The Gropius Bau opens the most comprehensive show in Europe to date of Daniel Boyd's work

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The Gropius Bau opens the most comprehensive show in Europe to date of Daniel Boyd's work
Daniel Boyd, Untitled (PAITA), 2022, courtesy: the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

BERLIN.- The Gropius Bau is presenting Daniel Boyd’s RAINBOW SERPENT (VERSION), the most comprehensive show in Europe to date of the renowned artist, who lives and works on Gadigal and Wangal Country, Sydney.

For two decades, Boyd has made an important contribution to unsettling the received Eurocentric history of Australia, while tracing the afterlives of iconographies as they travel through space and time.

Conceived in close dialogue with Boyd, the exhibition stages 44 of the artist’s paintings with two new large-scale installations that engage directly with the Gropius Bau’s historical architecture. Unfolding across the Gropius Bau’s first floor and atrium, RAINBOW SERPENT (VERSION) emphasises non-linear connections between subject matter and ideas of temporality and space.

Daniel Boyd’s work is characterised by a unique visual technique that references history painting while challenging the interlaced legacies of colonisation with cultural and economic imperialism. Boyd’s works draw on such sources as Indigenous knowledge productions, Gestalt theory, the writings of poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant and the artist’s own ancestral familial histories.

In RAINBOW SERPENT (VERSION), the Gropius Bau’s neo-Renaissance architecture serves as a point of departure for Boyd’s new series of paintings. Here, the artist draws from the visual iconography of European classicism and neo-classicism, which he links to the misrepresentation of peoples subjected to colonial and imperial violence and expansion.

Within the programme initiated by former director Stephanie Rosenthal (2018–2022), the Gropius Bau focused on questions of embodied history, craft traditions and the relationship between land, land rights and Indigeneity. This exhibition deepens these focuses by showing how colonial legacies, and strategies of cultural oppression, can be challenged through contemporary art.

RAINBOW SERPENT (VERSION) presents new works that reveal Boyd’s singular form of visual critique, which engages directly with the history of European cultural institutions, including the Gropius Bau’s. Located on a historical borderland, the Gropius Bau witnessed the unfolding of central violent regimes of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as European colonialism and the Nazi terror. During the Cold War era, the Berlin Wall running directly in front of the building’s current main entrance marked the division of Germany and the world into East and West. Boyd’s work reveals how such stories are intertwined and traces their passage across contexts.

Non-First Nations people erroneously use the blanket term “rainbow serpent” to refer to various creation stories from individual First Nation communities in Australia. The use of the term reflects a lack of respect for the diversity of First Nations’ respective cosmologies. Whereas First Nations myths are as diverse as these communities themselves, the term categorises and reduces the particularity of these individual cosmologies. By adding “(VERSION)” to the term in the title of his exhibition, Boyd points to the pluralism and specificities of First Nations worldviews and cultures.

The artist’s works question Eurocentric visual systems and historical narratives. They trace the intertwined technologies of natural and ecological observation, colonialism and cultural oppression, which Boyd contrasts with First Nations’ relationships to nature, place, environment and practices of care and responsibility. In order to challenge Western-derived visual histories, paintings often subvert themes from classical antiquity, anthropological iconography and its impact on more recent visual culture. Both in Boyd’s chosen themes and his painterly technique, he introduces narratives of divergence, producing an aesthetic that embraces opacity.

Boyd’s interest in the material transfer of images is revealed in works that re-appropriate photographs taken by missionaries and anthropologists, others derived from canonical Western art history, yet also reaching back to historical paintings of figures involved in the colonial exploitation of Australia. In Sir No Beard (2009), for instance, Boyd portrays Joseph Banks, who financed and accompanied the HMS Endeavour voyage (1768–1771) from London to Oceania and Australia, helmed by James Cook. A friend of George III, King of Great Britain and Ireland, Joseph Banks used his understanding of the plant world to perpetuate the British empire by planting tea in India and taking breadfruit from Tahiti to Jamaica as inexpensive food for enslaved peoples. Boyd’s version alludes to Pemulwuy, a Bidjigal resistance fighter who was executed by the British in 1802 and whose head was sent to Banks in London. First Nations activists advocate for its discovery and return to Australia.

Since the early 2010s, Boyd’s paintings employ dots, made with archival glue. In interplay with black paint, these dots produce a trembling overlay. This technique emphasises the right for a representation focusing on opacity instead of Western-derived visuality of transparency. Boyd examines darkness as a means of Indigenous resistance to the inherited ideas of European Enlightenment thinking and its insistence on illumination, transparency and disclosure.

In RAINBOW SERPENT (VERSION), Daniel Boyd engulfes the building’s architecture in a second skin layered over the atrium and first floor windows. The atrium’s floor is covered in mirrors reflecting the existing architecture in a fragmented, ever-changing image.

In the paintings displayed at the Gropius Bau, Boyd works with oil, charcoal and archival glue to rework diverse source materials, including images related to the artist’s familial history and its displacement. They also reference his family that includes members from the so-called “Stolen Generations” of First Nations peoples, who were (between the mid-19th century and the 1970s) forcibly distanced from their families during childhood. They were brought up without access to their cultures as a part of policies aimed to interrupt and disperse cultural traditions and identities.

Boyd challenges the colonial gaze, re-employing photographs as source material taken in colonial contexts, including a voyage by the London Missionary Society and the Anglican church to Pentecost Island in Vanuatu, where Boyd’s great-great-grandfather lived before being violently removed to Queensland. Australia’s economic capital is historically derived from the free labour of exploited and subjugated First Nations and Pacific Island peoples, producing inequalities that exist to this day.

One important touchpoint in Daniel Boyd’s exhibition is the work of poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant. Glissant wrote of a “right to opacity”, or the right to not be defined by a Western epistemology of transparency, which reduces and erases difference. Instead, Glissant advocated opacity as an “irreducible singularity”. Boyd draws on Glissant’s thinking, as part of his visual technique of multiple lenses. Other works in the exhibition reference the National Black Theatre on Gadigal and Wangal Country, Sydney, the philosopher and activist Angela Davis, as well as recent neo-colonialisms, including the story of Marlon Brando’s wife Tarita Teri‘ipaia and links between the Aboriginal Land Rights Movements in Australia and US Black rights and Indigenous movements.

Daniel Boyd is a Kudjala, Ghungalu, Wangerriburra, Wakka Wakka, Gubbi Gubbi, Kuku Yalanji, Yuggera and Bundjalung man with ni-Vanuatu heritage. Born in 1982 in Gimuy/Cairns, he lives and works on Gadigal and Wangal Country, Sydney.

RAINBOW SERPENT (VERSION) is accessible via multiple entrances on the Gropius Bau’s first floor. Its non-linear display mirrors Boyd’s defying of fixed categorisations that characterise colonial violence and cultural homogenisation.

Events and activations, conceived as part of the exhibition, include various voices

An integral part of the exhibition is a series of events and activations which, like a theatre, bring together multiple voices and play out on the floor installation in the atrium. One such event is Mangrove Sunset, conceived by Asad Raza and taking place at the Gropius Bau’s atrium on 29 April 2023 as part of the exhibition.

Mangrove Sunset is a six-hour dramaturgy of sound, speech, and fading light inspired by the poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant. The Gropius Bau’s electric lights will be kept off, while recordings of various music and speech will play. Live contributors, including members of the Young Gropius Bau (JuGroBa) will speak and sing. As the sunlight slowly falls away, these occurrences will create an experience that blurs the present with echoes of the past and premonitions.

Curated by Stephanie Rosenthal and Carolin Köchling

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