James Tylor

Artist James Tylor has been described as exposing unseen Australian histories. But in many ways Tylor does something more complex than this - he also meditates on the ways colonial visions shape how and what we can see.

Just as I begin writing up this article, I see a post by Tylor on Instagram showing Kaurna digging tools he has just completed – a Katha stick, Karku spade, and Yuku dish – made for his son to play with at the beach. Images show their elegant and purposeful forms sitting atop the pale beach sand, followed by a short video of the digging stick in action. It makes me think about how readily we tend to associate such objects with a historical status in the museum instead of with their everyday functions and continued relevance to lived cultural worlds. There is no reason these objects should appear uncanny. “Hopefully he just doesn’t think about those things and it’s normal, and he knows the names of them,” Tylor says of his son and his new beach tools when we speak. Tylor, who is of Nunga (Kaurna Miyurna), Māori (Te Arawa), and European (British, Irish, and Norsk) ancestry, has often made work that references colonial visuality and histories, his work seeming haunted by the visual spectres of the nineteenth century, often through use of historic photographic techniques such as the Becquerel Daguerreotype. At the same time these works carry Indigenising or oftentimes Kaurna-ising tendencies – of reconnecting Kaurna art, design, culture, and language with the places and people it has ever belonged with. While steeped in historical pasts, Tylor’s practice is very much about living culture.

In her 2019 book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay explores the idea of the camera shutter as an imperial technology as well as a synecdoche for wider colonial processes and violence. Emerging out of the pre-existing image and knowledge–production regimes of colonialism, she argues that photography (and the action of the shutter), constituted a dividing line between those who could record and who and what was being recorded. People and materials rooted in Indigenous social worlds were suddenly rendered separate – as evidence, as document, as raw material, as forever trapped in the past. It is interesting, then, that so many Indigenous artists have favoured photography as a medium – from reworking and subverting colonial images (Brook Andrew), to reclaiming the gaze through self-portraiture (Christian Thompson), to explorations of identity and memory (Hayley Millar Baker). James Tylor, meanwhile, works specifically in the genre of landscape photography, often building up an aesthetic and material proximity to early colonial image practices, while providing a profoundly Indigenised re-envisioning. Instead of the dividing line of the imperial shutter, Tylor’s images provoke multiple senses of reconnection.

This is particularly achieved through Tylor’s repeated use of forms of overlay across different series of works. For example, in the series Whalers, Sealers and Land Stealers, 2014, conflict histories (between Gunditjmara people and settlers), are recalled by a layer of punctuating round marks, caused by a twelve-gauge shotgun used to shoot the photography plates. Across the multiple series of From an Untouched Landscape, 2013–18, a wide spectrum of vistas have geometric shapes cut out of the images, showing a “black velvet void” below, a kind of material and conceptual censoring that might signify how the colonial image both captured and erased, while suggesting that such seemingly pristine places were far from “untouched” but deeply known by Indigenous people, and violently altered through colonisation.

In the series Turalayinthi Yarta, 2017, (a Kaurna Miyurna phrase defined as “to see yourself in the landscape”), images taken along the Hans Heysen trail within the Kaurna Yarta region of South Australia are overlaid with Nunga designs (designs from South Australian Aboriginal peoples) in charcoal, ochre, and clay. If colonial landscapes often invited a more romanticised self-identification with natural beauty (often absent the harsh realities of frontier violence), these designs might function as a re-tethering to the deep communal and ancestral ties that gave these places life and meaning.

Tylor’s various print series have then often been expanded into installations with objects, wall designs, and sometimes sounds and scents, these elements becoming a network of interconnections and juxtapositions. As in the image series, a particularly colonial visual technique, that of the salon hang, exists in tension with the Indigenising pull of Tylor’s practice – particularly his dedication to revitalising practices such as carving. If colonial visual cultures often invited the viewer to behold and survey in a removed way, Tylor ever seems to be drawing us to go deeper, to resist colonial shutters and separations.

Tylor’s work also extends far beyond exhibitions, such that he considers himself to be interested in culture rather than visual art specifically. This includes extensive ongoing language revitalisation work (Tylor is about to embark on a PhD at the University of South Australia researching northern Kaurna place names); and an expansive collaborative Australian history project with Matt Chun called UnMonumental, which is accreting a vast archive of images, texts, and resources published on a Substack (unmonumental.substack.com) and Instagram (@un_monumental). He has also worked on food-based art projects, creating new recipes that draw upon both Indigenous and non-Indigenous foods and their histories, and has recently published his Mai: Kaurna Contemporary Food recipes on his website. It’s the dynamism of such expanded cultural practice that perhaps leaves Tylor to feel frustrated at some of the limitations of standard exhibition practice. Tylor raises the example of showing an Indigenous painting in another country – “with no food, with no song, and with no ceremony, that painting is underperforming. You’re not getting a cultural experience, you’re getting part of a sentence of a paragraph.” It’s a problem he doesn’t yet feel he has resolved in his own practice but is one he believes is well worth having a conversation about.

It’s a challenge I reflect on as an art writer, often led to write specifically on artworks or exhibitions, while sometimes failing to fully contextualise people’s practices within their wider research and cultural action. Indeed, what I find so vital and exciting about Tylor’s practice is that every artwork/series/project seems to deliberately lead us outwards to wider resources and histories, often made available through his knowledge-sharing online.

His works are incitements to deeper learning. For instance, Tylor speaks on how his work with food might lead people to think about ecological effects and encourage replanting efforts. He also explains how carving Kaurna objects might help visibilise Kaurna art histories, so that when he goes on to make more experimental contemporary objects (such as carving Kaurna designs onto furniture), that practice is recognisable. Language, histories, food, carving, design, dwellings, sites, stories, and more, are all merely fragments of the expansive cultural worlds that Indigenous people are seeking to reconnect with and inhabit every day.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 61.

Turrangka…In the shadows
12 May – 30 July, 2023 
UNSW Galleries, Sydney

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