Blak Douglas

1970, the year Adam Hill was born, was a turbulent time of great change. It was time of the beginning of the Papunya Tula dot- and circle-painting movement in Central Australia, and of a major acceptance of Aboriginal art into the Australian contemporary art world. It could be seen to have begun with the painting of a mural composition, in 1971, on the side of the Papunya School building to state the sacredness of the Honey Ant Dreaming story of the site. Parallel with this major evolution was a pan-Aboriginal revolution, with those of us of mixed descent reasserting our position within the history of the nation, both past and present.

The most important performance theatre in Australia’s history happened in 1972, when a small number of Aboriginal activists set up a tent: the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawn of then–Parliament House, protesting the dire political and socioeconomic position of Aboriginal people. The police arrived to remove the tent and disperse the protesters, who then re-erected the tent – back and forth for over six months.

There was another powerful cultural event in 1970: African–American musician Nina Simone released her co-written anthem recording of To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival the previous year. It became an incredibly inspiring anthem for raising the positive consciousness of Black children everywhere.

Kempsey, where Adam has his Aboriginal roots, is associated with floods, repeated in the present. The town site was established in 1834, and in this process of colonisation many of the Dhungatti people were murdered in large numbers, and the survivors dispersed. “Blacks-town,” where Adam came to live, is, of course, named from the Aboriginal population that resided there. A landform of contours still exists large in the Sydney region. A ridge or hill runs through the southwest, dividing the Nepean River from Sydney Harbour (really a flooded river valley). We don’t know what spirit resides there. These key geographical features appear regularly in Hill’s work, including paintings shown in the Not a Proppa Aboriginal exhibition, 2010, at Mosman Art Gallery: Bennelong Time, 2000, and Looking up/Looking back, 2002.
Kevin Gilbert (1933–1993) had received a life sentence for murder in 1957. While in prison he taught himself printmaking, and he took up writing. In 1968, he penned a play, The Cherry Pickers. The Black Theatre, established in Redfern in 1972, mounted the play. It tells the story of itinerant rural Aboriginal seasonal workers, and the irony of how wider society, “cherry-picks” talented Aboriginal individuals, often removing them from Aboriginal society to its loss. In 2009, Black Douglas’s Cherry Pickers painting was commissioned for a new building on the site of the 1972 Black Theatre.

“White” people first appeared in Australia in the form of Lieutenant Cook in 1770. By the time Adam was born, “white” people began to appear in increasing numbers in Western Sydney in the form of government housing commission estates, which took over the former “country” environment and rural paddocks – only to be superseded by aspiring lower middle–class migrants taking advantage of the cheap land.

“Not really proper Aborigines” (in stereotype), Hill’s peer group population of urban Aboriginal people popped up into government statistics from the late 1960s and 1970s, when many rural Aboriginal families moved to Sydney for education and work opportunities. The population of Blacktown mushroomed from the 1970s. With housing estates came some communities of poverty and despair, as well as grander estates: places of petty crime, drugs, and car culture. Creating art was one way of rising above these limiting problems.

Adam’s career began with a mural of two very prominent features of his world: the Nepean River and the Aboriginal sacred site, the Three Sisters, in the nearby Blue Mountains. These two sites were painted in 1998, in acrylic “house paint,” and Hill has continued to use this material for its values afterwards. The paint has special attributes that he likes, beyond its aesthetic effect: density, consistency, durability, and affordability.

“I always had an ability to draw,” Hill told Deadly Vibe in 2004. “My mum’s brothers were highly acclaimed ‘sign writers,’ and I had a great-uncle who produced the embattlement dioramas (models) at the Australian War Memorial. He was just the most brilliant artist I knew, so growing up watching those men produce that kind of work was deadly. I never envisaged I’d make a living from art, but nonetheless I just began to draw, just like all kids start drawing . . .” Although initially self-taught, Adam attained a Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Art in 1994, from the University of Western Sydney, focusing on photography and illustration, with heavily politicised imagery.

“I s’pect I just growed. Don’t think nobody never made me. I was raised by speculators,” says Harriet Beecher Stowe’s character Topsy, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852. There is an Aboriginal colloquial slur to call another Aboriginal a “coconut” – brown on the outside but white on the inside. People of Asian descent, I’m told, have a similar insult, to call someone a banana: “yellow” on the outside but “white” on the inside.

When I first met Adam at Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative around the mid-1990s, he wore a rich mustard-yellow shirt and blood-red tie, and “black as black” trousers – Aboriginal colours. Someone from the west commented: “Man, is this guy Italian or something (sic)?” A pop-out personality in a highly competitive art field, struggling to remain in view, Adam’s a real “flash Blak,” a real “dandy” – a figure you can dress in many costumes, many personalities, and many guises, but who is always striving to be very visibly Aboriginal.

The colonist’s vision of Aboriginal men is one of disgust, disdain, and revulsion, so to see an Aboriginal man displaying their “deadliness” is a sight to behold. “Adam’s an activist,” says Adam’s father; “I’m a Koori,” Adam announces.

“The fascination has always been with remote artists because there’s that mystique behind someone who lives in a humpy, somewhere where they still have their language and still practice ceremonies – that’s what’s been attractive to the modern art buyers,” Hill commented in his 2004 Deadly Vibe article. “It’s taken a long time for that appreciation to be focused on urban Aboriginal artists because we’re a hostile bunch. We’ve got things to say, and people have been too scared to confront that.”

A number of male Aboriginal artists popped out of the western suburbs of Sydney from the 1970s and 1980s. In a crowded Aboriginal art market in which, in some ways, social and physical distance conspired against them, and in their then-unfashionable graphic style, they strived to grab and hold attention: “Look at me – look at me!” There was Brook Andrew, Danny Eastwood, Adam Hill, Jake Soewardie, and now Jason Wing. These artists used graphic-art imagery, primary colours, technique, and bold, powerful political comment in their art statements. Unlike Topsy, they knew where they came from. They all strongly believed and expressed their Aboriginal histories. They deeply thought, and wanted to say “I am Aboriginal – I could pass as a ‘white person’ but I refuse to.”

It was in “Blacks-town” that one of the first instances of the Stolen Generations began, when the Blacktown Native Institution was set up in 1823. Adam cleverly weaves these narratives through his installations. With his previous graphic-art figures, Adam used black outlines to indicate a black shadow (a soul) of Aboriginality. Some figures he outlines in white, to indicate a “white’’ persona despite the colour of their skin.

I’ve invited Adam into most of my curated exhibitions: Beauty, Vanity, and Narcissism, 2011, Bungaree: The First Australian, 2012, and Bungarees Farm, 2015, where he really bonded with Karla Dickens. Speaking about this show, Adam reflects on the relationship of his practice to traditions of graphic art: “I created a moving image work for the show – I’ve always been influenced by manga, and anime, and thought about moving image quite a lot. But it’s so time consuming to make the work, as opposed to painting. It was a big painting year [2015].” I also included his work in Three Visions of the Garingal, 2020, The Dingo Project, 2022, and earlier, Cold Eels and Distant Thoughts, 2012. He also took part in an art workshop project: People We Know – Places We’ve Been, 2011, with Aboriginal inmates at Goulburn Correctional Centre.

Of course, Adam’s own career has skyrocketed. He has held attention through hard work in producing his output, and through smart online and personal-celebrity promotion. How can one ignore someone who drives a huge metallic gold ute, with the words “Blak Douglas Artist”? In 2014, Adam adopted the pseudonym Blak Douglas to avoid the confusion on digital-media algorithms that kept pointing people to well-known comedian Adam Hills. His new label-persona referenced his two historical roots: “Blak,” to his Dhungatti Aboriginal side, and “Douglas,” referencing his Irish–Scottish ancestry.

In Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, 1975, Wolf talked of the “boho dance” (from Joni Mitchell’s song), asking how, as an artist with political edge becomes more successful, they might maintain that edge and not appear to sell out. He describes artists showing up at events always in paint-splattered overalls, or at openings wearing a tuxedo top but jeans on the bottom. It used to be a common affectation, especially with male artists.

It could be said that egos bruised and sated are a constant of the art world. We all need belief in our path, but on the negative side, belief is painful. But really it leads to bravery, and courage. Adam’s self-belief is fresh, consistent, and remains unbounded. His politics could be read as a little fresh-faced – although some of his recent commentary to me has been on the ball, including his questioning of why the Art Gallery of New South Wales doesn’t have an Aboriginal Board member from New South Wales. But, behind his front, I find he remains, for better or worse, almost a completely sweet, innocent soul.

In candid conversations with Adam in writing this essay, I asked him about the inspired moments that led him in his impressive career. The first he listed was in 1997, when he worked as an exhibition design assistant on the 1996 Indigenous Australians: Australia’s First People exhibition at the Australian Museum in Sydney. Here, he met and worked with the award-winning First Nations artist Kevin Butler, and his Indigenous-life maze through which one had to negotiate to get into the exhibition. “I thought that this was the coolest thing, that you could be paid to paint on a residency!”Adam remarks.

The second moment was at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, when he won the Mil-Pra Art Prize, in 2002, with the painting Bennelong Time, 2002. Here, Adam realised the true money-value he could price his artworks for. He also became aware for the first time of “the cesspool of art-world jealousy and nepotism,” from some other entrant artists.

The third revelation came in 1999–2000, when Adam was engaged to perform “chorus” didjeridu with Bangarra Dance Company at the Sydney Opera House, as part of their contribution to the Festival of the Dreaming in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics. Here, he met and made friends with songman, dancer, and cultural consultant Djakapurra Munyarryun from Dhalinybuy, northeast Arnhem Land, who invited Adam to visit. He told Adam to be outside Nhulunbuy Woolworths any Wednesday to meet him. Shortly afterwards, Adam met him there, and spent two weeks living at Dhalinybuy, where “for the first time, [he] became fully, consciously aware of Aboriginal spirituality and Country.”

In conversations with collegiate artists, Adam is admired as hard-working. Adam has won other portrait competitions with paintings of First Nations leaders – in fact, he had been short-listed for the Archibald Prize four times before winning it in 2022, with a portrait of Karla Dickens titled Moby Dickens, 2022. Karla agreed to the portrait about a month outside of the closing date, when Adam visited Lismore – and Karla – shortly after the floods subsided. He finished the painting in his studio in Marrickville. But it would appear to be not so simple. Death in Venice. There is a saying, “see Venice and die,” as many artists’ careers taper off after achieving the blessing of being chosen to represent Australian at the Venice Biennale. Adam comments on the Archibald: “A reality check! Painting for the Archibald was like taking part in the one hundred–metre sprint at the Olympics: the stress, the stress! In winning, it closes something off, and then there’s no turning back; it’s a strain – the chance of failure is so great and, even after you win, you don’t want to be seen as a one-hit-wonder.”

A one-hit wonder? I don’t think so! In winning this award, Adam became only the second First Nations artist to win the Archibald Prize, with the first portrait of a First Nations Woman as the winning image, too; and, he was the first New South Wales First Nations artist to win, with the first portrait of a New South Wales First Nations artist. It can only move forward from here.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 62

Inverted Commoners
21 April – 30 July, 2023 
Manly Art Gallery & Museum, Sydney

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