- Gordon Bennett 1955–2014
- Oil paint and acrylic paint on canvas
- Support: 1843 × 1845 mm
- Tate and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, with support from the Qantas Foundation 2015, purchased 2016
Possession Island No 2 1991 is a painting that shows the British explorer Captain James Cook and other compatriots hoisting the Union flag to claim the eastern coast of Australia for the British Crown in 1770. In this work Bennett directly references historical British sources, namely Samuel Calvert’s (1828–1913) colour etching Captain Cook Taking Possession of the Australian Continent on Behalf of the British Crown AD 1770 c.1853–64 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), which is itself a copy of John Alexander Gilfillan’s (1793–1864) earlier, now lost, painting of the same title.
This is the second of two works entitled Possession Island that Bennett painted following Australia’s bicentennial celebrations in 1988. For many Aboriginal Australians, these celebrations were instead received as a period of mourning and a time to remember the devastating consequences of colonisation on Aboriginal people. Possession Island is a small island off the coast of northern Queensland, near the tip of Cape York, the most northerly point of mainland Australia. Captain James Cook arrived there in 1770 and claimed ownership of the entire eastern coast of Australia in the name of King George III. Today a monument exists on the site commemorating his arrival. It is a monument that also unintentionally signals the subsequent dispossession of Aboriginal people from their homeland.
Typical of Bennett’s early work, the painting appropriates an existing picture, in this case an historical painting, and transforms the content with carefully considered signs of Aboriginal identity. In the first painting by Bennett, Possession Island 1991 (Museum of Sydney on the site of first Government House, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales), the only figure painted in full vibrant colour is an isolated Aboriginal servant holding a drinks tray. In Possession Island No 2 this figure is concealed and transformed into an abstract totem or geometric monument coloured with the signature black, red and yellow of the Aboriginal flag. This central motif governs the composition which, similar to Calvert’s original etching upon which the painting is based, is largely reduced to a schema of black and white forms. Bennett repositions the subject of the painting in other ways too, by including black footprints that diminish into the background of the composition. The absence of the Aboriginal servant and the scuttling footprints in Possession Island No 2 suggest the physical dispossession that was to follow once the British claimed ownership of the land. These signs can also be read as evidence that disputes the claim that Australia was discovered ‘terra nullius’ or ‘nobody’s land’.
Possession Island No 2 is representative of Bennett’s wider practice, which explores issues of post-colonisation and Aboriginal identity. The work is a copy of a copy of a copy. The process of translation from one version to the next mimics how history is endlessly translated and transformed by the vagaries of time and by individual perspectives. Bennett’s distinctive visual language repositions the subject of the work, claiming the Aboriginal perspective as central to the historical moment of the original painting. He has written of his approach to his work:
I began to use illustrations out of old social studies and history textbooks by way of critical intervention in the seamless flow of images that I plainly saw was designed to reinforce the popular myths and ‘common sense’ perspective of an Australian colonial identity and ‘pop’ history. I had in mind to create fields of disturbance which would necessitate re-reading the image, and the mythology.
(Bennett 1996, pp.34–5.)
Bennett’s practice include painting, printmaking, drawing, video, performance, installation and sculpture, and challenges racial stereotypes and critically reflects on Australia’s history (official and unacknowledged) by addressing issues relating to the role of language and systems of thought in forging identity. Within the context of Australian art, he freed himself from being categorised solely as an Indigenous artist by creating an ongoing pop art-inspired alter ego named John Citizen. After 2003 he moved away from figurative language to work in an abstract idiom (see Number Nine 2008, Tate T15515).
Gordon Bennett, ‘The Manifest Toe’, in Ian McLean & Gordon Bennett, The Art of Gordon Bennett, Craftsman House/ G + G Arts International, Sydney, 1996, pp.9–62.
Kelly Gellatly et.al., Gordon Bennett: A Survey, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 2007.
Natasha Bullock, MCA
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- flag, Union Flag(149)