In nineteenth-century Australia, portraiture enjoyed great popularity as colonists sought to record their presence and deeds for posterity. Early portraits sometimes presented people of rank and substance as well as those who had achieved success in the fast-growing colonies. A sitter might wear an abundance of gold jewellery to show off their success, while occasionally an inventive artist could give a sense of place to his subject with the inclusion of sprigs of native flowers.
Among the most confronting portraits from the colonial period are those of Indigenous Australians, representations that now appear deeply problematic. Photographers such as Henry King and JW Lindt realised the commercial potential for taking portraits of Indigenous people, both as romantic narratives and for contemporary anthropology. Benjamin Duterrau depicted aspects of the Aboriginal way of life and portraits of leaders and their relationship with British colonists. He sought to place the Aboriginal people within the tradition of history painting. John Glover was also acutely interested in Aboriginal people.
As the first peoples of this land contemporary Indigenous artists Julie Dowling, Rea and Vernon Ah Kee challenge the subjective Eurocentric history represented in these portraits. Their art is an intervention that expands the ongoing dialogue about our shared past and reminds us that history is not one-sided but multifaceted and infinitely complex. Dowling's depiction of Walyer and Ah Kee's text-based work assert Indigenous sovereignty. However, Rea's self-portrait is about rejecting and turning her back on the identity politics that was enforced on Aboriginal women during this period.