Rome is your friend!

The latest ‘blockbuster’ exhibition at the National Museum of Australia is ‘Rome’, something of a novelty for those of us who live far away from the marching legions. The exhibition is from the collection of the British Museum.

Head of Faustina

Luckily for us the British Museum has packed up plenty of booty and sent it down under. The sculptures are the most impressive elements of the show. I was particularly intrigued by the decorative detail on the armour of Hadrian.

A view of the central section of the exhibition.

I had lots of fun trying to capture those details with my pencil. The watercolour background was added in while we were having lunch in the cafe.

My sketch of the statue of Hadrian.

A more poignant statue was a commemorative work of a woman holding a bust of her, presumably dead husband. A nice touch was a small figure at her left shoulder, which is carved like the end of a sofa (see the photo below), which concealed a vase for placing flowers.

Funary monument of a woman holding a bust.

I was interested to see that many of the pieces in the exhibition were excavated in the British Isles, which was a bit different from what I had expected. Many visitors were particularly taken by the coin hoardes and the legionary’s helmet.

Carved end of a sofa.

The fun will continue until 3 February 2019. Until then signs on our local roadways are reminding us that ‘all roads lead to Rome’.

Garden of Australian ‘screams’

Here’s the next installment of un-posted drafts.

We visited the National Museum of Australia to sketch over the weekend (quite a few months of weekends back!). The building is certainly quirky and in many ways fails to fully deliver the concepts which lead it’s design. (I note that there has been a recent announcement that the rivetting stretch of concrete outside the museum will be removed and turned into a garden of Australian plants. Three cheers for common sense).

The Garden of Australian Dreams is a symbolic landscape of largely sculptural forms within a body of water, a little grass and a few trees. Encircled by the Museum, it provides an opportunity for visitors to stop and relax as they contemplate this symbolic representation of ‘place’ and ‘home’.

The garden reflects our nation in ways that I am not completely sure were intended, but seem quite accurate in an ironic sense. All the ‘relaxing’ bits of the garden are around the edge, rather like our population which is concentrated on Australia’s coastal fringe.

The centre of the garden represents central Australia and the expanse of painted concrete is certainly a blisteringly hot location on any summer day. I also find it scarily reminiscent of the asphalted playgrounds of my childhood. Although what the wooden paling backyard fence is doing there eludes me. And the screaming? I hadn’t realised before now that this area is where all the children are taken to run off all their excess energy.

Drawing the exhibition – Encounters

This past weekend I visited the National Museum of Australia to see the exhibition Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum. The exhibition also provides links to contemporary Aboriginal people and communities via a series of videos that give the visitor an insight into their view of these items. But is an exhibition that is based on a paradox. That is that many of the objects on display were taken (read stolen), without permission from individuals or communities. Yet these objects would almost certainly have not survived this long, due to the perishable nature of their construction, had they not been taken. In several of the videos I watched, people commented on how they had gained both practical knowledge and cultural strength from interacting with these objects.

Two spears, taken by Captain James Cook and his men on their first encounter with Dharawal/Eora people in Botany Bay in 1770, form the literal centre of the display. The rest of the exhibition turns around this focal point in Australian history. As a ‘maker’ I love looking at the details of these spears, the long flexible prongs still bound tightly to the hafts of the spears. At the same time I was horrified to know that these examples, out of some 40 spears collected at the same time,  were taken after the local people, who tried to stop Cook’s attempts to come ashore, had been shot at and driven away by the landing party. Sir Joseph Banks wrote in his diary:

“[We] threw into the house to them some beads, ribbands, cloths & c. as presents and went away. We however thought it no improper measure to take away with us all the lances which we could find around the houses.”

Gweagal spears

Gweagal fish spears collected by James Cook at Botany Bay (foreground), with contemporary fish spears (background)

Before I tie myself into a total knot about my feelings about how many objects in this exhibition were ‘collected’ I’d better show you some of the items I drew.

First up is a stone kodj, or axe from King George Sound, Albany in Western Australia, collected by Alexander Collie sometime between 1831-33. This kodj was one of the tools used for butchering animals.

Kodj, (axe), stone, resin and wood British Museum Oc. 4768

Kodj, (axe), stone, resin and wood British Museum Oc. 4768

Two large stone flakes have been hafted onto a wooden handle with resin (not sure what type, but possibly from a grass tree). The sharpened end was also used in the butchering process. The strange yellowish shapes I noticed on the handle turned out to be collection labels.

A more complex construction was that of a necklace made of swamp wallaby teeth, which was collected some ten years later on the eastern side of the continent. The root of each tooth was bound by fine string to a leather strap. The teeth are in excellent condition and appear quite white, with almost a blue or violet tint, hence the water colours I added when I got home.


Necklace of Swamp Wallaby teeth, Gunditjmara and Kirrae Whurrong peoples. Collected by Augustus Strong, probably from St Mary’s, Warnambool in 1842-43. British Museum Oc. 1847, 0413.1

I also made two drawings of a Dangal, or dugong charm used for bringing good luck while on the hunt (well not to the dugong anyway).


Dangal (dugong) charm, collected by Alfred Court Haddon on Tudo in 1888

When I looked closely at this charm I could see what appears to be red ochre on it’s muzzle and also in a stripe along its back. The handle made of twine goes around the head and tail and a fine piece of twine is also threaded through the body of the animal via a small drilled out tube. This is such a refined a piece of work.


Per usual there’s so much more I wanted to draw, but there was more in store. Out the exit and into the next room is a second exhibition called Unsettled. This room showcases five contemporary Aboriginal artist’s response to the Encounters exhibition. I thought that this was one of the best small group shows I’ve seen in quite some time.

The work of Jonathan Jones is featured in a window that opens out into the main foyer. His work, Unitled (fort), reflects on a wooden fort built by surveyor and explorer Major Thomas Mitchell and his party of 21 men on 27 May 1835 . The stockade was built to protect against possible attacks by the local Kurnu Paakantji people. Fort Bourke was never attacked and no longer exists but Jones believes it remains a marker of still unresolved frontier relationships.


Jonathon Jones

Untitled (fort), Jonathan Jones , 2015, wood

I was also really impressed by the video work of Torres Strait Islander dancer/artist Elma Kris and the contemporary take on traditional burial poles by Yolŋu artist Wukun Wanambi.

I would highly recommend both exhibitions. On at the National Museum of Australia, until 28 March 2016. Entry to both exhibitions is free.

Saturday Extra

Last Saturday the some of the Canberra Sketchers met up with Angela from the Melbourne Sketch group at the National Museum of Australia for a couple of hours of drawing.

Sketchers united at the National Museum of Australia, 23 May 2015

Sketchers united at the National Museum of Australia, 23 May 2015

We started over a cup of coffee and not surprisingly talk soon turned to favourite tools and tips. I really liked Angela’s solution to finding extra boxes for her watercolours. She bought a ‘seven day’ pillbox at a $2 shop and put her half pans into it. You can also just add tube paint in directly and mix on the lids!

Clever paint solution!

Clever paint solution!

Down to work and the unusual architecture of the museum was the focus for many sketches.

I chose to go into the Museum’s central courtyard, The Garden of Australian Dreams, where a stand of white barked gum trees were beautifully highlighted against the black museum wall.

Gum trees in the Garden of Australian Dreams, watercolour and graphite, 23 May 2015

Gum trees in the Garden of Australian Dreams, watercolour and graphite, 23 May 2015

This wasn’t what I’d intended to draw but it caught my eye. What I did want to capture was The Loop, which springs up from the forecourt of the museum and arcs back into the central courtyard. I liked this view which also encompassed the Black Mountain Tower. I only had a short time to capture this before I met back with the rest of the group.

The Loop and Black Mountain Tower, watercolour, pen and ink and graphite, 23 May 2015

The Loop and Black Mountain Tower, watercolour, pen and ink and graphite, 23 May 2015

We met in the entrance foyer to compare notes. It was clear that we could have spent the whole day drawing at the museum so it will be another venue for a repeat visit.

The collected works on the day, 23 May 2015

The collected works on the day, 23 May 2015

A quick reminder that the next meeting of the Canberra Sketchers group will be held at 10.30 am on Sunday 7 June at the Chinese Gardens, Flynn Drive, opposite the rear entrance of the Hyatt Hotel in Yarralumla.

Thinking through the brush, Old Masters – Australia’s Great Bark Artists

Given it was a dull and foggy day with no prospect of seeing the sun before midday, we decided to go to head for the warm interior of the National Museum of Australia (NMA) to see their current major exhibition, Old Masters, Australia’s Great Bark Artists. Holding the largest collection of bark paintings in the country (and I’m assuming probably the world) the Museum has access to some truly great masterworks. If possible, I’d urge you to see the works in person, however if that’s not possible you can explore a large number of these works online, through the link above. Caution: The NMA website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

Painting on bark seems to have become the forgotten form of Aboriginal art, at least to the Australian public in general. The works in this exhibition are all by male artists from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Some were collected in the mid 20th century and some of the artists represented, like John Muwurndjul, are still actively painting today. The works are all painted in ochres, clay and charcoal on sheets of bark from a stringybark tree, Eucalyptus tetrodonta.

One of the features of paintings from this region is the rrark, the fine cross-hatching that is an integral part of many works. The quality of the fine, fine rrark just stunned me. Some lines are just 1 mm thick and are consistently painted across the large  barks in steady lines. I only learned at the show that the brushes used to make the fine lines are made from human hair.

Narritjin's Brush, 1970's, a gift to the National Gallery of Australia, 1986 from Professor Howard Morphy.

Narritjin’s Brush, 1970’s, a gift to the National Gallery of Australia, from Professor Howard Morphy in 1986.

One brush used by Narritjin Maymuru is included in the show. The brush, called a marwat, is only about 10cms long and is used for the cross hatching at the final stages of the bark painting. Just in case you can’t read my pencil notes the explanatory note said:

‘See this marwat, it is very clever.’… Narritjin explained to Morphy that he ‘thought with’ or ‘through’ his marwat brush.


When I came home I couldn’t resist having a go at cross-hatching for myself. While I started with watercolour I quickly ran into trouble with getting sufficient opacity in my whites. So I just used my acrylic paint markers instead. I also tried some different colours, such as blue and clear red to see how they might work. I hasten to add that while I am interested in exploring how this technique ‘works’ I am not attempting to appropriate specific patterns that are the cultural property of the artists in the show.

A page of cross-hatching inspired by the work in the Old Masters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.

A page of cross-hatching inspired by the work in the Old Masters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.

There is so much that any artist could learn from in this show. The array of compositional devices that the artist’s use would be a lesson for most of us. The striking portrayal of a kangaroo being stalked by a hunter through the bush, Hunter and Kangaroo, 1974, by Bob Balirrblairr Dirdi, I found particularly impressive – the painting  is the first image in this set. My partner also commented that these works demonstrate just how high the levels of invention can be taken when starting from such a limited range of materials.

This is another one of the amazing shows that the NMA has mounted that seem to be completely under-rated by the viewing public. I understand from the staff at the museum that visitor numbers are lower than hoped for. Much as I love the bold and bright acrylics and wildly expressive brushwork of contemporary Aboriginal art, this exhibition amply demonstrated to me the ability of these artists and the true quality of their art.