Trackers and Troopers
Michel Sourgnes Fine Arts 1999
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
Review by Grafico Topico's SUE SMITH
This review was first published in The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, Australia - July 1999.
THOUGH artist George Morant is no relation to 'Breaker' Morant, he does share with his famous namesake a profound affinity with the bush and an antagonistic attitude to oppressive authority.
A show of the Australian painter's bitterly critical canvases on the colonial history of black deaths at the hands of white officers and their exploited black trackers, 'Trackers and Troopers', currently at Brisbane's Michel Sourgnes Fine Arts, is drawing an interested audience.
"The theme (of the paintings) is the use of indigenous people to track down and kill their own kind," explains Morant, who for some 30 years has been creating paintings on the cultural clash between indigenous people and settlers in Australian history.
"The black trackers or troopers were Aboriginal people brought in from inter-state, mostly from Victoria to Queensland. Under English officers, they systematically sought out other Aboriginal people and killed them."
These are strong pictures, but some of the interest in Morant's work is also linked to his intriguing persona. At 65, he is a battler in the Mick Dundee mode, charming but implacable, an itinerant who left home at 14, worked "on the Snowy in the early days", travelled all through western Queensland, mined tin and gold in the Northern Territory, and worked with opals at Lightning Ridge.
When Morant talks about these remote places, you're transported back into a tough, frontier Australia, where the red ochre landscape was vast and inspiring, but life for many was isolated and sometimes cruel.
Morant's art reflects both the beauty and the brutality of these ungiving places. He first took up painting in the 1960s, when he was at Lightning Ridge. At the time, Pro Hart's outback paintings were just becoming popular, and Albert Tucker, one of Morant's favourite artists, was in the middle of his successful career.
But Hart's naive bush scenes did not appeal to Morant. He was drawn to Tucker, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval -- not by the gritty city streets in their paintings, but by their raw, expressive images of the hard lives of the urban poor: children playing in slums, street girls and prostitution.
Not unlike Tucker, Morant saw his role as an artist as a prophetic mission of protest against the evil and cruelty around him. His first angry pictures tackled the Vietnam war. "I started painting these broken flowers, and the jungle, with blood running out -- they were awful," he confesses, laughing ruefully at the memory. "But still it got me going: I found (painting) was a way of talking to myself, having a little scream to myself."
As time went on, Morant's paintings improved, but continued as a scream of protest, as he painted bitter critiques on World War I, and a series imagining Christ returning to the modern world.
But the subject he has returned to over and over again, is the thing that seared his soul during his wanderings around Australia: the impact (often negative) of white settlement on the land and its indigenous inhabitants. Morant's take on this history is invariably savage: one of his celebrated painting from 1988 depicted Captain Cook bringing a "gift" of rats to the country; many others depict miners, clergy, troopers and trackers wreaking bloody havoc on the land and on the Aborigines.
To date, Morant has had 13 solo shows and his work is represented in private and corporate collections in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Japan and Jugoslovia. He is pleased to have struck a chord with such a wide audience, but over the years he has also experienced indifference (30 years ago, no one was interested in his Aboriginal-theme paintings). His work also attracts its share of detractors: when he exhibited the Christ paintings in Melbourne, for example, the Festival of Light protested.
Yet none of his work is produced out of a desire either to please, shock, or tell people how they should live ("It's terribly selfish: you do it because it's your thoughts; it's a way of me talking to myself"), rather his art is the sign of a compulsive creator, who would paint whether he had an appreciative audience or not.
Still there are many who "do" appreciate his work, and see him as a free spirit unafraid to tackle important, hard issues. Morant's dealer, Michel Sourgnes, says above all, Morant is "his own man".
"I think he (Morant) paints better than Nolan," opines Sourgnes. "While Nolan paints what I call 'reassuring myths' about Australian society, he (Moran) is depicting the disturbing reality."
Prophets who rage against the evil men do are not always welcome, of course. But Sourgnes, for one, thinks that tough pictures like Morant's, facing the facts of our dark past, play an important role in the current process of reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. "It's not a question of passing judgment," says Sourgnes, "it's just a matter of confronting the past, and saying: 'Yes, it did happen, and we don't want it to happen again'."
'Trackers and Troopers', Michel Sourgnes Fine Arts, 16 Stevenson St, Ascot, Brisbane, Australia until July 30 1999.
Copyright © 1999 Sue Smith. Not to be used without the permission of the author