Daniel Boyd

The exhibition RAINBOW SERPENT (VERSION) by Daniel Boyd subverts the political symbolism of colonial Australia to offer a refreshing perspective at the Gropius Bau in Berlin.

Around the same time that Daniel Boyd’s exhibition RAINBOW SERPENT (VERSION) opened at Berlin’s Gropius Bau, marking the multidisciplinary artist’s most comprehensive solo show in Europe, a news story about London’s National Portrait Gallery’s last-ditch efforts to prevent a painting by Joshua Reynolds from going into private hands was making headlines. Described as “one of the most important portraits in the history of British art,” Reynolds’s 1774 Portrait of Omai – now renamed Portrait of Mai, to reflect the subject’s correct name – shows Mai, the first Polynesian man to visit Britain. He travelled from Tahiti to England with Captain James Cook. His imposing 7ft-high portrait has been described by The Guardian as “both spiritually breathtaking and, as the country’s first grand portrayal of a non-white subject, culturally important.” (Remaining on public display, the work was jointly bought by the UK’s National Portrait Gallery and the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles from its owner for £50 million.)

It was a fortuitous coincidence to encounter Boyd’s reinterpretation of Reynolds’s painting – the work Untitled (RMUFWM), 2022 – hung at the very entrance to the show. As a viewer for whom this exhibition is a first introduction to Boyd’s body of work, his painting of Mai provided an important roadmap to a practice honed over two decades. Boyd employs his signature technique of placing multiple dots rendered in archival glue on a work’s surface. This technique complicates a painting’s reflection of light, rendering it darker, less static, and porous. It prioritises darkness to resist ideas linked to European Enlightenment and its insistence on illumination, transparency and disclosure. Boyd’s reappropriation of Reynolds’s portrait of the young Polynesian man is overlaid with countless circular lenses that, by obfuscating the subject, effectively shed light on the contradictions within the composition. “He’s from the Pacific,” Boyd says, pointing to Mai’s draping white robes, “but he is othered in this way within the framework of Orientalism, creating a separation between him and being painted by Reynolds.”

Boyd’s work draws on such sources as Indigenous knowledge productions, transnational networks of resistance, the poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant’s concept of “the right to opacity and difference,” and the artist’s own familial histories. Living and working on Gadigal and Wangal Country/ Sydney, Boyd foregrounds the experiences of First Nations people to confront and disrupt the misrepresentations common to colonial narratives. His oeuvre carves a space for showing ambiguity, and speaking to the divergent nature of things, challenging his viewers to contend with the complexity of having multiple entry points into questions of representation. Conceived closely together with the artist, the exhibition includes forty-four paintings and two large-scale installations that engage directly with the Gropius Bau’s neoclassical architecture. Boyd darkened all the museum’s windows with perforated foil, acting directly on the building’s language of Classicism which was a part of the imperial expansion into his ancestral land. The same circles reappear as mirrored apertures covering the floor of the museum’s atrium, which is publicly accessible free-of-charge. Over the course of the exhibition, a series of talks and activations take place in this forum-like space.

Boyd’s re-appropriation of visual material revisits photographs taken by missionaries and anthropologists of the British Empire and historical paintings of figures involved in the colonial exploitation of Australia. One of the earliest works in the show is Sir No Beard, 2009, which Boyd created as a young art school graduate. It depicts Joseph Banks, who financed and accompanied the HMS Endeavour voyage (1768–1771) from London to Oceania and Australia, helmed by James Cook. Here, Banks is depicted wearing an eye-patch, to “introduce the idea of piracy to allow for a shift in how to understand the actions of the colonisers,” says Boyd. Banks’s knowledge of botany helped to perpetuate the British Empire by planting tea in India and taking breadfruit from Tahiti to Jamaica as inexpensive food for enslaved peoples.

There are more intimate works in the show as well. Untitled (TDHFTC), 2021, shows a young woman looking in the mirror, placing a wreath on her head. The young woman is in fact the artist’s sister in a hula costume. “Hula was inserted into First Nations communities by missionaries across Australia; it was used to deny any transference of culture knowledge,” says Boyd, replacing it with a form of entertainment instead. The work Untitled (GB5), 2015, is based on an image of his grandmother at a bridal party. A part of the Stolen Generation, she was taken to an Anglican mission as a young child, with no records to indicate where from. (The artist and his sister are the first generation born outside the mission.) The painting alludes to the practice of forced marriages among young Indigenous adults, pairing the darkest with the lightest as part of a eugenics project to breed out the dark-skinned race. “The introduction of members of my family into my art was a way for me to expand the field of representation,” he adds. “In occupying a place of difference, these portraits of my family offer a sense of resistance to the cultural control of a race of people to fit in these ideas of expansionism.”

This review was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 63

24 March – 9 July, 2023 
Gropius Bau, Berlin

Latest  /  Most Viewed  /  Related