Clinton Nain: Hoping hard in the city - Art Collector

Issue 57, July - September 2011

Painter Clinton Nain has always been recognised for the political intent of his work, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s all about bitterness and sadness. As Ashley Crawford writes, the strongest message is one of hope.

There is nothing straightforward in Clinton Nain’s approach to art. At one moment he can be severely, devastatingly, political. In the next he can pull off images that border on the sublime and the timeless. What links these extremes is Nain’s very personal investigation into both his own heritage and the larger world around him. This strange mix has made him a key figure in the debate about race that all too rarely arises in the art world. Like others of his generation who share Indigenous blood, such as Brook Andrew and Destiny Deacon, he does not shy away from politics. But unlike those artists, Nain fully embraces aspects of the painterly in a fascinating potpourri of styles and content.

Also known as a dancer, performer and a storyteller, Nain’s work essentially explores the impact of European settlement on the Indigenous nations of Australia. Taking on the white male dominant view of history, Nain’s work uses the perspectives of the black and the feminine. In 1999, he initiated his White King, Blak Queen series, exploring the dubious path of colonisation through a fictional black feminine character challenging the notion of white male dominance.

He has almost always made a political point with his work, which raises the question of at what point does politics override aesthetics, or the other way around?

“I like to think in the making of a painting I try to keep in mind a balance of aesthetics and the political point I’m out to make,” Nain says. “But sometimes one can be stronger than the other. It all depends on what the image is about.”

At times one senses a degree of justified anger in his message, but this is balanced by what is clearly a deep delight in the actual creation of the works. “I believe it’s all about balance between aesthetics and politics,” says Nain. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that my message is angry but more so I use strong imagery in my work to depict confronting issues that are faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people such as the dispossessed, homelessness, racism, violence (domestic and other), police custody, drugs and alcohol. However, there is still a sense of hope in my paintings, stemming from our strength as first people.”

Nain grew up in inner-city Melbourne and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting at the Victorian College of the Arts before going on to study at the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales, thus he grew up far removed from traditional Aboriginal iconography.

“There is a definitely a degree of symbolism,” he says. “For example, the use of dresses, crosses, fences, targets and hearts. And more recently ‘blak’ flowers in my paintings to represent a dispossessed people, to convey feelings of displacement. Many of the themes and images in my work are derived from memory and the now; there is, of course, a sense of imagining, but it mostly stems from real life.”

Nain’s family hails from Far North Queensland and the Torres Strait where Nain often visits. “I grew up in inner city Melbourne. I have used both country and urban landscape as a backdrop for my paintings, but I suppose a lot of my more recent work would represent issues faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the city. For example, our presence in Fitzroy has been rife with issues of racism and violence, however, Fitzroy also offered us a sort of refuge. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were drawn to this area as home, a meeting place, a place to gather and form a political identity.”

There are times when Nain’s work, inevitably, takes on a decidedly bitter edge, but the artist believes this is balanced with an element of hopefulness.

“I wouldn’t describe myself as bitter,” he says. “My work obviously addresses confronting issues and heavy subject matter, however, there is still a sense of hope in my paintings. Despite all the hardships, the presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been ongoing; throughout all the change over the years, this is something that remains constant. We are warriors and survivors – there is pride in our history that carries on today.”

Melbourne’s Alcaston Gallery will exhibit Clinton Nain’s Blue Stone and Blak Flowers from 16 August to 2 September 2011 and also present his work at the Korea International Art Fair from 22 to 26 September 2011.

Share this page: