Lives and works in Adelaide, South Australia
Language group: Ngalkban, Arnhem region
The influence of Darren Siwes' art continues to hinge around conflicting cultural hierarchies and class delineations in the context of place and identity. Siwes sees his work residing somewhere between truth and hypothetical, between reality and the imaginary and describes his work as 'Hypothetical Realism' where life in the real and life in the ‘what if’ can be intertwined. Within this context Siwes embellishes the truth by blurring the boundaries between opposing poles, to distort truth from untruths and to stir the comfortable in with the uncomfortable.
“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)
ONCE UPON A TIME, A LITTLE BIT LONG TIME PAST
BY BRENDA L CROFT
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
Murdoch, L, ‘Stolen children say time for apologies is past’, The Age, 4 June, 2004. Further reading,
Ibid as in 1
DALABON BIYI DALABON DALOK
THE DALABON AND THE IDEA OF PERFECTION
MARCIA LANGTON -
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.
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.
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
A PROFILE OF SYMBOLIC EXCHANGE
RIC SPENCER -
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.