Laurie Nilsen: Birds on a Wire - Art Collector

Issue 42, October - December 2007

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Laurie Nilsen, the winner of this year’s Wandjuk Marika 3D Memorial Award at the 24th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award, spoke to Ashley Crawford about his winning work and his affection for the emu.

Dull white puckered scar tissue writhes across Laurie Nilsen’s muscled forearms. This is not the scarification of ritual, or not of imposed ritual. They are the scars of his work, the ritual of utilising that most barbaric of materials for his jarring sculptures – barbed wire.

Nilsen, much to his delight, had just walked away with the $4,000 Wandjuk Marika 3D Memorial Award as part of the 24th Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA). Significantly, the award, named in memory of the artist and elder Wandjuk Marika has most usually been awarded to burial poles from Arnhem Land. Nilsen’s work, Goolburris on the Bungil Creek, from a distance, looked elegant and poetic – almost too much so given its depiction of three emus, an animal whose profile has been subsumed into the Crown symbol for the occupation of Australia by Europeans.

But as one drew closer it was apparent that these were ghost-figures, hollowed out and transparent, their visage held together only by an exoskeleton of harsh barbed wire.

For most media-saturated urban Australians barbed wire has come to be associated with war and oppression. Ever since the earliest days of European war such as WWI such wire was a crude but effective way of deterring oncoming troops. It has become more sophisticated as the years have rolled on, with the charming addition of small but potent razors. For rural folk the wire was no more than a pragmatic way to keep dingoes out and cattle in.

But Nilsen, who hails from the largely rural region of Roma in western Queensland, has found another grotesque side effect for barbed wire; the slow and agonising death of native animals. Goolburris on the Bungil Creek is the direct result of the artist coming across upwards of 30 emus trapped in the wire dying slow, agonising deaths.

One of the key things farmers use barbed wire for is to protect the sporadic water holes for their cattle. With Queensland’s all too regular droughts this has apocalyptic results for the native emu.

“They’re not like the roos or wallabies that can either jump over or crawl under,” says Nilsen. “They seem to just pace up and down the fence and then on the second or third day they make the decision to step through and a lot of them get caught up in the top two strands, they twist over and their leg just gets caught and they lay there till they die.”

When Nilsen came across the emus some were still alive and he had to put them out of their misery. The emu is the traditional totem for his people and in many respects it was like killing family members. The resulting sculptural works are life size. “They’re made of barbed wire, the thing that kills them, so it’s almost like a regeneration or … reincarnating them again. I don’t think I’ll ever get around to making as many as I’ve seen perish…

“The other thing that causes a lot of damage is the dog fence. I’ve seen a lot of roos that haven’t quite made the jump.” The result is, crashing down on the other side, they break their necks.

Nilsen’s hands are as rough as heavy-grade sandpaper. He grew up handling barbed wire for fencing. “It’s one of them things. If you grab it by the scruff of the neck it won’t bite you, but if you be a little bit tentative it always seems to get you. It’s almost like sandpapering all the fingerprints off … it’s sort of like your little sacrifice that you have to spill a little bit of blood.

“Yeah, I’m a bit scarred up. When I was a young ’un some bloke came after me with a shotgun and I had to dive through a barbed wire fence. That opened me up apiece. All I’d been doing was hunting on my own country. Talk about running the gauntlet.”

Nilsen has numerous hair-raising stories of growing up in the decidedly racist and redneck Queensland of the 60s and 70s, but they are told with a wry humour and a surprising lack of bitterness. He tells stories of being grateful when plods of earth at his feet would explode with 30 shells – if they were in the ground they weren’t in him.

Nilsen’s mother he describes as a “nuggety old bird,” while his father was Norwegian. They lived on a river camp when Nilsen was a child, hunting, fishing and scavenging for survival. “It was decided they were going to move all the river dwellers so they set out to bulldoze all the camps.” They hadn’t counted on Nilsen’s mother who told them point blank that this was her country and they could get stuffed.

While he had dabbled with art since his childhood, it wasn’t until the mid to late 90s that he became serious about making a statement with his work. In 1994 he exhibited with Michael Eather at the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide and the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane. Since then he has shown every year, around the country and in Kolsterneuberg, Germany and Sante Fe, USA.

In Nilsen’s last entry into the NATSIAA he recreated a traditional fish trap in barbed wire. “I had a little Johnnie Howard in there,” he says with a mischievous smile. “I pre-empted what was going to happen. I had no fucking doubt that we were going to jump into bed with America. New Zealand refused to sign that ANZUS treaty, I don’t know why we had to. I’ve always doubted that anyone would invade Australia, there’s too many vested interests here.”

Nilsen pulls no punches when he speaks of politics. While Goolburris on the Bungil Creek can be read as a strongly environmental piece, it could also reflect the harsh history of persecution against the black people of Queensland. White landowners would often barrier water holes from the indigenous or, as a last resort, poison them.

But Nilsen is also very much the pragmatist. “I know the farmers need their water and I know they need their fences to keep the cattle in … I don’t know what the solution is.”

Over the years Nilsen, both as an artist and as a lecturer in contemporary Australian Indigenous art at Griffith University, has become renowned as a mentor for younger artists. Painter Christine Christophersen, also showing in Darwin at the time of the NATSIAA, says she would not have had the courage to pursue her career without Nilsen’s encouragement.

“I think you have a responsibility as an Aboriginal person to pass on that knowledge that you have,” he says. “I think that’s the role that we should all play. We have to be careful not to get caught up in that White cultural tendency where you think any knowledge you have acquired you hold close to your chest. Everything I have learnt I have learnt from someone else and I think you are obligated to pass that knowledge on to someone else. It’s interesting doing collaborative pieces with white Australian artists over the years, they hold everything so tightly to themselves.”

Nilsen has worked strongly in collaboration for over 10 years through the famed Campfire group in Queensland and projects at Fire-Works Gallery in Brisbane. He has also done a number of international collaborations, most notably with a number of Native American artists that he describes as being the most pleasurable. “Working with other indigenous people around the world, they are so willing to share their knowledge.”

Regardless of the success of Goolburris on the Bungil Creek, the day after the award ceremonies Nilsen was keen to get home to keep working on a new series of works. These are essentially illustrative works – Nilsen is a masterful draughtsman – depicting portraits of individual emus. The results, some of which he has captured on his mobile phone, reveal quirky and mad profiles of the strange outback birds. These are six by five foot canvases executed in pastel, bold strokes rendered with clear affection. But the are not passive zoological portraits. Given their scale, Nilsen has managed to project his political agenda onto the glossy brightness of the bird’s eye.

“They’re working,” he says. “I can only take them so far before they become like Andy Warhol repetitions, but I’ve treated them so far like family portraits so they’re more personal. Where I’ve been sourcing my material is an emu farm and there is one particular individual called Dolly and she loves being handled, but as soon as I put my arm around her the mother emu comes up to check out what’s going on and I’m waiting on a big kick from one of the males. So I’m getting a bit close to Dolly, she’s just magic. But every one of them is different, they all have different hairstyles, different personalities.

“They’re our totem so that’s why I respond to them that way I suppose and to see them getting killed off the way they do … You’re pretty helpless to do anything about it. You grow up in the bush and you get pretty complacent about killing things because often it’s the only way to eat, but I think as you get older you get a bit softer.”

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