On 22 October, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard unveiled a large painting by Australian artist Peter Daverington in the Great Hall of Canberra’s Parliament House. The work was commissioned to commemorate those who have survived institutional child abuse in Australia. Steve Dow spoke to Daverington about the challenges of the commission, the role of art in making sure we don’t forget the past, his success as a New York based mural painter, and his ongoing rebellious nature.
Seeking inspiration to paint his large tribute to survivors of institutional child sexual abuse who fought injustice at the hands of churches, charities and state-run orphanages, Melbourne-born artist Peter Daverington travelled last year to the Louvre in Paris, where he took copious photographs of Théodore Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa.
The French romantic painter’s 1818-19 work depicted the then contemporary true tale of shipwrecked sailors abandoned by the French government. Seeing parallels, Daverington’s work The Raft of the Clan likewise depicts a raft in a vivid, storm-tossed sea, but the main subjects are children and activism. One child holds a sign that reads, ‘Abuse by the State.’
Meanwhile, in their own hermetically sealed world in the painting’s bottom left hand corner, clerical figures surround the Pope kissing baby Jesus, a “nod to the systematic abuse by the Catholic Church,” says Daverington, “with Australia leading the charge of their indictment.”
In 2012, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the creation of a national royal commission into institutional responses to instances of child sexual abuse, having been under pressure to act because of allegations that the Catholic Church had covered up abuse by paedophile priests.
Around the border of the painting are portraits of 36 key individuals involved in the royal commission, including prime ministers, commissioners and members of the Care Leavers Australia Network (CLAN), a support and advocacy group for people brought up in care as state wards or raised in children’s homes, orphanages and foster care.
CLAN member Robert House, familiar with Daverington’s practice, approached the artist with the challenging commission. Based in New York, the Australian artist’s work employs a wide range of pictorial languages, engaging with both old European masters and street art. His large scale mural work includes a bald eagle painted in Harlem that made the front page of The New York Times, above the fold.
Before painting The Raft of the Clan, Daverington photographed children in a similar composition to the sailors in the Géricault work.
Does Daverington believe Julia Gillard acted in a timely fashion in setting up the royal commission? “I live in New York and I can’t really follow Australian politics that closely. I was away when it all happened. But hearing the story that in the last few weeks of her prime ministership she would commit the government to a royal commission, I applaud her for it. It warms my heart that she did that. There’s a part of me that wonders if it would have happened, had she not on her departure done this.”
While Daverington has not endured sexual abuse himself, he met many survivors when photographing them to paint their portraits around the border of the painting, an area of approximately 2.5 by 4 metres.
“I’ve certainly been moved by the accounts of people I’ve met in the course of this commission,” he says. “It was very eye-opening and humbling to meet beautiful people who have struggled throughout their lives. They’re beautiful, intense people.”
“Rob’s strong desire to have this made into an artwork was an attempt for it to remain within a certain realm of consciousness. Not everybody follows the arts but it certainly seems to be one of the mediums throughout history that does keep memory alive. I learned, for instance, about these French sailors through the work of Géricault.”
Born in 1974, Daverington’s father, a gifted draughtsman, taught his son to draw and shade with a pencil. By age 11, having sighted street art on hoardings around building developments in Melbourne’s King Street, as well as seeing graffiti tags at his high school, Daverington bought his own collection of spray cans and began sneaking out in the middle of the night to create his own art on walls and trains. He would sleep under bridges, having lied to his trusting mother that he was staying the night with a friend.
Daverington started running away, but the visual effects company owners based in the building urged him to come back. He recalls them saying “We’re not going to call the cops. We want you to paint the front of our building, and we’ll pay you.”
For 12 years from the age of 18, Daverington travelled, mostly around the Middle East, living in Cairo and Istanbul. He became captivated by the sound of the ney flute, made from reed, and took the instrument up, sometimes giving musical performances separate from his painting.
Returning to Australia at 30 and undertaking a MFA at the Victoria College of the Arts, Daverington began reaching back to old master romantic painters, a focus that met with resistance. But the rebellious streak of a graffiti artist never dies, and there has always been something intrinsic within Daverington that has defied current conventions.
Daverington left Australia for the United States in 2010, where he met and lives with his wife, Kianga. They split their time between Beacon, about 90 minutes north of New York City, and Manhattan.
“I am trying to insert the deep past into the present,” he says of his ethos, “to keep the memory of the past alive. I’m trying to look over the breadth of history through art. I study history through art, then bring it back into the contemporary, because I feel like the past is often relegated to the realm of nostalgia.
“Modernism has eclipsed 16th, 17th, 18th century art, especially within contemporary art. I found when I studied my masters that it was almost a no-go zone to look at the old masters or romantic painting in particular. So I went right there; the motivation was you weren’t supposed to go there. That attracted me,” Daverington explains, “I think I’ve encountered resistance through my whole career because of it. I set myself up for a struggle.”
It is hoped that The Raft of the Clan will tour Australia before finally settling in a permanent home in an orphan heritage museum mooted to be built in Geelong, Victoria. Meanwhile, Daverington’s solo show, Surface Zero, can be seen at Arc One Gallery in Melbourne.