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 Siwesâ€™ 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 arenâ€™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 â€œPet Thangâ€™ 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. Siwesâ€™ 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 Siwesâ€™ 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
Speck, Catherine, Review of 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