Danie Mellor: Hidden Histories - Art Collector

Issue 50, October - December 2009

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Winner of this year’s National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, Danie Mellor makes a project of challenging traditional notions of Aboriginal art. Text by Lisa Slade.

To date, Danie Mellor’s shape-shifting practice has included ceramics, printmaking, sculpture, mixed media works on paper and object-based installation. This hybrid practice is readily accommodated within the generous nomenclature of contemporary art and in fact seems to offer an object lesson in the post medium condition.

Appreciating Mellor’s work as Aboriginal, however, has proven to be not so clear cut, revealing an art world still attached to narrowly defined ideas of Aboriginal identity and authenticity. Instead of the expected and possibly stereotypical image of the Aboriginal artist and approach to art making, Mellor and his practice offer a potent example of the complexity of postcolonial identity in Australia. What becomes apparent in Mellor’s work and research is the engagement he has with ancestry and Indigenous culture, and the transmission of knowledge and cultural perspectives, both historical and spiritual.

Mellor was born in Mackay in northern Queensland in 1971 and has a mixed family heritage. He is descended through his mother’s family from the Indigenous people of the rainforest area of the Atherton Tablelands. His work springs from the nexus of these cultural influences but is certainly not restricted to them. His winning work in this year’s National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards is a case in point. The large mixed media work, titled From Rite to Ritual, successfully broadens what may be considered narrow definitions of Aboriginal art and also deals with issues beyond Aboriginality. From Rite to Ritual features Mellor’s now signature blue and white willow pattern decorative technique, symbolising the hybridising of identities across time and place. Native animals are rendered in quasi-botanical styling and punctuate the densely illustrated space, reminiscent of a medieval manuscript. The interior of a Masonic lodge, with its classical nuances modelled on Solomon’s Temple, is the unlikely stage for this cross-cultural encounter, where Aboriginal men perform a ritual dance in the company of an oversized skeleton and skull and crossbones. This complex and layered work affirms that it is not Aboriginal culture alone that bears the responsibility of secrecy and concealment.

Interestingly, Mellor’s entry into the 2008 NATSIAAs, which was titled Exotic Lies and Sacred Ties (the heart that conceals, the tongue that never reveals), also alluded to the revelation and concealment of secret or sacred content in Aboriginal art, an issue that came to prominence during the first decade of Western Desert acrylic painting. Now held in the collection of the University of Queensland Art Museum, this work mimics a museum diorama and includes a work on paper in an ornate gilded frame, taxidermied native birds and mosaic kangaroos. In both form and content, Exotic Lies and Sacred Ties deftly critiques the colonial traffic in exotica, which included Aboriginal people as curiosities.

Given the prominence of both mixed media works and tableaux in Mellor’s recent exhibitions – including his sell-out solo exhibition at Jan Murphy Gallery in Brisbane earlier this year and the forthcoming exhibition A Balance of Power at Michael Reid Gallery in Sydney – it may come as a surprise to learn that the focus of Mellor’s PhD was printmaking. Mellor’s more recent allusion to print media, such as the ceramic print techniques found on Spode china, also refers to the transfer and projection of knowledge systems onto one culture by another. With their anglicised oriental patterning, these works also hint at the humorous displacements, the Chinese whispers, that take place along the way.

Mellor’s work has been acquired by the National Gallery of Australia, the Museum of Contemporary Art and major state and regional galleries. In 2007, he was featured in Culture Warriors, the National Indigenous Art Triennial, with two bodies of work including a series of shields sculpted from Victorian travelling trunks and hung in the manner of ethnographic trophies. Mellor shaped the baggage of the first settlers into rainforest shields unique to his mother’s country. The shields can be read as an act of repossession, demonstrating the resilience, wit and survival of Aboriginal culture while at the same time suggesting a hidden history behind a seemingly white subject.

Danie Mellor’s current exhibition, A Balance of Power, will be staged at Michael Reid at Elizabeth Bay, Sydney until 31 October 2009. His work will also be on show in the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Awards at the Museum and Art Gallery Northern Territory in Darwin until 25 October 2009, and in Menagerie at Object Gallery in Sydney until 15 November 2009.

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