Drew Pettifer

In his new body of works, Drew Pettifer interrogates the beginning of Australia’s queer history. On an island in the Houtman Abrolhos Archipelago off the coast of Western Australia, in December 1727, two young men were found guilty of sodomy and condemned to an agonising death, marooned on separate islands. With deft skill, Pettifer reconnects us with these two boys through his photographs, installations and videos.

Drew Pettifer is the quintessential artist/academic who weaves together his knowledge and insight as an historian with a rigorous practice of image-making to explore gender, sexuality and the politics of desire.

His first encounter with the story of two boys from the Dutch VOC Ship Zeewijk, left to die on separate islands in the Houtman Abrolhos Archipelago, was a moment of realisation of the importance of this event in recontextualising our history. It was the beginning of Australia’s European queer history, a brutal and cruel one that is still little known. It began on an island off the coast of Western Australia, in December 1727, sixty years before Captain Philip imposed the punishment of death for sodomy in the newly founded colony of New South Wales.

Engaging the multiple strands of his creative and professional practice, Pettifer began his archival research and documented his engagement with these ideas in photographs and videos made at sites related to the event, including Gun Island. He also visited museum collections in Australia and the Netherlands with the support of an Australia Council grant, where he encountered the ship’s log, amongst other documents.

Adriaan van der Graaf’s journal from the Zeewijk reports that after colliding with Half-moon Reef on 21 May 1727, the ship’s company abandoned the wreck and established a base on Gun Island. When the rescue party they sent out failed to return with help, they set about building a new boat (the Sloepie – Little Sloop) from the remains of the wrecked vessel. During this fraught period, two young men (aged eighteen and twenty-two) were discovered, ‘committing with each other the abominable sins of Sodom and Gomorra.’ In one of the first recorded European trials on this continent, they were found guilty and condemned to death. Each was marooned without food or water on a separate island north-east of Gun Island, where they perished. Their agonising deaths mark the recorded beginning of a homophobic history of Australia, a history that needs to be reclaimed.

As Pettifer explains, ‘like many artists working in an archival mode, this process could be said to be recuperatory, as it attempts to reclaim this obscure queer history, (re)inserting the past into the present. The combination of built archives found archives and, at times, quasi-fictional archives in this project articulates a historical ‘truth’ that challenges dominant narratives through
a profound act of historical revisionism.’

For Pettifer, this truth is made accessible through art, which makes that encounter with history a visceral experience. In outlining the major theme of his novel Atonement, Ian McEwan suggests that human beings can only inflict suffering if they are without empathy for others because ‘cruelty is a failure of the human imagination’ (interview with Kate Kellaway, ‘At Home with his Worries,’ Observer, 16 September 2001). Pettifer orchestrates this empathetic connection with deft and economic skill in his photographs and videos. Once we are hooked by this narrative about these two young men, and we connect with them over time, he guides us through a timeline of queer oppression in Australia to a point of contemporary awareness. History is continuously remade in the present, and in that reframing, we are reconnected with those two young men and simultaneously alerted to current experience.

This is not a museum exhibition, though the show includes historical items such as maps and items from the wreck. Their presence enhances the veracity of the narrative; they speak from that time. Yet, there is also a blurring of these truths, as the objects themselves acquire new meaning through contemporary slippage.

The maps anchor the narrative to a particular site, but even then, the actual islands on which the boys perished are undocumented. In the exhibition, they are represented by a small pile of sand and a small pile of shale referencing their composition. As an audience, we are left to reshape this narrative, make it our own, and re-articulate its significance through the act of remembrance.

Identification with these two boys took Pettifer to the Netherlands, to walk in their footsteps through the streets of Sint-Maartensdijk and Gent where they wandered and to connect with their relatives, two of whom are documented in Warhol-style ‘screen-tests.’ These are the only human presence in the exhibition, conjured up on a screen, overseeing the event with a calm detachment. They provide a sense of continuity and hope. Just as van der Graaf made entries in his log, so these are entries in Pettifer’s artist’s journal. Together with his large-scale video work documenting the journey from Gun Island to one of the possible islands where the boys were left, they are a central component of his navigation of the Zeewijk saga. Featuring a voiceover from the Hon Michael Kirby, interspersed with traditional Dutch sea shanties, the video documents Pettifer’s odyssey across the ocean and across time, as he reconnects with the boys and in the process links us into their narrative.

The elements of this extraordinary story are encapsulated in the installation of forty-five small-scale framed photographs, hung in a grid, though with some grid places left blank to reflect the broken historical record. Nothing is complete, and no history is immutable. The gaps are eloquent reminders of slippage and omission. This body of work, and the major publication that will accompany it, will contribute to that expanded history. The essays, photographs of sites, the rescued objects, captain’s log, maps, and documents provide the evidence on which we will all build our personalised chronicle.

To be hung high above the show, the artist has created a flag – his standard – based on the stacking pattern of the onion-shaped bottles found on the Zeewijk, that are both phallic and yonic. It boldly shows his colours by celebrating sexual ambiguity, the need for recognition, and for tolerance. 

This preview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 50, 2020

Drew Pettifer: A Sorrowful Act: The Wreck of the Zeewijk
29 August – 5 December 2020
Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, WA

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