Presley permeates an exhibition about legacy of colonialism

Ryan Presley is one of the most exciting First Nations artists working in Queensland today but he doesn’t pull any punches in his Cairns exhibition.


Jun 05, 2024, updated Jun 05, 2024
Ryan Presley's Cairns exhibition shows an artist at the height of his powers pulling no punches

Ryan Presley's Cairns exhibition shows an artist at the height of his powers pulling no punches

In his latest exhibition Queensland First Nations artist Ryan Presley wrestles with the violence inherent in the histories of Indigenous peoples since colonisation.

Presley (Marri Ngarr) offers us accomplished paintings, watercolours and drawings and they are pertinent at a time when racism has, once again, been a public focus of discussion in the mainstream media in Australia.

His paintings are like storyboards, combinations of pattern, people, clouds, sand dunes and industrial motifs which feature Aboriginal figures at their heart. They are ambitious, interweaving art historical references and the breadth of a European aesthetic tradition with Presley’s personal and cultural motifs as an Aboriginal man.

And they reimagine: a seductive and intriguing dreamscape, lyrical and layered with meaning, undermining the power imbalance to which Aboriginal people are so often subject.

This is Presley’s first solo exhibition in Queensland since 2022, with his work seen in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney since then. With 16 new works Presley has created an exhibition that reflects the past in the context of the present. His scope encompasses art history, the canon and its ongoing strictures, and the function of art in society.

He is best known for his Blood Money series, which replaced the historical figures we are accustomed to seeing on Australian bank notes with Indigenous resistance fighters. This body of work tackled Australia’s foundations – its constitution and currency –acknowledging money as the economic and central driver.

In his new work, Presley explores the concept of the mongrel. That’s a lang term for mixed breed dogs but also used to denigrate Indigenous people, sometimes adopted as banter between friends, and a celebration of the underdog. He does so to profile an uneasy undercurrent, constructed like contemporary history paintings. “Australia is a violent place,” he says, with paintings and art history historically a place to record iconic and conflicted narratives.

While these works attest to themes of power and dominance, they are also delightful images, rich in lyrical narratives, patterns and a technically finessed aesthetic with Aboriginal people (and dingoes) at their heart.

“I’m still talking about similar things, our experience and survival in the colonial era,” Presley says. “I’m thinking about Australian society and what that means. I like Renaissance themes – their scope – exhuming old ideas, using them to inform different ways of thinking. The formula of looking at ideas is taking the past, polishing it up and inspiring something in the current and future.

The sun never sets; so we daydream features a central circular motif with the trajectory of a moon moving across its surface. In front of this an Aboriginal woman feeds a baby with one arm and cradles a small dog in the other, flames like an aura around her head. A pattern of sand dunes and blue waves across the surface contains dolphins, clouds, and urban motifs – a service station, a lighthouse, and a ship carrying tanks. Its narrative is enigmatic – nature, culture and industry interchangeable, with the layers of time also evoked.

Wandering hearts 1 (2024) depicts a reclining Aboriginal man, eyes closed (sleeping or dead?), on a plinth rendered in the classical Renaissance style. Beside him, parallel, is a rifle, with a dog’s head in silhouette behind the body, mouth open, howling at his loss (evoking the angst in Goya’s black paintings). Lucid dream (blue coda) 1 depicts a boar pouncing on a dog, while two others defend.

Presley was brought up Catholic and baptised in the desert near Alice Springs, which he describes as his own “strange collision of histories”. In these works, he gives us his contemporary take on the religious and economic structures that continue to shadow society. They reflect the conflicts inherent in the word “mongrel” and its meaning, with repetition of past injustices and their permeation of the present proving hard to shift.

Ryan Presley – Mongrel, until August 25, Cairns Art Gallery, 40 Abbott St, Cairns

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