Ar­chive: Sid­ney Nolan in Africa, by An­drew Tur­ley


I NEVER EX­PECTED TO TRAVEL TO the other side of the world for a paint­ing. But in 2014 my part­ner Rachael and I found our­selves there – strug­gling for breath on the muddy, near ver­ti­cal slopes of the Rwen­zori Moun­tains in Uganda, fight­ing through bam­boo for­est to alpine plateaus chilled by winds whip­ping off the snow-laden peaks. Then again in 2016. Un­der a re­lent­less sun we en­tered Harar in Ethiopia, the for­ti­fied town and fourth holy city of Is­lam, mak­ing our way through an­cient gates and nav­i­gat­ing nar­row wind­ing al­leys to stand un­der the 500-year-old mud and rub­ble walls in­fused with his­tory.

By the time you read this we will be on our way back from Dar es Salaam, the spice mar­kets of Zanz­ibar and the iso­lated deep south of Tan­za­nia.

When we looked at Sid­ney Nolan’s African paint­ings we saw more than just land­scapes, an­i­mals and peo­ple. It was strange. We had seen more fa­mous paint­ings, much more fa­mous, but they never pro­duced the same sense of ex­cite­ment, fore­bod­ing or melan­choly. It was as if there was some­thing alive and vi­tal buried un­der Sid­ney’s 50-year-old paint.

So for the last three years we have com­mit­ted to search­ing for the brood­ing fig­ures, the lu­mi­nous wildlife, the de­spair, vi­o­lence, joy and en­ergy, and to un­cover the secrets within his African works. We have also been looking to add to his legacy.

When Marl­bor­ough Fine Art un­veiled 35 of Nolan’s African paint­ings in May 1963, the cat­a­logue was de­voted in its en­tirety to ar­gu­ing the im­ages were de­rived from

self-ex­iled French mod­ernist poet, “Rim­baud him­self, or to im­ages re­mem­bered from the po­ems, or to African ex­pe­ri­ences which seem to re­late to Rim­baud’s own.” And yet, hung on the gallery walls were ele­phants, wildlife from the east African sa­van­nah and more apes and mon­keys in hu­man-like form than any other sub­ject. There were only six Rim bau­dre cognisable paint­ings.

You can imag­ine the con­fu­sion. John Nash wrote in the York­shire Post: “So we are given ‘Rim­baud at Harar’ (af­ter a pho­to­graph), ‘Head of Rim­baud’ (af­ter an­other pho­to­graph) and 32 paint­ings of Africans, mon­keys, ele­phants and gnus.”

Crit­ics thrive on clear clas­si­fi­ca­tion, but things were def­i­nitely not clear. Michael Levey of Lon­don Mag­a­zine said: “It is hard to see the link be­tween these quite stun­ningly at­trac­tive pic­tures and any­thing that con­cerns Rim­baud … Africa does not seem to of­fer him a mythol­ogy into which he could en­ter.”

An easy op­tion was to judge the cat­a­logue ex­pla­na­tion against what they ex­pected from the man, and it was “out of tune with what we have come to ex­pect from Nolan”. Like Harari mud, that judge­ment has stuck for more than half a cen­tury.

The gap be­tween the pub­lic and the crit­ics was vast. The BBC broad­cast the works live, Fran­cis Ba­con praised their colour, Her Majesty the Queen made a rare pur­chase for the Royal col­lec­tion and it was writ­ten Princess Mar­garet had to force her way through the crowds on open­ing night as her hus­band, “Tony ploughed a way through the throng for his mis­sus”. It was a strange para­dox.

In 2013 we de­cided that the only way we could make sense of it all was to start where Sid­ney had started. We teased out his itin­er­ary from ten­u­ous clues in notes, books and frag­ments of in­ter­views – cross­ing the Serengeti’s Seronera River on a Fri­day, en­ter­ing Uganda’s cap­i­tal Kam­pala in the days just be­fore the 1962 In­de­pen­dence cel­e­bra­tions, a let­ter to friend and artist Al­bert Tucker post­marked Nairobi 10 Oc­to­ber, and Cyn­thia Nolan’s ac­count of the Ethiopian Em­peror’s corona­tion day cel­e­bra­tions in As­mara, at that time part of Ethiopia.

We traced his path on Uganda’s ru­ral red-earth roads, from Kam­pala to Kisoro, stop­ping to talk to vil­lage el­ders of life in the 1960s. Scrab­bling over the cone-shaped peaks and misty moun­tain sad­dles of the Rwen­zori Na­tional Park we scoured the veg­e­ta­tion for Sid­ney’s apes and mon­keys.

His ‘Blue Mon­key’ peered at us through lichen-shrouded trees in the Moun­tains of the Moon. His ‘Ape’ with raw-red but­tocks “the colour of flame tree flow­ers” saun­tered non­cha­lantly across the road out­side Bigodi vil­lage. And his ‘Go­rilla’, cra­dled in a misty-green land­scape out­side Kisoro, re­turned our gaze with hu­man-like eyes.

Ethiopia was a dif­fer­ent kind of world. Our 4WD bumped and rat­tled along dusty roads from Ad­dis Ababa. Camels grazed in dry wa­ter­courses and rough brown rocky patches were sud­denly splashed in colour from flow­er­ing red hot poker plants. We walked de­serted al­leys and packed-earth paths in Harar, that snaked their way maze-like be­hind an­cient walls, and past mosques to emerge sud­denly into mar­kets seething with life.

I stood in door­ways for hours watch­ing Sid­ney’s ‘Seated Beg­gar’ plead for coins on a street cor­ner. At night the Harari hyena man called the de­scen­dants of Sid­ney’s ‘Hyena’ to the walls to snatch bones in the moon­light, with their “blunt nose black and rounded ears up­right”. Rim­baud’s sepia eyes watched us from a fa­mous faded pho­to­graph Sid­ney had used, while we spoke to Ab­dunasir Ab­du­lahi, the cu­ra­tor of the Arthur Rim­baud Mu­seum about the Harar Sid­ney had seen in 1962. These jour­neys opened our eyes to a time and place un­tainted by the opin­ions of 1960s crit­ics. In the paint­ings we now see colour pal­ettes, land­scapes, faces and pat­terns that make sense. And with the help of di­aries, let­ters and in­ter­views we’ve found a way to read this rich and ex­tra­or­di­nary poem, ‘Africa’, that Sid­ney wrote in paint. Con­sider this: ev­ery im­age is in­flu­enced by some­thing else. He took a ge­o­graphic con­text, trans­form­ing and shap­ing it with layer upon layer of over­lap­ping nar­ra­tive – us­ing world art, pol­i­tics, lit­er­a­ture, global con­flict, pho­to­graphs, ex­pe­ri­ence and his­tory – un­til a new se­ries of works rich with nu­ance and hid­den mean­ing emerged. What ap­peared to both crit­ics and the gallery as dis­parate themes are ac­tu­ally clearly linked on a scale they could not have been imag­ined. Paint­ings he an­chored in the West are a study of hu­man­ity and hu­man­ness with a new global pro­le­tariat emerg­ing through rolling, hump­ing, surg­ing, washes of Fran­cis Ba­con. In the East there is an­cient en­ergy; an­i­mals in a gen­tle cal­li­graphic land­scape with a sense of place for the dis­or­dered mind, but shad­owed by the ever-present threat of the dis­ap­pear­ance of species, in­clud­ing the ex­tinc­tion of man. The cen­tre is the chaos and men­ace of post-war pol­i­tics, and to the north, changes wrought by the ‘civilised’ Euro­pean are cloaked in Turner, Gau­guin, De­gas and the des­per­a­tion of Rim­baud’s poetry. The se­cret of Nolan’s Africa is that it is the most unique and in­tensely cre­ative se­ries ever com­pleted by Sid­ney. His two and a half month per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence – fu­elled by the lit­eral, lit­er­ary and artis­tic – ended in works broader, deeper and richer than any­thing he had cre­ated be­fore.


NOLAN 100 – 1917-2017 Un­til 28 Jan 2018 Bun­danon Trust, Up­stairs Gallery Bun­danon Homestead, Il­la­roo NSW

I stood in door­ways for hours watch­ing Sid­ney’s ‘Seated Beg­gar’ plead for coins on a street cor­ner. At night the Harari hyena man called the de­scen­dants of Sid­ney’s ‘Hyena’ to the walls to snatch bones in the moon­light.

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