power of exchange and its value as a bench mark of worth and respect, and this pursuant of exchange is I think a consistent in Siwes’ work.

In past work his own body has been a transition on the land, here the point of exchange was the landscape and his body. In Siwes’ last series positions of power and subjugation were questioned through the exotic nature of trends and his son’s wish to be brown. Here the point of exchange was again the body, but this time the diffusing of colour as bodily fluid. In Oz Omnium Rex Et Regina the body is once more at the point of exchange, this time in the guise of economic exchange – as the coin.

The coin, as it jingles in our pockets, is easily recognisable for its exchange value.
Perhaps more so it should be recognised for its symbolic value. The coin has a unique place in the history of Australia, for instance its relationship with two-up represents the history of chance and providence in our cultural memory. The coin also has a special symbolic relationship with portraiture. Siwes’ photography has long held a humanist fascination with the classical past, in this series that extends back into the realm of the seal and the profile portraits of Greco-Roman antiquity. Long before the Caesars had their profiles rendered on currency Alexander had discovered the power of the face and its ability to unite, at least symbolically, various tribes under his rule. Alexander’s profile has become uniquely iconic, past down as it has been through antiquity to give us an example of the power of the portrait. The side profile exacts moral rectitude, its upright posture given the head an imperial air, a moral right to power. Interestingly these characteristics are upheld in the Lavater’s pseudo-scientific Essays in Physiognomy.

The side profile also exacts a slight indignation, as if looking down from a superior position. This is a reminder that the worth of the coin is not just measuring economic value but also the worth of the featured imperialist. In his use of the high art veneers of gold, silver and bronze, the artist’s enquiries into the qualities of classical art continue and, as the Olympics remind us, within classicism, metals register a scale of worth in their own right. The gold, silver and bronze of Siwes’ coins cleverly bring to mind another classical rote, that of the Great Chain of Being.

Within this classical imperialist theorem all things in the universe were given their “rightful” place in a chain of order. At the top of the pile was the emperor, king or queen.
Within the human scale first came man, second women, third boy and fourth girl, white was superior to black of course as the Europeans wrote it, and so it went on all the way down to the soil we walk on. In his metallic generational portraits Siwes not only gives us hope of future change but memories of past inditements.

Whether caricatured or genuine, Siwes’ portraits of possibility reference this history of the profile and its associated anthropological theorems. But, with typical Siwes wit, it is
difficult to position them as serious rallying points of change or as subdued irony of the politically inevitable. In Oz Omnium Rex Et Regina there is a serious attempt by Siwes to undermine his own humour, fully acknowledging his own cultural and family history. As equally as high powered profiles, these portraits could be mug-shots, indeed this is where we might encounter these faces in contemporary media, and as such question our stereotypical reactions to cultural representations. In being presented with the obvious entrapments of our own social expectations, Siwes critiques our notions of social class, of economic management and the possibility of cultural change. These are deep, resonating
issues and only a deft hand at dry humour could examine them in the way Siwes has.

The humour in these photographs is only skin deep, reinforcing Siwes’ investigations into his own practice and his ‘respectful’ affair with the camera. By stepping away from his time-lapse photography and his night time, set like theatre documentations, Siwes has created a body of work that is richer and more complex for the move. In creating reliefs as a form of photography Siwes has given us a history lesson on the shift of the portrait’s power from the sculpture of antiquity to contemporary media. These images embrace the tactility of sculpture only to move to the lustre of photography –the very position in which the political power of the image exists today.

Ric Spencer

July 2008

 
 
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Mum, I want to be Brown, by Catherin Speck, 2006
 

Australian art is rich in images of displaced people and racial exclusion. Just a few years after settlement, it was clear who lived inside and who was outside - look carefully at what early nineteenth century artists such as Augustus Earle and von Guerard show. Photography too perpetuated social demarcation and exclusion. Aimed at European viewers, it was unambiguous in its power relations or what Nicholas Thomas calls 'the passing [on] of race'.

In his latest body of work, Darren Siwes explores issues of race and space in a seemingly playful way. He sets up an uncanny, outside space in which middle class mores of this era are on display. And the results are not pretty. His subjects are children whose imaginary world is one where being brown is desirable. Their world is not yet tainted by prejudicial family and social codes, although the photographs explore those tensions aplenty.

To date, the artist's signature style has been that of physically inscribing himself into the landscape as a ghostly or real Indigenous presence, and in moving beyond this to the landscape of the mind, the imaginary, Siwes is charting new territory. He is also moving into the private sphere and, as dramaturge rather than subject, explores restrictive bourgeois ideas of colour. Ideas many prefer to keep behind closed doors.

The idea of brown-ness, somewhere between a light and mid tan is desired by many non Indigenous Australians. It's a fashion statement. It's also an easy, wash-and-fade state of being. You can buy it in a bottle, find it in solarium or even spend periods sunbathing to reach just the desired tone. And if you don't like it, it goes away over the winter. This isn't the kind of brown-ness Siwes is exploring. He is of Dutch/Indigenous Australian background and his own brown-ness, somewhere along the black/white continuum, is the more permanent kind; the kind you’re born with and the kind you suffer taints for having over the course of your life.

In wearing brown masks, the children take on new identities and inhabit a world where things could have been otherwise. Their fantasy becomes their reality. Terra Nullius shows a black Captain Cook settling in a land with no 'real' occupants - only white inhabitants whose power is void. In They Played Follow The Leader the children's world is one where black citizens lead a newly federated nation, while the white outsiders look on. The children's masks as the stuff of dress-up take them into make-believe territory, so in My Imaginary Friends a young girl imagines having afternoon tea only with her Indigenous friends. Her stiff mannerly middle-class parents cease to exist.

Beliefs about colour have motivated a range of erroneous practices including eugenics, assimilation and the most blatant of all - the White Australia Policy. Despite some cosmetic changes, these beliefs set in motion cruel practices that members of the Stolen Generation still live with and which are alluded to in the ostensibly playful game We Made A Mission Truck And Took Them For A Drive. In other photographs, viewers feel the dramatic tension ensuing from a mis-match between parental attitudes about whiteness and their having a 'coloured' child (in brown mask) in Praying For Her Soul and She Got A Homily But Didn't Understand, but has the situation changed?

These children have the freedom of spirit to explore other modes of colour and,
via the mask, realise what Nicholas Mirzoeff suggests - 'if there were no race to rely on, the structures of difference upon which much of western society is based would be radically changed'. They play the time honoured game of doctors and nurses and enact a colour pigment change, or imagine they do so, in She Gave Her A Brown Transfusion. They explore other aesthetic values. In They Were Playing Mirror, they see only the black face reflected back and ask:

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most beautiful of all?

These photographs simulate nineteenth century culture but expose much more than that. They disrupt vision and reduce ideas of whiteness to a blinkered bourgeois respectability. Siwes is a master of dramatic lighting, but he also employs subtle inversions and a lively fit of image and text to energise the images. They ooze with middle class trappings, oscillate smoothly between fantasy and reality and can’t help but leave their mark. But why does it take children to suggest other worlds?

Catherine Speck, 2006
A/Professor & Reader in Art History
University of Adelaide
Thomas, N. and Losche, D. (eds) Double Vision: Art Histories and Colonial Histories in the Pacific, Cambridge University Press, 199, p. 10.
Mirzoeff, Nicholas, Bodyscape: Art, Modernity and the Ideal Figure, Routledge, London, 1995, p. 160.

 
 
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Uncanny: Darren Siwes's Just Is series of photographs, by Ian McLean, 2004
 

In these cynical postmodern times artists struggle to find a belief, tradition or even school that might mentor, cultivate or test their talents. Not so Darren Siwes. Acutely aware of his own historical origins, and consciously working a field assiduously mapped by an earlier generation of urban Aboriginal artists, he has developed a unique idiom. This is partly why he has the confidence to stay the distance with the particular theme and format he has worked with since graduating from art school, and why he continues to milk so much from it. Elements of Brenda Croft's photography can be glimpsed in Siwes's compositions, but his aesthetic temperament seems most aligned to the work of Gordon Bennett. Siwes's work is, like Bennett's, very studied, very concerned with pictorial and textual language (immediately evident in the titles of his works), and with themes of philosophy, history, colonialism and a type of post-Aboriginal identity that seeks to move beyond the colonialist essentialising of identities and towards more complex and nuanced postcolonial frames of reference.

One's own place, it is often said, is better seen from a distance. Not surprisingly then, Siwes's work made since his recent return to Australia from a year in Europe (undertaking postgraduate study in London), addresses the typical antipodean theme of the relationship between here and there. If generally Australians and the British agree on the stark differences between the two places, Siwes detects uncanny resemblances - a doubling or echoing alluded to in the title of this exhibition.

Siwes is a master of the uncanny. Lit by a haunting metaphysical light, his dark night images of deserted zones are exemplars of the unhomely. This eerie atmosphere, a trademark feature of Siwes's photography, was first perfected by turn of the (previous) century Symbolist painters such as Bocklin (e.g. his immensely popular Isle of the Dead). As if time-travelers from another era, the ghost like figures in Siwes's photographs appear before us like messengers we cannot hear. Indeed, given their persistent Victorian and Edwardian settings, Siwes's photographs recall the spirit photography of these times, in which spirits of the dead called up in séances were photographed for their grieving relatives. However Siwes does not photograph the ghosts of relatives, but the shadowy after-life of history – or more accurately, of Siwes's own historical consciousness. Acutely aware of his Aboriginal/Dutch descent and the global migrations and histories it implies, he is burdened by a corrosive (rather than affirmative) history; and this melancholy fate sets the mood of his artworks.

Like Bennett, Siwes is a 'history painter' (in the traditional art historical sense of the term); though unlike Bennett Siwes adheres more strictly to its original neo-classical premise. His work seems preoccupied by the neo-classical legacy of Australian colonialism. Despite the often modern dress of his models, the setting is invariably the turn of the century neo-classical style of Australian Federation architecture, and particularly its more stolid institutional manifestations that still dominate the city of Adelaide where he grew up and lives. The classicism of his images goes beyond the architectural setting. The strong perspectival space, along with the stark dramatic chiaroscuro and stiffly posed figures, recall the more austere traditions of Renaissance classicism. If Bill Henson is the Rubens of contemporary Australian photography, Siwes is its Poussin.

Siwes's neo-classicism extends to the more esoteric symbolism in his work. Deeply interested in the mystical ratios of ancient Greek thought (e.g. the golden mean) and the legacy of Platonic thought in the racism that informed Australia's coming into being, Siwes discovered the same legacy in European thinking and society during his recent study there. Plato's footprints were all over the place; and his relentless march down the ages echoed all the way to the Antipodes. Plato's artless Republic, a Utopian society of heirarchy and sameness that inspired neo-classical thought of the nineteenth century, is directly referred to in the masks worn by the models in Siwes's photographs. Plato proposed three classes or orders: gold (philosophers, priests, kings), silver (aristocracy and military), and bronze (workers and peasants), and warned against the mixing of these orders. That we can't tell if the masks are gold, silver or bronze is enough to tell us that Siwes's neo-classicism and devotion to 'history painting', is deeply ambivalent. It at once displays an authentic historical consciousness and an ironic attitude towards its lessons. Like Bennett, Siwes uses 'history' against itself; his images deconstruct the historical triumphs of colonialism.

Siwes's obsession with the turn of the previous century (one of his photographs is titled '1901') is not difficult to locate. It is the moment of Australia's Federation, when the White Australia policy became law and South Australian Aborigines lost whatever rights they still had. Siwes's work to date, and in particular this body of work, can be considered an interrogation of this historical moment, as if by imagining himself there he might understand its legacy in his own life. In a sense his photographs are self-portraits – he is the suited standing man in all the images. However they tell us little about the man Darren Siwes. As 'history paintings' these are not about individuals but about wider and more universal forces that comprise the ancient genre of tragedy from which 'history painting' derives. Siwes might be the model of this suited man standing erect, but no matter how strongly we may recognize his Aboriginal features in some of the images, it is an image of anonymity – much like Bennett's alter-ego John Citizen.

More correctly, this image of a suited man vainly seeks anonymity. Whatever Australia's multi-cultural ideal, a person with Siwes's facial features (that figure so prominently in his photographs) cannot, in Australia, escape their Aboriginality. Thus the burden of history Siwes's bears, and the uncanny quality of his figure, as if it stands sentinel like for some loss that cannot be recovered. Unlike most of us, Siwes cannot be anonymous, cannot be invisible. He can never feel at home here, in Australia, as if he is the medium of troubled spirits.

Siwes's desire to feel what it is like to be a white Australian, to be invisible for a while, was an important part of his attraction to living in England. This is why he depicts himself in the background of the photographs taken in England, while in the Australian images he is thrust in the foreground. However Siwes found nowhere to hide in Europe. Like other Aboriginal artists who have spent some time there, he was frequently (mis)taken to be of Middle-Eastern origin. For some otherness is difficult to escape no matter where they are. This is because the same alienating relations of otherness are now ubiquitous across the globe. This exhibition of alternating images from England and Australia tellingly shows how similar the two places are, how even one hundred years ago a white mythology had already spread across the globe.

The success of Siwes's project owes much to its photographic format, because with it he has managed to evoke the texture and nuances of his subject, to make us feel its presence. This is partly due to photography's place in the confluence of historical events that concern Siwes's project. The turn of the previous century, when the British Empire was at its height, and Australia was being forged as a new star in Britannia's crown, was also the era of photography. Siwes even lumbers himself with the limits of nineteenth century photography: large format camera and long exposure times. The stiff poses of his models, the strange emptiness, stillness, and over-exposed light areas of the scenes, and the ghost like figures are all evidence of this. Further, it is difficult to imagine these images in any other format. The central importance of perspective and dramatic chiaroscuro (two of his favourite artists are Piero and Caravaggio) in the meaning of his images locks them into the prehistory of photographic imaging. Thus Siwes's images would not carry the same resonance of meaning if they were either paintings, digital images or videos. That they are modern Cibachrome photographs only enhances his project. It is not just a matter of Cibachrome's superior imaging quality. More important is the highly crafted nature of the photographs so evident in these prints. They have that olden-day feel of being printed by a master-printer; and achieve an aura especially evident in nineteenth century photography: an aura that enhances the very uncanniness Siwes searches for. The resulting fetishistic quality makes his photographs true icons of that absence of place that forever troubles Australian identity.

Ian McLean, 2004

 
 
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Made in His Image: the Photographic Art of Darren Siwes, by Christine Nicholls, 2001
 

Artist Darren Siwes graduated in painting and photography at the University of South Australia in Adelaide. Siwes, an Australian of Aboriginal (Ngalkban, from near the Katherine region in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory) and Dutch descent is now in his thirties, and currently works as a lecturer in painting and drawing at Tauondi College. Tauondi is an all-Aboriginal tertiary institution situated in Adelaide's western suburbs. In recent years Darren Siwes has emerged as one of Australia's leading young contemporary Indigenous photographers, and his work has become increasingly known and exhibited throughout Australia.

Adelaide is the home of the Kaurna people. Siwes' distinctive images of Adelaide's urban milieux, landmarks and cultural landscapes, into which he places his own image as a kind of uncanny, ghostly, but also, epiphany-like contemporary Aboriginal presence have become emblematic of his photography. What renders these photographs "distinctly Siwes" is his absolute refusal of the stereotype: Siwes' "contemporary Aboriginal man" most emphatically does not stand on one leg, clad in nothing but a loincloth, holding a fistful of boomerangs and spears while looking longingly out at the blue beyond towards the hopping kangaroos on the Adelaide Plains. Instead, Siwes' Aboriginal Man wears a suit and tie, or sometimes an elegant long coat, looking for all the world like he would be equally at home in the privileged world of Vogue fashion shoots, or attending business lunches or church on Sunday. In fact, the persona being projected is somewhere between the younger versions of Jeff Kennett and Jimmy Little - conservative, quietly composed and in control, and calmly looking out at the viewer. An unequivocally contemporary presence, this man belongs in the world that he has created with his camera.

This youngish man frequently announces himself to the world by standing frontally and looking straight at the camera, and therefore, by extension, towards the viewer. Siwes arranges his shots like that - there is a high level of intentionality in every photograph. Each shot is thoroughly and painstakingly composed - there is nothing accidental or left to chance about where Siwes places his camera in relation to the buildings and monuments that he photographs. Darren Siwes carefully selects his sites and chooses where to place his camera, and the choice is always a strategic one. Equally, the leitmotif 'man in the photograph' is at the same time phantasmagoric and real; a mnemonic trace, but also, a substantial, living presence. It is the tension that exists between Siwes' subject matter - the continuing Indigenous presence on this land at contemporary sites of significance - and his presentation of glossy images of well-known locations in today's Adelaide, which gives his photographs their special edge.

In his work, Darren Siwes manages to be intensely personal yet also to speak on a broader artistic level. For example, one does not need to know that Siwes is of Ngalkban heritage, or even to identify him as the figure in the landscape to appreciate these works. Moreover, whilst his locations are instantly recognizable for those who live in Adelaide, it is quite possible to appreciate Darren Siwes' remarkable photographic images with little or no understanding of Adelaide's cultural geography. Neither does one need to be well versed in recent local Kaurna history, although such knowledge brings with it an extra dimension of insight into Siwes’ art. At the same time, Siwes' photographic subject - the figure in the landscape - also acts as a kind of narrator. What exactly we as viewers, might learn from that narration depends on the extent to which we are prepared to apply ourselves, to free ourselves from misrecognition and stereotypic understandings, in other words, it is dependent on our willingness to decolonize our own minds. That is the implicit challenge of Siwes' art.

The strength of Darren Siwes' images arises at least in part from his ability to tap into the collective Indigenous memory, compressing time and space through the camera's eye in order to challenge what has been described as 'the white blindfold view of history'. Yet Siwes' images are never overtly polemical or even political, except in the broadest sense of that word.
With his camera Siwes specifically targets what could be regarded as the most representative "sacred sites" of the white man in the Adelaide area. These include Adelaide's Rundle Mall, adjacent to its famous "Beehive Corner", a popular meeting place for members of the Adelaide bourgeoisie; the city's solid Victorian buildings, the stately private homes of its respectable burgers, including merchants, bankers, doctors, and clergy; the institution of the Christian Church, a predominantly white spiritual meeting place in what has been described as "the City of Churches'; and finally, that holy of holies, the War Memorial, where the heroic deeds of the (mostly) non-Indigenous dead, the fallen, are enshrined and commemorated. In his "Visions", (1m x 1.2 m, cibachrome print), Siwes has placed himself in front of a television satellite dish, enclosed by barbed wire fencing. It is not accidental that this plant represents an important source of social communication. In all of Siwes' photographs, no matter what the location, there is evidence of a pre- and still-existing Indigenous presence, and that presence is a confident one.

As Catherine Speck has written in regard to Siwes' work "Stand (monument)":

...the Australian landscape is dotted with war memorials to men who fought in the
First World War: monuments that became the public art of the era. Darren
Siwes's photographic image of himself inserted into such a landscape in
Stand (monument) points to the tenuous place indigenous soldiers have in the public memory, which honours Australians who went to war. In this haunting portrayal, the black Australian whose body is both ethereal and corporeal literally echoes the form of the stone monument. He stands firmly, but with less authority. (Art Monthly Online, November 2000).

Technically, a great deal goes into the making of each photograph. Siwes describes this very labour intensive process in the following terms:

...My photographs are timed exposures, which are taken generally at night. These exposures vary in time somewhere between 30 seconds to 5 minutes, depending on the source of light. The ghosted effect happens because I am not in the photograph for the whole exposure. These images aren’t superimposed as they are one whole image. Although an image is a result of one shot, it usually takes a few nights to get the right image as the first
shot is often not quite right. The trick in getting the right shot or getting the effect you want is the light - that is, you must light the subject in a way that...leaves an image on the film.

(Personal Communication, Darren Siwes to Christine Nicholls, January 5th 2001)

While the buildings and sites that Siwes' focuses on in his photography are extraordinarily representative, his work could by no means be described as documentary, photorealist or neo-realist. By incorporating his own figure into the landscape Siwes' photographs attain a cinematic, dream-like, even surreal quality, bringing to mind the work of late 19th/early 20th century French photographer Eugene Atget, who photographed streets and buildings in Paris, leaving the faintest trace of his own presence in many of the works. Siwes' photography also evokes certain of the works of Tracey Moffatt (notably her “Pet Thang’ series and some of her films, particularly the trilogy BeDevil). Moffatt is an artist whom Siwes greatly admires. Siwes cites his most important influences however, as being Jeffrey Smart and Piero della Francesco:

..These two artists in particular have influenced me most as they both paint urban landscapes, buildings signs and so forth, with people placed in them. They are also precise about composition. Everything in their paintings is calculated. I also like Jeffrey Smart's work on the conceptual level...

(Personal Communication, Darren Siwes to Christine Nicholls, January 5th 2001)

Other artists whose works have made a strong impression on Siwes are Gordon Bennett and Harold Thomas, although it is more difficult to identify their specific influence on his own work in terms of either style of composition.

To conclude, in his photography Darren Siwes has fashioned a mode of visual expression, a distinctive style that is both autonomous and exemplary. The characteristics of this style include a high level of staging of each shot; a particular juxtaposition of the animate and inanimate within each frame, and a repetition of the presence of the photographer himself, as a figure in a landscape which encompasses carefully selected buildings or other elements of the present-day built environment. The fact that the spectral figure (Siwes) wears a well-tailored suit is significant in terms of the meaning and deconstructive purpose of his photography, because even a generation ago suits were often not affordable by many Australian Aboriginal people. A plethora of early colonial photographs show Aboriginal men wearing the cast-off, ill-fitting hand-me-down suits of well-heeled whites, and Siwes' photographs intrinsically challenge that historical and optical legacy and the pervasive stereotyping arising from this practice. Siwes’ figure in the landscape has dignity and authority, and his choice of clothing confirms and enhances his claim on the social space. These are among the many potent reasons why Siwes’ photographs have the capacity to disrupt powerful and entrenched stereotypical thinking about Indigenous Australians and their contemporary identities. While the word "iconic" has been greatly over-utilized in recent times, the extra-ordinary photographs of Darren Siwes are well positioned to become precisely that.

Christine Nicholls, 2001

References

Speck, Catherine, Review of ‘Chemistry’ Chemistry: Art in South Australia 1990-2000
Art Gallery of South Australia, 16 September - 5 November 2000, in Art Monthly Online, , , November 2000 (National Editor evin Murray, online November 2000-present)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
[essays should not be reproduced without permission from the authors]
   
 
 
BIOGRAPHY
1968 Born Darren Siwes
1992 Studies at Adelaide Central School of Art , South Australia
1996 B.A. Visual Arts (Honours), University of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia
1997 Graduate Diploma of Education, University of South Australia, Adelaide, South Australia
1997-2001 Senior Lecturer in Painting and Drawing, Tauondi Incorporated
2002 Anne & Gordon Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarship
2003 MA in Fine Art, Chelsea School of Art , London
2007 Winner, Redlands Westpac Art Prize
   
 
SOLO EXHIBITIONS
2013

Mulaga Gudjerie, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide

2011

Dalabon Biyi / Dalabon Dalok, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide
Dalabon Dalok, Nellie Castan Gallery, Melbourne

2009

OZ OMNIUM REX ET REGINA Nellie Castan Gallery, Melbourne

2008 OZ OMNIUM REX ET REGINA, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide, Australia
Mum, I want to be Brown, Turner Galleries, Perth, WA
Mum, I want to be Brown, Magnan Projects, New York
2007 Mum, I want to be Brown, Nellie Castan Gallery, Melbourne
2006

Mum, I want to be Brown, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide, Australia
Selected works from Mum, I want to be Brown, Project Space CIRCA 06 (Greenaway Art Gallery), Puerto Rico

2005 Just Is, Nellie Castan Gallery, Melbourne
Just Is, 24HR Art, Darwin
2004

Just is, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide
Just Is, Church Gallery, Perth
Born Of A Lexicon, Government House, Adelaide

2002 Mis/Perceptions, Garage Regium, Madrid, Spain
2001 Mis/Perceptions, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide
Mis/Perceptions, Nellie Castan Gallery, Melbourne
 
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS
2013

Debil Debil, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Sydney

10 Years 30 Residencies, Turner Galleries, Perth

2012

Long Way Home: a celebration of 21 years of Yunggorendi, First Nations Centre, Flinders University Art Gallery, Adelaide

2010

The New New: Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, The Gallerie, Adelaide
Brought to Light: The Lock-Up Cultural Centre, Newcastle

2009

Making Tracks: 20 years of South Australian Art, Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Adelaide
Integration and Resistance in the Global Age, 10th Biennial of Havana, Cuba

2008-9

Open Air: Portraits in the landscape, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Half Light: Portraits from Black Australia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

2008

Scope Basel, Switzerland, (Greenaway Art Gallery stand)
Shadowplay, Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery, New South Wales
Melbourne Art Fair, Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne

2007 Redlands Westpac Art Prize, Sydney, Australia
Identity: Portrait and Place - document or insight?, Flinders University Art Museum, Adelaide
2006 nEUclear reactions, Centro de Arte Caja de Burgos, CAB, Spain
Concord2, South Australian School of Art Gallery, Adelaide
Prism: Contemporary Australian Art, Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japan
Where Angels Tread, Contemporary Art Centre for SA, Adelaide
2005 Concord, South Australian School of Art Gallery, Adelaide
Prague Biennale, National Gallery, Prague, Czech Republic,
Urbanismo Sintetico, Photo Espana 05, Fernando Pradilla Galeria, Madrid
Preposession, Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Sydney; Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast
2004 Supernatural Artificial, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum, Of Photography, Tokyo, Japan
Theatricality, Art Summit Indonesia, Jakarta, Indonesia
Spirit and Vision, Essl Museum, Vienna, Austria
Images - Hedendaagse foto's door Aboriginal Kunstenaars, Aboriginal Art Museum, Utrecht, Netherlands
Adelaide Biennial of Art, Art Gallery of South Australia
2003 Face-up, Nationale galerie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin
Second Sight, Brisbane City Gallery, Brisbane
New view- Indigenous Photographic Perspectives, Monash Gallery of Art, Melbourne, Australia (touring)
2002 Recent Acquisitions, Adelaide Festival Centre
(The World May Be) Fantastic, Biennale of Sydney, Sydney
Kaurna Reconciliation Public Artwork, a collaborative work with 3 artists, Adelaide Festival Centre forecourt, Adelaide
2001 ARCO, International Art Fair, Madrid, Spain (Greenaway Art Gallery stand)
2000 Beyond the Pale: Contemporary Indigenous Art, Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia , Adelaide
Chemistry: Art in South Australia 1990-2000, Art Gallery of South Australia
1999 Living Here Now: Art and Politics, Australian Perspecta, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney
1998-99 Three Views of Kaurna Territory Now, Artspace, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide
Telstra 15th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Darwin and touring
1996 Guddhabungan, Jabal Centre, ANU, Canberra
96 Degrees, South Australian School of Art Graduate Exhibition, Adelaide
1994 10%, Artzone Gallery, Adelaide
 
COLLECTIONS

Adelaide Festival Centre, SA; Artbank, NSW; Art Gallery of South Australia, SA; Art Gallery of Western Australia, WA; National Gallery of Australia, ACT; Flinders University Collection, SA; Horsham Regional Art Gallery, VIC; Monash Gallery of Art, VIC; Queensland Art Gallery, QLD; Reina Sofia Madrid, Spain