Artist Chris Wyatt is a mate of Ric, who owns Egg Records, so I got to know him through his occasional visits to the store. In 2000, he had an exhibition of his ‘Myall Creek’ paintings in Newtown. I went along to quaff wine and pretend I knew something about art. My 1980s high school education dealt briefly with pre-invasion history of Australia, so, really, I had no idea about Myall Creek as a place of historical import. Thus, nothing prepared me for the bold, confronatational images hanging in the exhibition. Part of the opening involved members of an indigenous tribe arriving, unannounced, to perform a ritual to declare the event ‘open’ it was quite spectacular. Four years later, I discover that the Newtown exhibition comprised only two thirds of the series, that the entire series is being exhibited at the United Theological College, Charles Sturt University School of Theology, in North Paramatta. This latest hanging is significant: descendants of the massacre happen to be studying at the College, and so will be present for the opening. As fate would have it, I couldn’t be there myself, but was able to chat to Chris about the paintings and the opening, for radio.
According to Chris, the Myall Creek massacre fits in both “emotionally and structurally” with other work he has done – which includes paintings inspired by the brutal Anita Coby murder, and a series on the Sarajevo civil war. He is interested in painting ‘archetypal moments’ in peoples’ lives – those moments such as birth, death, grieving and marriage – that define and change people. Thus, his subject matter has in the past included pregnant woman, and he is currently working on the ‘stolen generation’. “It’s really the same thing,” he says, comparing the act of painting the Myall Creek massacre and the ‘stolen generation’: “I’m reconciling these terrible issues within myself.” With the Myall Creek paintings, he says, he certainly achieved that reconciliation.
The obtuse approach that I’ve taken was on purpose, because I wanted these paintings to relate to all people, so that they spoke to people – they didn’t just shock people, but they saw in them a human compassion, a kind of redemption in the blue of the sky in this big painting.
What I’ve done here compositionally is place the perpetrators in the foreground and the rear.
The foreground figures exclude the viewer from becoming one of the victims.
I’ve done that purposely so that the viewer isn't a victim, but becomes a perpetrator by standing by and watching, becoming a voyeur and, so to speak, a perpetrator.
I’ve also shown no detail.
They’re not didactic, they’re not gory in any way, they’re quite obtuse in the technique I’ve used compositionally.
And that’s so that people, again, feel they can relate to this scene without being horrified by it.
It’s not Goya’s Disasters of War.
It’s about people and everybody is a victim.
The exhibition continues until June 17. The following interview was broadcast on ABC NewsRadio on Saturday 29 May.
Demetrius Romeo: Chris, tell me what inspired the Myall Creek series of paintings.
CHRIS WYATT: Dom, I was living next to the writer Roger Millus. Now Roger Millus had written a book called Waterloo Creek which is about the conquering of New South Wales. Now in that book, there are several chapters on the Myall Creek massacres. I read that book and was profoundly affected by it. I spent the next ten years painting, trying to realise my revulsion at the way New South Wales had been conquered. And it took me really all that time to fully realise the paintings. The Waterloo Creek massacre itself was a government-sanctioned expedition by Major Nunn, in which 300 aboriginals were murdered. The aboriginals murdered at Myall Creek had a special relationship with the overseers of the property. They were living there. In fact, Ipita, the only known woman, was a lover of one of the overseers. So all this combined, inspired me to tackle this really difficult subject. It fitted in really well with my thoughts of where painting should go and what it should do.
Demetrius Romeo: Where should painting go? What is it that painting should do?
CHRIS WYATT: I think that painting in the Twentieth Century got away from what I see as one of its major premises, which is to educate. It should educate on moral and social issues, not only artistic and aesthetic ones. I think in the Twentieth Century, you certainly got away from that. For me, the Myall Creek massacre encapsulated the conquering of Australia. It had all the elements of our subjugation of indigenous people. Also, it's the first time that white men were hanged for the murders, and so not onlydoes it encapsulate the indigenous story, but also, the nature of the white story here in Australia, and I think it's as relevant now as it was then.
Demetrius Romeo: The paintings in the Myall Creek series are very dark, Chris. You use a limited palette of quite muted colours.
CHRIS WYATT: Dom, I'm a symbolic painter, so I use colour symbolically. When I started the Myall creek series, I was inclined to just do them in black and white, and as the series went on, the colour changed to evening shades. The evening shades were earth colours, the earth colours being an association of the indigenous people and their relationship with the earth, but also for me, the fact symbolically, that we are all part of the earth and we all go back to it. And so for me, colour is used in those symbolic ways rather than a representative way.
Demetrius Romeo: What do you hope to achieve with this series of paintings?
CHRIS WYATT: My initial aim was to speak to myself. I was so profoundly affected by Roger's book that I wanted to - within myself - have some reconciliation of the idea of this taking place. I also want to reconcile Australian people with the idea that this is how Australia was conquered. I mean, there is no doubt about this. The holocaust happened. People can deny it, but it did. And the holocaust for indigenous people certainly did happen too, and people in Australia still deny it. And that's exactly what I want these paintings to do: start a dialogue on both sides so that this issue can be laid to rest, so that Australia doesn't repeat its history. Because I think societies who don't come to terms with their past, are destined to repeat it.
Demetrius Romeo: What has the response been to the Myall Creek series?
CHRIS WYATT: It’s been an amazing response. I think people are finally ready to come to terms with this thing. Sue Blacklock, one of the descendants of one of the victims of the Myall Creek massacre looked at a big eight-foot by twelve-foot painting and said, 'this is what it was like' and that, for me, has been a fantastic response from indigenous people. I didn't know what indigenous people would think of these paintings when I painted them, and I felt great trepidation because I didn't know whether they would think this is their story, why am I telling it, they have ownership of this, and a white Australian shouldn't really go there. Well, they didn't feel like that at all. Indigenous people are so inclusive and patient with non-indigenous Australians, that I feel privileged to be able to tackle this subject and have them appreciate me for it.
As of 1 July 2004 the Myall Creek exhibition continues to hang. Interest, a result of the media coverage, has led to the artist selling work. There is a tone of amazement in his voice when he tells me this. More amazing for him is the fact that people who had initially expressed dismay and even dislike had come around to understanding and appreciating the work, the result of being able to get a handle on it through hearing the meaning and significance that the artist and other cultural and political commentators attribute to the work.
Which is always the way it should be.
In the song ‘Keep Undercover’ (from the 1983 album Pipes of Peace), that intellectual giant and philosopher Sir Paul McCartney posed the essential question,
What good is butter when you haven’t got bread?
What good is art when it hurts your head?
You might as well stay in bed!
The fact is, art that makes you think a little bit to appreciate it enables you to learn more and thus to appreciate more. And indeed, to dismiss more – but only the ‘more’ that consists of that which is artistically ‘less’.
So that’s why art that ‘hurts your head’ is good. As for butter in the time of no bread? Amongst its myriad uses, I recommend you take a tip from Marlon Brando’s character Paul in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris. (Hint: You may not have bread, but you’ll always have buns.)