Despite being in the middle of a pandemic, Daniel Boyd’s schedule is full to the brim. An artist with Aboriginal and Pacific Islander heritage, Boyd is a Sydney-based Kudjala/Gangalu/Kuku Yalanji/Waka Waka/Gubbi Gubbi/Wangerriburra/Bandjalung man from North Queensland and his latest achievements quickly reveal why he is difficult to pin down.
Not only has Boyd’s public sculpture For Our Country, a collaboration with Melbourne-based architects Edition Office which was commissioned by the Australian War Memorial (AWM), won the 2020 Canberra Medallion and several other awards, but Boyd also has a new body of work, AND THE HORIZON SWALLOWED THE TORTOISE, at Rosyln Oxley9 in Sydney.
Often using Eurocentric historical imagery as source material for his painting, sculpture and moving image works, much of Boyd’s practice retells history from the perspective of lived Indigenous experience. Raising questions about perception, Boyd views his work as a lens through which we see history and ourselves reflected. Laying bare fragments of a shared history rather than a singular white vision, Boyd crafts his images from reflective materials like small mirrored disks, fine points of paint and dabs of viscous glue. Physically moving around Boyd’s work, one can see each mark shimmering with a delicate sense of movement, drawing us closer and in turn bringing the viewer into the work itself.
The mirrored lens makes up a significant portion of For Our Country, a collaboration between Boyd and Edition Office architects Kim Bridgland and Aaron Roberts. Designed to honour Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for their service and experiences in the military, For Our Country resides within the AWM sculpture garden in Canberra. This compact installation uses light and form to evoke quiet, personal contemplation.
In an Australian Institute of Architects online Lean In Session discussing First Nations representation in art and architecture, Boyd spoke of the intention behind his contribution to For Our Country. “I set out to create something with the ability to draw people in, so the memorial wasn’t just an object sitting in the landscape,” Boyd said. “Doing this project in the context of Indigenous diggers serving for Australia in international conflict – doing that from the perspective of the Frontier Wars, land being stolen, children being stolen, culture being erased – I think it’s quite a profound backdrop.” Speaking alongside Boyd, architect Kim Bridgland added, “When we encounter the world, we bounce back memories connected with place. In terms of the built structure, we designed For Our Country to not have derivative histories from any kind of architectural language, whether it be European or Indigenous. It’s your own experience with For Our Country that gives meaning to it.”
Immediately noticeable when viewed from afar, the site of For Our Country features a long panel dotted with two-way mirror lenses reflecting the surrounding landscape of oak trees and lone pines. In front of the reflective wall is a fire plate for ceremony and a cylindrical chamber extending deep into the ground where soil deposits from each Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Nation can be placed in memory of lives lost. As a symbol of unified humanity, the circle is present in multiple elements of For Our Country. To get to the fire plate, visitors must first walk over shards of basalt placed within a large circular expanse at the base of the walled panels.
Laura Webster, head of art at the Australian War Memorial explains the role basalt plays in For Our Country. “Daniel and the architects had specifically chosen a certain type and size of basalt as the material inside the circle,” she says. “They did this because when you walk across it, you can’t walk quickly, you have to take your time. You really need to think about how you are placing your feet on the earth around you.” Adding to this element of mindfulness is a darkened interior area positioned behind the facade of reflective panels where a semi-circular bench encourages visitors to rest and view the landscape from within.
The work in Boyd’s solo show, AND THE HORIZON SWALLOWED THE TORTOISE, hits a more personal note. Heavily influenced by his own experience of being unable to visit his mother in Cairns due to travel restrictions imposed by Covid-19, this series of new paintings is full of potent symbolism and meaning. With key concepts revolving around parenting, grief and loss, Boyd’s new work can also be related to the forced separation of Aboriginal people from their kin, country and culture across the multiple generations who have lived with the fallout of colonial occupation. Also present in the exhibition are images suggestive of Greek mythology.
Standing out as the central image of the exhibition is Untitled (SOAGS), 2020, an imposing triptych of a beach at sunset. Based on a favourite place he knew as a child in Cairns, Boyd has painted the silhouettes of mountains surrounded by still ocean, stretching out beneath a sky on fire with the burnt hues of a sunset. Directly opposite the triptych is a series of violet coloured paintings featuring the Bush-stone curlew, a native bird known for its shrill nocturnal wail. A prominentsymbol in Aboriginal culture, in North Queensland the curlew is closely associated with stories of death, its haunting call believed to be spirits returning to Dreaming or mothers mourning their lost children. In Boyd’s paintings, the presence of the curlew hints at the ongoing uncertainty of Covid-19, evoking grief, the separation of family and friends, and the aching distance from beloved places.