Joan Ross, Colonial Grab (2014). Animator: Josh Raymond. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. Donated through the Australian government’s Cultural Gifts Program by the artist, 2015. In 1970, when Joan Ross was an eight-year-old growing up in Sydney’s western suburbs, her entire school went on an excursion to see the Queen, who was on a royal visit to Parramatta Park. Ross refused to go. When the school asked her why, she replied that she didn’t believe in the Queen and certainly didn’t believe in what the Queen “stood for”.
Nearly 50 years later, Ross still remembers how strongly she felt about that protest, and how strongly she felt about the power and superiority of authority. It was moment that shaped her work as an artist and brought about her decision to examine British colonisation and its negative impact.
Ross has described her longstanding critique of colonisation as an obsession. “I don’t think you can live in Australia without considering the past,” she has said. “Every day, when I go to the beach, floating in the water, looking back at the land, I imagine living here in this paradise and then having the colonials arrive. I always feel that I’m on indigenous land.”
Ross retells history using various media such as painting and video. She appropriates images of the romanticised colonial past by John Glover or Joseph Lycett, for example, and juxtaposes these images with fluorescent yellow motifs, which are a metaphor for colonisation. This subversive intervention is evident in works such as in Oh History, You Lied to Me, which won the Sulman Prize a few weeks ago, and in Colonial Grab, a video animation on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, in the exhibition Today, Tomorrow, Yesterday.
At the MCA, senior curator Natasha Bullock and I watch Colonial Grab, which features a colonial couple who time-travel from playing a poker machine to the desert, to a sitting room, and to colonial landscapes. It starts with a wealthy European woman, who is wearing a flamboyant yellow feathered hat and dress. She is playing a poker machine named Colonial Grab. Another scenario features a Glover painting in which stylised Aboriginal people are plucked out of the trees and arranged ikebanastyle in a vase, a reference to the lack of respect shown for the original inhabitants.
Bullock says Colonial Grab is about the game of colonisation. “It’s about the pokie mentality that comes with the land grab, and Joan uses that fluorescent yellow in her work, which is kind of disgusting but fabulous at the same time, as a sign for colonisation,” she says. “Glover is a big influence. The idea of him just arriving with his English garden and all those paintings he made of his perfect English garden. Ikebana is another motif she uses where it’s nature but it is controlled and it’s manipulated and it’s made into these strange creations that are not natural but completely artificial. Her work is always a bit humorous, a bit on edge; it is a delicate balancing act.”
Bullock says Ross’s videos are a “recent, wonderful development”. “I do love Joan’s work,” she says. “What I think she does successfully is navigate a really serious subject, colonisation, with humour because often political art can be cold, and it’s hard to deal with really serious issues. But I think she is able to navigate the very complex issues but also take the piss, shall I say, out of the English by appropriating their work and their manners and their dress and the land grab, and making it her own.”
Sulman Prize entry is on display at the Art Gallery of NSW until October 22. She is also showing work in Grounded: Contemporary Australian Art at the National Art School Gallery, Sydney, until October 14.
Single channel digital video animation, in colour, with sound. Duration: 7min 38sec