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a q and a with loretta barnard co-author of imagining australia

This masthead interviewed Loretta Barnard co-author with Ingeborg Van Teeseling, of the new publication IMAGINING AUSTRALIA : A HISTORY OF OUR NATION THROUGH MUSIC, FILM, LITERATURE AND ART,

Q. Your book is essentially a thesis, that the best way to find out how people were feeling at a particular times in our history is to explore the work of our creative artists at the time. How difficult was this premise, argument, thesis to prove/establish?

A. Yes, that’s part of what we’re attempting to show. We wondered whether there’s a different lens through which creative artists view the world. Perhaps that’s too broad a question, but it’s true that great artists interpret the world, creating works in response to something going on in society, sharing their own particular observations about it. And that, in turn, often helps the rest of us understand it. It’s that notion of the melding of the arts with what happens in our part of the world that formed the conceptual basis for Imagining Australia. It was important to us to write engagingly and accessibly – so this is not a dry academic text. Chapters are short, and cover an array of social and cultural issues, and how those issues intersected with the creative arts.

To give a couple of examples, during World War II, artist Albert Tucker and writer Kylie Tennant examined what the conflict looked like back home, how we coped, and how traditional notions of masculinity were changing. It’s that kind of ‘insider’ feeling that artists often capture, that particular something that defines us, that glimpse that spells out our values at any given time. Artists like these discuss those values through their art.

John O’Grady, using the pseudonym Nino Culotta, reflected on our then-staid status quo, and our rather patronising attitude to immigrants in the 1950s. In Puberty Blues, Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey wrote about the experiences of many teenage girls of the late 1960s-early 1970s – their book shocked society deeply, because it revealed something that the adults simply didn’t know about their kids.

Iconic rock bands like AC/DC and INXS were products of a very healthy live music scene during the 1980s-1990s, something that changed with the introduction of drink-driving laws and noise regulations, not to mention the advent of gambling into pubs. These social phenomena, along with a growing youth culture, impacted on the creative and performing arts. We hope we’ve gone some way towards establishing the premise that our social and cultural history has always been reflected in the art made by writers, musicians, artists, filmmakers, and other creative artists. No artwork happens in isolation.

Another thing that fuels our love of the creative arts is the fact that both of us have artistic backgrounds. Ingeborg’s father was a sculptor, her daughter is a filmmaker. I’m from a multi-generational musical family, and grew up listening to the musicians, writers, artists, journalists who visited our home always questioning the status quo, hoping that somehow their artistic output, no matter how small, would help explain the world, make sense of it somehow.

Q.How difficult was the process involved in deciding which creative artists you would include and which would you leave out?

A. A good question. We wanted to show how our history and how our creative arts are two sides of the same coin. Beginning in 1788, we each suggested a range of creative artists. Our original list had more than 150 names on it, but we eventually honed it down to 82 artists we felt we just had to have. Because four of the creative arts are covered, namely, visual art, music, literature and film, we wanted roughly equal representation of those arts, although film – as a more recent avenue of artistic pursuit – has slightly fewer chapters. The book is in roughly chronological order, where the date of the work(s) under discussion determined its place in the book.

Ingeborg and I have been working together for a few years now, so we found dividing up the work a pretty straightforward exercise. Choosing which works to focus on took a little time. Some choices presented themselves. For instance, one compelling reason to look at an early work by Arthur Streeton called The National Game (1889) was because it allowed (among other things) a short discussion of the birth of Australian Rules Football, which began in the 1850s. Other choices were trickier, but we’re happy with the final selection.

Q. Do you think that your book will stir up any controversy in your selections? Are you hoping that it will start up any new discourses?

A.It’s quite possible. One pre-publication reader expressed surprise that a particular writer didn’t make the cut, but short of compiling some sort of definitive encyclopedia, it’s impossible to include every single creative artist in a book of this nature. Some people may be upset that a specific artist isn’t included, but there’s no doubt most readers will discover plenty of other remarkable Australians with whose work they may not be familiar. We’re pretty confident we’ve covered a broad and diverse cross-section of fascinating people. We wanted to represent as many voices as possible. If some voices have been omitted, it’s purely due to space constraints.

The creative artists we chose – some household names, some all but forgotten – made significant contributions to our culture, and it’s time they received a bit of love and attention. Of course, not everyone warrants our love: we haven’t shied away from unpalatable and often confronting truths about parts of our history. Perhaps that may be controversial, who knows?

As to provoking new discourses, I hope so. Creative artists often stand up against injustice. It’s because artists are explorers, boundary-pushers, and often – even in small ways – activists. Composers, writers, artists and filmmakers are always commenting on what’s happening in society. Often they’re helping to change the way we see ourselves; often they’re just making their opinion known. Either way, if new discourses result, all the better.

Q.Did the work of the convict artists have anything of value to say?

A.Indeed it did. For instance, two convicts, George Barrington and James Hardy Vaux, wrote books that became very famous in their time, both here and back in Britain. In fact, Vaux’s The Vocabulary of the Flash Language, published in 1819, was our country’s first dictionary of slang, and it sold like hotcakes to ‘gentlemen of the law’ who used it to help understand what their clients were saying. Even that long ago, we were developing our own unique Australian expressions. Barrington, a bit of a conman, eventually became superintendent of convicts at Parramatta. What we were seeing here was that it was less about the crime a convict committed, and more about what that convict could offer the colony. So, in many ways, working class people, like these two convicts – and free settlers too – largely decided the voice of art in the colony. No longer was art the sole domain of the privileged classes: in a new country far from Britain, art was made by whoever had the wherewithal to create it. These were the first steps in creating what was to become an Australian ‘identity’, one different from the once-called ‘motherland’.

Q. How much of the book has been devoted to the work of First Nations artists and the length of time it took for their works to be truly appreciated?

A.First off, we made a deliberate decision to limit our discussion of Indigenous art to those instances where it was confronted with, or incorporated into, what would become our shared Australian story. And, if the artists were living, we ran everything by them; if deceased, we asked family/appropriate Indigenous cultural bodies to read the text and provide feedback.

We discuss a number of extraordinary First Nations men and women, among them Bennelong and his kinsman Yemmerrawanne, who performed a song in London in 1793 – unlikely as that sounds! There’s ground-breaking jazz singer Georgia Lee, a highly successful and popular artist who never shied away from speaking out against racism. She was also the first Indigenous artist to record a long-play record in this country back in 1962. Acclaimed opera star of the late 1940s and 1950s Harold Blair overcame tremendous obstacles to make a career. Writer and inventor David Unaipon (whose image is on the $50 note) had his intellectual property stolen by a white man. His Legendary Tales of the Australian Aborigines, written in 1924, didn’t appear under his own name until 2001!

It’s different in more recent times, and we’re fortunate that First Nations artists such as filmmakers Rachel Perkins and Warwick Thornton, and artist Tracey Moffatt have the platforms they deserve. Those artists have presented grim realities to viewers, challenging much that we thought we knew about ourselves.

To answer the second part of your question, artists such as Lee, Blair and a range of others were definitely appreciated by white audiences during their lifetimes, but there’s no doubt whatsoever that they encountered condescending and highly racist attitudes by large numbers of people. We’ve documented this. Researching these significant artists was eye-opening to me, to Ingeborg, and we hope, to all readers. It’s high time the true history of this country regarding the treatment of First Nations Australians was more widely known.

Q. Does the book look at the difficult journey female artists have had to receive the recognition that they deserve?

A.Yes, women had to fight for their voices to be heard. And those voices are hugely important if you want a well-rounded view of this nation’s history. We’re so used to the romantic and very male-oriented narrative of the bush through the poems of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson. But in 1902 Barbara Baynton, who’d lived on the land, painted a very different picture, one completely at odds with the world evoked by Lawson et al. Baynton wrote of the hardships and misery that women in the bush had to endure. Oh, and she had to take her book to London because no one would publish it here. Because her work was consistently being rejected by publishers because of her gender, composer Margaret Sutherland set up her own music publishing business. Not only that, she was the breadwinner in her family; and her husband, a psychiatrist no less, thought that her desire to compose was a sign of mental illness. Kylie Tennant and Ruth Park wrote about the seedy reality of living conditions in cities, and were vilified for giving Australia a ‘bad’ name. Painter Nora Heysen spent much of her life in the shadow of her famous father, and even when she became the first woman to win the Archibald Prize, she still had to battle for acceptance. There are plenty of examples of women fighting against the odds to get their art out there. We celebrate them.

Q. Does the book look at the contribution immigrants have made to Australia’s history?

A. Yes,migrants have always had much of value to contribute. Ingeborg herself is a migrant, having moved to Australia in 2006. Of course, when it all boils down, apart from Indigenous Australians, we’re all ultimately migrants or descendants of them. Migrants brought fresh new perspectives. Consider Raimond Gaita’s Romulus, My Father. The novel (and the film) is a powerful example of the post-World War II experiences of traumatised Europeans finding themselves in a country where immigration officials routinely changed someone’s given name because they were unable to pronounce it; and where everything was incredibly unfamiliar. The art they brought with them was rooted in memories of their homelands, but imbued with the anguish of war and suffering. You see this too in the experiences of the Vietnamese who arrived in Australia from the 1970s. There are too many examples to list here, but we’re acutely aware that the narrative about who we were as Australians, and who we have become as the decades roll on, is at least, partially a product of the richness and variety of our ever-changing population.

Q. In your research you must have come across more than a few surprises. Can you share with readers a few of these?

A. Many surprises! Who knew there was a piano on the First Fleet? And did you know that the gold rushes in Victoria and New South Wales of the 1850s were not only responsible for an enormous surge in our prosperity, a hugely increased population, and a rapid rise in infrastructure development, but also for the establishment of a vibrant performing arts industry in this country? We weren’t the cultural backwater people may think we were, and people clamoured to see international entertainers who came here knowing there was a whole lot of newfound wealth to splash around. Another surprise was discovering that the father of photographer Max Dupain, best known for his iconic work The Sunbaker, was a staunch eugenicist.

These days we’re fortunate to see Australian works by Australian artists represented on the stage and screen, but perhaps the first time that happened was back in 1956 when Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was first performed. Until then, people had mostly seen British and American stories on stage, but at last, here was something ordinary Aussies could really relate to – it showed real people in settings they knew. Lawler posed a number of profound questions in that work, so it’s not surprising it’s still performed today.

Ingeborg and I learned an enormous amount while researching and writing this book. No matter how much we thought we knew, there was always something incredible to discover. I hope people enjoy reading the book as much as we enjoyed writing it.

ISBN 9781923065338 (paperback); 9781923065345 (ebook – epub); 9781923065352 (ebook – Kindle) 340 pages; Publisher MoshPit Publishing

Both the hard copy and the ebook are available from all good online outlets  Check the website for more details:


























































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