MUM, I WANT TO BE BROWN
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 youâ€™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 canâ€™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.