Brandi Salmon appropriates paintings by old masters like da Vinci to include Aboriginal women

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Brandi Salmon appropriates paintings by old masters like da Vinci to include Aboriginal women

By appropriating famous paintings, artist Brandi Salmon creates positive depictions of Aboriginal people in art in her studio in the hills of Hobart.

Negative representations of Aboriginal people in artwork by non-Aboriginal artists is how the proud Wiradjuri woman first found inspiration, particularly a 19th-century painting depicting an Aboriginal person as a servant standing in the presence of Captain James Cook waits.

This led to the creation of a series of works celebrating Aboriginal people, entitled The Aunty Collection.

The collection now includes five known paintings featuring Aboriginal women, often in regal positions and as the focal point of the artwork.

Brandi Salmon is appropriating paintings by the old masters to include Aboriginal women.(Provided by: Brandi Salmon)

Early inspiration

A homeschooling education in a small country town is why Ms. Salmon picked up a paintbrush and started creating art.

With few friends and limited forms of entertainment, she said she spent a lot of time searching YouTube for fun.

“I came across a documentary about Rembrandt, the famous painter – I just remember feeling like I had to do it.”

She began with portraits of family members in oils and fell in love with the texture and longevity.

“I was painting in my little bedroom and it smelled like peat; I think it made me a little queasy, but it was worth it.”

Aboriginal presence in art became a focus when Ms Salmon attended university, where she studied creative arts.

“Many of the paintings I came across were paintings of Aboriginal people as servants.”

An engraving of Captain Cook taking possession of Australia is one such image.

Captain Cook takes possession of the Australian continent on behalf of the British Crown, 1770 AD, under the name New South Wales
Samuel Calvert’s work entitled Captain Cook taking possession of the Australian continent on behalf of the British Crown, 1770 AD.(Provided by: National Library of Australia)

The work of Samuel Calvert shows an Aboriginal man in a suit with a loose tie standing at attention, barefoot and holding a tray of drinks as Captain Cook and the British begin to colonize the land.

“What you see in many paintings from those periods is a style of art that depicts Aboriginal people in such a way that it justifies the colonial project,” said Tiriki Onus, head of the Wilin Center for Indigenous Art and Cultural Development at the University said. from Melbourne.

“You’ll see Aboriginal people depicted in this almost animalistic, grotesque way that is indicative of a certain period and romanticizes invasion.”

Mr Onus, a Yorta Yorta man, said another art movement followed in which Aboriginal people were depicted on the periphery and almost untouched as the “noble savagery”, which he said was used as propaganda to “dislike the treatment to oppress Aboriginal people”.

A scene depicting colonial settlers in dark colors with an indigenous person dressed in bright colors.
Possession Island 1991 by Gordon Bennett.(Provided by: Sotheby’s)
A scene depicting colonial settlers with red, yellow and black triangles superimposed on the image.
Possession Island (Abstraction) 1991 by Gordon Bennett.(Courtesy: Museum of Contemporary Art Australia)

The Captain Cook image was later appropriated by artist Gordon Bennett who created two works, Possession Island, depicting the same scene.

By using vibrant colors and adjusting the focal point of the image, Bennett changed the narrative of the painting from one of celebration to critical reflection.

“Gordon’s work is extremely powerful and direct; he seeks to redress the balance in the representation of Aboriginal people and the way stories are told,” Mr Onus said.

Tiriki Onus
Tiriki Onus, Head of the Wilin Center for Indigenous Art and Cultural Development.(Provided by: Giulia McGauran)

“Brandi’s work brings me to mind when I engage with it. I love the way Brandi creates that space and holds it for herself and for black women and our communities in general.”

For Ms Salmon, Bennett’s work had a similar impact on her thinking.

“Seeing that painting by Gordon Bennett, an Aboriginal painter, flipped a switch in my head. Wow, it made me realize I could do this.”

The Aunty Collection

Ms Salmon created the first of the Aunty Collection paintings, Tannie Venus, for a university assignment and said she plans to create more.

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Growing up outside the country with an adopted father, she said he was not given the opportunity to learn traditional knowledge and that loss trickled down to his six children.

“I wasn’t taught how to do the traditional painting and I felt I couldn’t do it. I felt a need to create my own style.”

The Aunty collection now includes paintings such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa reimagined as strong and proud Aboriginal women.

The collection’s name itself is significant to Ms. Salmon, who moved around a lot as a child and grew up without aunts; forging those relationships in her new communities helped her settle in and feel welcome.

“When I would meet an Aboriginal woman and she would allow me to call her aunt, it would make me feel safe and happy.

“I got feedback from someone who bought Aunty With A Black Earring the other day, and they said the painting made them feel calm and cared for.”

The collection is expanding

The most recent Aunty is based on da Vinci’s Lady With An Ermine and features an Aboriginal woman holding a Devon sausage, an injection of “blackfella” humor which Ms Salmon said would become more frequent with each painting .

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“A lot of people I know who aren’t black, they don’t get it when I talk about how much Devon I used to eat,” she laughed.

“Every black person knows that we love devon, you know, it’s devon!”

Mr Onus laughed when he observed Devon in Ms Salmon’s latest work.

“There’s a wonderful charm and within that devon is one of those products from my childhood that seems to follow me everywhere,” he said.

“There are certain objects and products that resonate deeply with Aboriginal families, such as devon and corned beef in a tin or Keen’s curry powder.

“If you think about the classical works, they often depict people and their everyday world to some extent.”

Ms Salmon plans to paint an appropriation of da Vinci’s The Last Supper with each Aunty from the series.

For her, the series is a reminder of how much the past two centuries have changed when it comes to depictions of Aboriginal people in art.

“A few hundred years ago we were portrayed as servants, and now we have the freedom to do The Aunty Collection.

“I don’t think I realized how much of an impact it would have.”

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