Daniel Boyd

For Daniel Boyd, the question of who we are can be approached – if not “answered” – materially. Locating what we see and don’t see of ourselves in archival photographic images, in the metallic frames of large-scale public installations, and in “lenses” of glue, Boyd invites us to encounter the darknesses in our histories, be they colonial or cosmological.

Professionally, the previous two COVID-19-addled years have been kind to Daniel Boyd. He is on the cusp of having his first solo survey show in a major Australian state gallery – at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), opening 4 June. He has worked on various projects with Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of London’s Serpentine Gallery and one of the world’s most distinguished curators, and was astonished to receive a call from Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye inviting him to collaborate on a project destined for Sydney’s George Street and due for completion this year. Boyd has designed a suspended artwork that will sit twenty metres above the ground, supported by a single column, as part of Adjaye’s architecture. Its multiple piercings will offer dappled screening from Australia’s fierce sun. In 2019, Boyd unveiled his award-winning sculptural commission, For Our Country, for the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The eleven-metre-long by three-metre-high reflective surface recognises the military service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Boyd’s popularity, it appears, knows no bounds. 

Since his university days (he graduated from the Australian National University’s School of Art in 2005), Boyd’s ascendency through the art ecosystem has been rapid. His career took off with his Captain No Beard body of work – which he started at art school – that recast appropriated paintings of colonial figures as pirates and villains complete with piratical eye patches and shoulder parrots. But by 2012, when he was included in the 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, his style had evolved into his now-signature dot paintings that went on to encompass a strident political language examining the colonial oppression of First Nations people. By 2014, when he became the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artist to receive the Bulgari Art Award at the AGNSW with a monochrome painting depicting a scene from an archival photograph taken on Pentecost Island, Vanuatu, one had to acknowledge that an important Indigenous artist had arrived on the Australian contemporary art scene.

Boyd was born in Cairns in northern Queensland in 1982 and is a Kudjla/Gangalu man with Pacific Islands heritage. His great-great-grandfather was blackbirded as a slave from his home on Pentecost Island, part of the Vanuatu archipelago, to work in the sugarcane plantations of Far North Queensland. I ask Boyd how I should refer to him. He mulls over this for a second or two. “I’m an artist of First Nations background. But that kind of refers to the audience and what they understand and how I relate to that audience . . . I’m happy to just be an artist,” he says.

From the 1860s, tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders were taken to Australia to work the plantations, often by force or trickery. It is a dark moment in Australia’s history, which still casts a long shadow across Boyd’s life and work. “People don’t really understand how slavery related to the extension of plantations in this country,” Boyd says.

His grandmother lived in an Anglican mission in Cairns, called Yarrabah, and his Aboriginal ancestors were from the Stolen Generations, children who had been forcibly removed from their parents by the Australian Government and denied their cultural inheritance. Growing up in Cairns, Boyd was surrounded by the descendants of blackbirded slaves.

The day I visited Boyd in his Marrickville studio in Sydney, it was teeming with rain. His studio is a utilitarian space with a hefty dose of asceticism thrown in, located in a vast, anonymous warehouse that has been sub-divided into small studios, workshops, boutique factory units, embroiderers, and furniture makers with the precision of someone using a theodolite. The individual units are called “pods.” Boyd’s pod is number thirty-nine. The corrugated floor-to-ceiling sliding doors to each pod are identical, making navigating the warehouse seem like a moment from the The Maze Runner, 2014. There are no ceilings to the pods; they simply open up to timber roof trusses, which allows ambient noise to spread through the various interior spaces. Circular saws whirr, hammers hammer, voices shout, and music plays. It all makes for a curious cacophony, not necessarily conducive to conversation.

There are eighty or so works in the upcoming AGNSW survey exhibition, the majority of which are from private collectors and museum collections. But there are two specially commissioned pieces too: “Last-minute interventions,” Boyd exclaimed. I think of Boyd’s large-scale installation wall piece for the 20th Biennale of Sydney, What Remains, 2016, made up of myriad constellations of dots that added interstellar mystery to a wall in Redfern. The work alludes to Boyd’s interest in cosmology, time, and space –  tropes he has also explored in large video projections of similar imagery which pulse with subtle coloration. 

Boyd comes across as tough, brusque, direct, and someone whom I sense doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He is also interested in his identity and how it, or he, fits into the colonial history of Australia and the art ecology of the country. 

Colonialism has proved a key ingredient in his art. Often, he appropriates colonial-era photographs – as well as historic photographs of his family – that he overpaints with an obscuring skein of archival glue dots, or “lenses,” as they are sometimes referred to. The spaces between the dots are then painted black – “seeing and not seeing,” he says – as he pursues transparency and dignity within the framework of his family’s colonial suffering and dispossession. No single image, Boyd says, can contain the truth of the marginalised history of what happened to slaves from Vanuatu.

As we talked Boyd looked as though he would benefit from several cups of coffee. He had been up late the previous evening painting, he explains, and as a result, was tired. 

One wall of the studio was given over to a cosmological wall piece. He explained how he began to think about time and space differently after a 2012 residency at London’s Natural History Museum, where he was able to hold meteorites of both the moon and Mars simultaneously. “I started to think about time differently after that. The meteorites were formed before the earth was formed, and still emitted an odour,” he says.

The change in how he perceived time was a significant moment in his practice. Memory and the history of his culture have been erased deliberately over time at the hands of colonialists, he says. What remains is a blurred approximation of the truth, one that he is determined to reinstate by using colonial-era photographs as ready-mades that both obscure and articulate the story of how Eurocentrism has marginalised and erased the history of his ancestors.

Against another wall leaned a fresh canvas, on which was the beginning of a life-sized charcoal sketch of his grandmother and a young child. “Family is an important part of my practice that I have a connection to,” he says. On a third wall were three finished works: one based on a photograph of a woman holding a young child, one a large portrait of the head of a man, and the third a colourful tropical ocean-scape featuring azure water. The woman and child were from an historical photograph of his grandmother and sister, their features dissolved by his signature dots. “The material I work with is about who I am as a person,” he says.

Boyd has amassed a substantial archive of historical photographs to use in his work. “The family photographs are gifted by relatives, and reach back decades. If family members find something they let me have it. It is an important way to connect with lived experience,” he says. The colonial photographs, he says, are sourced from various ethnological and anthropological collections.

One such photograph forms the background to Boyd’s painting in the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Untitled (HNDFWMIAFN), 2017, which depicts Pacific Islander slaves, in the late 1880s, working on a sugar plantation at Hambledon outside of Cairns. The slaves – or possibly indentured workers –  pose alongside white labourers while under the obvious control of a stentorious-looking white overseer. Boyd has enlarged what must have been the relatively small original photograph, painted over it with oil paints and charcoal, and then used a syringe to apply the reflective dots to cover and obscure the details of the image. Today, the area once occupied by the sugarcane plantation spans the Cairns suburb of Edmonton, and is now an amusement park named Sugarworld Adventure Park. 

Boyd’s route to artistic truth-telling is “to understand my ancestry and place,” he says. 

Was he conscious of the history of slavery in Australia at school, I ask?  “It was not something they would be teaching at school,” he replied ironically. It was at the Australian National University, in Canberra, that Boyd first became aware of how his and First Nations peoples’ history and cultural heritage had been written out of Australia’s historical record.

“When I went to university I [became] engaged with questions of slavery because of the Anglican mission my grandmother came from. You have to understand that back then, during my grandmother’s time, if [Aboriginal] people were to engage with any form of cultural knowledge, they would be punished by the church or state, and would have their children taken away from them. The transfer of knowledge was altered. There were barriers put in place by the church concerning cultural heritage. At university, I spent a lot of time in the library working out how it all fitted together,” he says.

“I got to a point where I felt like I needed to expand on what I was questioning, so came up with my dot process. I was trying to find a way of having the surface of the work move. I didn’t want the work to be static. I wanted there to be a kind of movement [that] helped the audience engage with the work,” he says.

The history remains raw for Boyd, although he says that the broader Australian population appears to want to know more about what happened during the early colonial days.

“I grew up in the tropics, and connection to place plays a big role in the work I make. The tropics, and rainforests, and Pentecost Island, are all present in my practice,” he says. “I am trying to share my interest, my journey, and who I am as a person. Aggression in the narrative of colonisation is in there too,” he says.  

I could hear the rain drumming on the roof as Boyd steered a rather large huntsman spider away from studio foot traffic and onto a wall. He reached for his glue gun and began the arduous task of applying thousands of dots to a new painting. It seemed like a good time to leave. 

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 59, 2022.
Images courtesy the artist, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, Buxton International Collection, Melbourne, Experimenta, Melbourne, Kaldor Public Art Projects, Sydney, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, STATION, Melbourne, and Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane.

Treasure Island
4 June 2022 – January 2023
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

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