Keith Looby, Eureka (detail)

Keith Looby Etchings 1976, 1980

27 Jul 2022

By Dr Marie Geissler

This essay is extracted from the catalogue for the forthcoming Keith Looby exhibition Dichotomy, to be held at Spud Lane Studios in Robertson NSW from 27 August 2022.

In 1976 Keith Looby published the first of his highly provocative series of drawings and etchings on the origins of Australia and its contemporary history. Some 51 works in all, they challenged popular views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, that had ignored them or cast them as primitive peoples with quaintly fascinating cultural practices. Curated by Ric Abel, artist and friend of Keith Looby, six images from the collection in the forthcoming Robertson exhibition are from 1976 with one, ‘They are Funny Fellows Now’ from 1980.

Surrealist-inspired with a satirical play on the absurdity of current narratives, originally the series was a sweeping visual survey of the discovery, encounter, and settlement of Australia. It confronted the disturbing truths and violent dispossession of people from their Country by colonialism, uniquely highlighting the truth of black-white relations, which up until that time no other artist had dared to confront.

Nolan had notoriously painted Indigenous Australians out of the nation’s history, choosing instead to heroize the feats of an irreverent Australian masculinity, in his Ned Kelly series. For Arthur Boyd, they were stars in his Biblical and Classical Greek mythologies. Portrayed as outsiders and outcasts, his Aboriginal peoples were tragic victims of a racist society. Using a minimalist Australian landscape backdrop, Russell Drysdale dignified them in portraits that for the first time in Australian art history respectfully explored their humanity.

For Keith Looby, the Indigenous European encounter is represented in a much more comprehensive way than by the aforementioned artists. Scholarly in approach, his etchings and drawings explore this through an historically and anthropologically inspired narrative. Though information about Aboriginal people was scant and not well understood, Looby drew on the work of historians Manning Clarke, Humphrey McQueen, poet David Campbell and anthropologist Les Hyatt. Clarke, McQueen and Campbell were part of his Canberra milieu and Hyatt frequented his Sydney haunts.

Looby drew heavily on the Italian Renaissance works he encountered during his stay with Jeffrey Smart in Italy, also that of Smart himself and artists Pablo Picasso, Georgio De Chirico, Pieter Bruegel, Philip Guston and John Brack, The influence of his teacher John Passmore is also evident. Looby also relied on hearsay. His work reverberates with influence from the tales of his bohemian informants and his own personal speculations.

The format of the work is necessarily a subjective one. He explained that the dream-like format that he selected was a gesture to present his history in a First Nations context. That is as one that was inclusive of the Dreaming, and being open to interpretations that reflect the many Aboriginal mythologies of the nation.

Looby’s etchings for this series represented the Australian chapter of a project he started in Europe titled, the Fairytale History of the World. The Australian history, was however, anything but a fairytale, rather it was based on real events and real people. It therefore changed its format in its new iteration. Like a conventional history it is consequently chronologically ordered and presented as a carefully crafted, series of cartoon-like drawings that graphically present the history. Its trajectory begins with the evolution of human life on the island continent. It then acknowledges its settlement by Aboriginal peoples in a range of drawings. The concluding series addressed the cross-cultural encounter and the tragic fate of the First Australians at the hands of the English invaders. Pivotal moments in the history which defined Australia’s colonial wealth, that of the sheep industry and gold mining are savagely caricatured.

Keith Looby - First Life (detail) First Life (detail), Keith Looby 1976 (Image courtesy of the artist)

Early images of the series such as First Life depict the primeval microbial universe of prehistoric Australia. Starkly confronting, its threatening precariousness is delineated by an abstract world populated by sharp stone fragments and elemental biomorphic forms.

Keith Looby - Growth (detail) Growth (detail), Keith Looby 1976 (Image courtesy of the artist)

Growth delineates the next phase of the evolutionary process. The writhing form of a large tree divides the image. A recurrent image in the works that follow, it symbolises the forces of security and religion in play as the history unfolds. Densely intertwined and staggered, within the biomass of its branches, human forms struggle to emerge. To the right are dagger-like aggregations of stones, symbols of politics and power, and to the left soft forms of plants and flowers, symbolising the aesthetic and sensual influences.

Keith Looby - First Moon (detail) First Moon (detail), Keith Looby 1976 (Image courtesy of the artist)

Referring to the spirit of an Aboriginal Creation myth, First Moon is an imaginative expression of the potency of elemental forces coming together, such as moon, land and spirit. Its femininity is highlighted by the presence of a gigantic, voluptuous form, of a hovering Aboriginal woman. A fertility figure, the egg between her legs offers the promise of new life. The haloed spirit is encircled by the soft form of the moon, and she casts her wide-eyed gaze from the heavens to earth ‘where power resides’. Here lies the figure of an outstretched Aboriginal male embedded within the stone. The stick-like forms of a pair of Aboriginal warriors, look on, recalling in the rigidity of their figures, those deployed in John Brack’s depersonalised Melbourne crowds. Their hairy heads and moon shaped faces, are a reference to the primitive renderings of the Banksia Men, by May Gibbs for her Australian Gumnut stories.

Keith Looby - Massacre of Tasmania (detail) Massacre of Tasmania (detail), Keith Looby 1976 (Image courtesy of the artist)

Looby’s nightmarish Massacre of Tasmania memorialises the decimation of the Aboriginal population of that island state. To the right lies a sea of dismembered black bodies. Opposing, are the perpetrators. Menacingly, their wide-eyed stares and loaded rifles are directed towards their kill. Pointed fingers, like those in Philip Guston’s iconic Klux Klux Klan painting ‘Scared Stiff ‘1971, support an artillery of humiliation.

Keith Looby - Eureka (detail) Eureka (detail), Keith Looby 1976 (Image courtesy of the artist)

Looby’s Eureka, contrary to celebratory interpretations of this occasion of nationhood, offers a desolate graveyard view of this confrontation. Questioning the tragedy of this event, it is studded with crosses marking the final resting place of those who lost their lives.

Keith Looby - Macarthur's Sheep (detail) Macarthur's Sheep (detail), Keith Looby 1976 (Image courtesy of the artist)

Macarthur’s Sheep takes a satirical swipe at the founders of Australia’s sheep industry, John Macarthur and Samuel Marsden. Their heavy figures are quaintly caricatured as oddities, surveying flocks of sheep which have all but destroyed the once thriving landscape, wildlife and the Indigenous inhabitants.

Keith Looby - They're Funny Fellows Now (detail) They're Funny Fellows Now (detail), Keith Looby 1980 (Image courtesy of the artist)

The last of the series, the format of the satirical They're Funny Fellows Now was inspired by Looby’s father’s childhood football photograph. Replicating its hierarchical ordering, the Aboriginal players are located in the bottom row below their superior European counterparts. Quaint and comedic, their crazy top hats and the demeaning signs that hang around their neck reinforce the shameful history of European subjugation of its First Nations’ peoples.

Many of the paintings of the exhibition give a wider context to the graphic cartoon-like works. Thickly painted, their deconstructive process, mines irrational forces for consequence and meaning. Like life itself, it is mysterious … and the dance is cyclical.

Keith Looby's Dichotomy opens on 27th August 2022 at Spud Lane Studios in the Southern Highlands NSW.

Written by Dr Marie Geissler
Dr Marie Geissler is a cultural historian with a specialist interest in Indigenous Australian art. Associate researcher at Canberra's National Museum of Australia ACT; Visiting research associate, University of Wollongong NSW; and the author of Dreaming the Land: Aboriginal Art from Remote Australia.

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