DETAIL : Jimmy BAKER 'Katatjita' 2006 synthetic polymer paint on canvas, Courtesy of Marshall Arts Aboriginal Fine Art Gallery, � Jimmy Baker
Danie MELLOR | In memory (absentia)

Australia 1971
In memory (absentia) 2007
77.2 (h) x 36.0 (w) cm
Courtesy of the artist

Arabunna elder Kevin Buzzacott’s removal of the Australian coat of arms from Canberra’s Old Parliament House site in 2002 was a brazen act of protest, one for which he was eventually found guilty of ‘theft’ in Australian whitefella law. As an act of protest and provocation, however, Buzzacott certainly made his point – that it was indeed he who was provoked by the denial of Aboriginal sovereignty and spirituality implicit in the misappropriation of the kangaroo and emu.

Danie Mellor may not be so bold as Buzzacott in his antics but both the artist and activist reveal a similar spirit of provocation and reclamation, in this case realised through their focus on native fauna, most notably the kangaroo. The kangaroo has been a central and familiar motif in Mellor’s art, initially appearing in the meticulous drawings and prints through which he first came to critical attention over a decade ago. In these works the kangaroo is both a symbol of Indigeneity and Australiana: the former speaks of Mellor’s own connection while the latter, according to Mellor, belongs to the story of ‘how Indigenous people were co-opted into plans of settlement’. In this regard, the co-opting of the kangaroo as the icon of national identity aims to legitimise colonisation and its core mythologies: terra nullius, Darwinism, Enlightenment. The presence of the kangaroo bound to these narratives is also the political absence, the voicelessness of Aboriginal people.

Part of the appeal of Mellor’s earlier prints and drawings lies in his deliberate evocation of a colonial-style aesthetic, not so much a reclamation as a subversion of the colonial tools of trade. The illustrative tools for botanical and ethnographic science are for Mellor a means of investigating the past and iconising certain representations of his North Queensland Rainforest heritage. As a printmaker, Mellor’s preference for mezzotint is also politically inspired, as the discovery of this particular process coincided with colonial settlement in Australia.

In his research as a printmaker, Mellor came across the English company Spode, which revolutionised English ceramics with its use of hand-engraved copper plates to perfect blue underglaze printing and with its invention of fine bone china. The bone china became synonymous with the blue-and-white Willow pattern first adapted from Chinese patterns by Spode and other English firms in the late eighteenth century. Mellor recalls one early Willow design showing two kangaroos in an enclosure, apparently referencing an actual kangaroo breeding program in a Chinese zoo (that didn’t get too far as the zoo had been sent two male kangaroos). It is just one piece in the curious mosaic-puzzle comprising Mellor’s installation, which continues his critique of the ethnographic, museological and cultural construct. Signifying a moment of imperial reach (again contemporaneous with early colonial Australia), the Willow pattern appropriates Chinese mythology (a love story) for popular consumption. It is a visual trope of the ‘Chinese whisper’, the story and image so fragmented and bastardised through repetition and distortion that the original source no longer has currency.

Mellor’s ‘true blue’-and-white Willow wash shows just how enduring and embedded these whispers can become, perpetuated by the sheer force of numbers, status quo and blind, ‘parroted’ obedience. In his diorama-myth of national identity we are treated to new renditions of the kangaroo as it first appeared in his 2005 exhibition Voyages of recovery or an ongoing catalogue with moments of reason from the cabinet. They embody the process of cultural transplantation (and commodification), a travesty of nature or, at least, of totemic currency. Elements of the ‘real’ in the overall installation are the glimmer of authenticity needed to sustain such myths and processes, as well as Mellor’s critical and often lyrical recasting of taxidermy to challenge notions of ‘natural history’ and museum display.

The groundbreaking exhibition Story place: Indigenous art of Cape York and the rainforest 2003 was a turning point for Mellor, coinciding with his own extensive cultural research and providing an important context where, for instance, his reclaimed metal shields could be appreciated alongside historical examples and other contemporary rainforest shields by Michael Boiyool Anning and Paul and Stewart Bong. Mellor’s shields also provide an important context in this overall installation. Their origin in rusted travelling trunks may conjure an archaeology of dislocation, yet the shields also anchor Mellor’s identity. They symbolise Mellor’s Buzzacott-like resistance in this exhibition commemorating forty years since Aboriginal people first gained citizenship status, long after the official elevation of the emu and kangaroo.[1]

Maurice O’Riordan


[1] Kevin Buzzacott’s removal of the coat of arms in 2002 was also a commemoration of thirty years of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.