Pirate Captain Cook and His Head in a Jar: Daniel Boyd’s Subversive Satire Aboriginal Art

TStories of Aboriginal warriors who fought against British colonialism, among them WindradenAnd the Yagan And the gandamara, offers cultural affirmation to many Aboriginal Australians. For artist Daniel Boyd, it was like that Pemoloya man of the Bedjigal clan who led a long guerrilla war that began soon after the arrival of the First Fleet, and which became a personal source of strength.

“He was one of the first visible people to lead the resistance against the colony,” says Boyd, a Koggala, Kangalu, Wangipura, Wakka Wakka, Gubbi Gubbi, Kuku Yalanji, Bundjalung of 40-year-old Ni-Vanuatu heritage. The Sydney-based artist is preparing to open his first major career survey, Treasure Island, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. We’re sitting in his industrial studio in Marrickville; His partner, “retired artist” Bill Charter, and their four-year-old daughter—the youngest of four children—came to bring their morning coffee.

Boyd is perhaps best known for his detailed drawings of Aboriginal leaders, Australian landscapes, and his family, and he also has a satirical streak going back to his college days, when he first saw A picture of Captain James CookBritish artist John Webber in the National Portrait Gallery. Boyd wanted to “understand the power this painting had over an Australian audience” and, through his art, began to undermine the hero myth of British explorers. Suddenly colonial figures had speckled eyes, wooden legs, and a roof, and Boyd likened the imperial annexation to an act of piracy.

We call them pirates here, 2006 Oil on canvas
We Call Them Pirates Here, 2006, oil on canvas. Photo: © Daniel Boyd

“The language of power that was in the 18th and 19th century images, the power of representation — these are the things that I was particularly interested in,” he says. “I was interested in the language in which we are represented as people.”

Pemoloy was not honored with portraiture. When the warrior was killed in 1802, after 12 years of raids on the colonists, his severed head was sent to Sir Joseph Banks, the British botanist who accompanied Cook’s voyage into the South Sea to celebrate the transit of Venus. After the nomination of New South Wales as a settlement, Banks was a powerful and vital figure for the expansion of the British Empire, the commercial economy of tea, sugar, agriculture – and slavery. By the time Banks received Pemoloy’s head preserved in a jar of alcohol, he was back in London, where he served as the first president of the Royal Society. Where is Ras Pemoloi located today? UnknownHis skull may be out of sight forever—while he pursues Banks and Cook in oils and textbooks.

Sir No Bird 2007, Art Gallery of New South Wales
Sir No Bird 2007, Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photo: © Daniel Boyd

Boyd drew his head in his 2007 work, Sir No Bird, at the feet of Banks, who is depicted wearing an eye patch. The painting links colonialism to a larger scene of persecution against indigenous peoples in which church and state were complicit. Boyd’s parents, part of Stolen GenerationsTheir first movements were controlled and documented when they were forced to live on the Anglicans yoghurt The Mission, South Cairns (also drawn by Boyd).

“I inserted my severed head into a jar in these photos as a tool to get a sense of how, when I was growing up, I was trying to understand why people reacted to [Indigenous people] Boyd says. “The suppression of the cultural inheritance that comes with the state and the church … my language was forbidden because the church and the state did not allow this transmission of culture.”

Against a wall in his studio, he reclines a new work depicting the late American boxer Muhammad Ali, outside Redfern’s legal circle during a time trip to australia in 1979. This painting is for a group show in Los Angeles that would connect the American civil rights movement with the ongoing struggle of Indigenous Australians for Tell the truth.

Boyd says the Black Lives Matter movement’s global sweep has been “very important”:[Australians] They let down their guards when they saw what was happening elsewhere, and they didn’t understand it [injustice] It was happening here. And that’s going on here forever.”

Untitled (SCAMSCI) 2018, archival oil and glue on linen
Untitled (SCAMSCI), 2018, archival oil and glue on linen. Photo: © Daniel Boyd

With Treasure Island, Boyd hopes to expose the unrecognized history of slavery in Australia. His great-grandfather, Samuel, was kidnapped from Pentecost Island in Vanuatu and enslaved in the sugarcane fields of Queensland. “My great-grandfather was with a woman from Koko Yalangi, and their son was taken out of their care, because they were an interracial couple,” Boyd says. “Their relationship collapsed after he stole from them.” Samuel is buried in Maryborough.

Later, some of Boyd’s predecessors survived massacres in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, amid a land-use struggle as Queensland’s cotton industry was established, along with wool and livestock.

Did Boyd, born in 1982, feel a connection to the countryside? While pandemic lockdowns have restricted his travel to Cairns recently, Boyd has been learning more about his ancestors’ connections to various places. “You create associations if you are disengaged. He says.

Untitled (TBOMB) 2020 oil, synthetic polymer paint, and archival glue on canvas
Untitled (TBOMB), 2020, oil, synthetic polymer paint and archival glue on canvas. Photo: © Daniel Boyd

Several years ago, he traveled to the Natural History Museum in London and made art from archival boxes containing Aboriginal human remains that had been shared among anatomists and anthropologists. “I do works about dates that have been denied, or that don’t necessarily get the attention they deserve,” he says. “Global conversations about equality and diversity are very much present at the moment. Centers are crumbling… Repetition of mainstream narratives is a thing of the past. We have to embrace diversity now.”

Does it mean that we ignore indigenous knowledge at our own risk? “Yes, exactly. This country has a legacy of imposing its will on the environment. We must listen to the experience. My studio here is overflowing, because it’s built on a swamp, you know? If you get wet a lot, as it happened recently, and there’s a high tide, the water goes in.” to the studio.”

What does he hope to pass on to his four daughters, ages 4 to 13? “It’s about giving them the tools to deal with how they move through time and space,” he says. “We hope to give them the confidence to deal with adversity and instill the idea that they are their own selves, that they are unique, that they don’t have to belong to a particular narrative of a group of people or a way of being. They take advantage of opportunities that were not available to my parents. I hope they have a more equitable future.”