Appropriating famous paintings, artist Brandi Salmon creates positive representations of Aboriginal people in art from her studio in the hills of Hobart.
Negative depictions of Aboriginal people in artworks by non-Aboriginal artists was the first inspiration for the proud Wiradjuri woman, particularly a 19th-century painting showing an Aboriginal servant waiting in the presence of Captain James Cook.
It led to the creation of a series of works celebrating Native Americans entitled The Aunty Collection.
The collection now includes five appropriated famous paintings depicting Aboriginal women, often in royal positions and as the focal point of the artwork.
An education at home in a small country town was why Ms. Salmon picked up a paintbrush and began creating art.
With few friends and limited forms of entertainment, she spent much of her time browsing YouTube for fun.
“I stumbled across a documentary about Rembrandt, the famous painter – I just remember feeling like I had to.”
She began painting portraits of family members in oils and fell in love with the texture and longevity.
“I was painting in my small bedroom and it smelled like turnips; I think it freaked me out a bit, but it was worth it.”
Aboriginal presence in the arts 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.
The work by Samuel Calvert shows an Aboriginal man in a suit with a loose tie, barefoot and holding a tray of drinks, standing to attention as Captain Cook and the British begin to colonize the country.
“What you see in a lot of paintings from this period is an art style that depicts the indigenous people in a way that justifies the colonial project,” said Tiriki Onus, director of the Wilin Center for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development at the University of Melbourne.
“You’re going to see Aboriginal people in this almost animal, grotesque way that hints at a specific time period and romanticizes an invasion.”
Mr Onus, a Yorta Yorta man, said another art movement followed, in which the Aborigines were portrayed peripherally and almost untouched as “noble savages” which he said were used as propaganda to “explain aversion to the treatment of Aboriginal people to oppress”.
The image of Captain Cook was later adopted by artist Gordon Bennett, who created two works, Possession Island, depicting the same scene.
By using vivid colors and adjusting the image’s focus, Bennett changed the painting’s narrative from one of solemnity to one of critical reflection.
“Gordon’s work is extremely powerful and direct; he’s trying to restore the balance between how Aboriginal people are portrayed and how stories are told,” said Mr Onus.
“Brandi’s work reminds me of that as I engage with it. I love the way Brandi creates this 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.
“When I saw this painting by Gordon Bennett, an Aboriginal painter, a switch flipped in my head. Wow, I realized I can do this.”
The Aunty Collection
Mrs. Salmon created the first of the Auntie Collection paintings, Aunt Venus, for a university assignment and said she plans to create more.
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Growing up abroad with an adopted father, she said he didn’t get the opportunity to learn traditional knowledge and that this loss passed on to his six children.
“I wasn’t taught how to do traditional painting and felt like I couldn’t do it. I felt the need to create my own style.”
The Aunty Collection now features paintings such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, reimagined as strong and proud Aboriginal women.
The name of the collection itself is significant to Mrs. Salmon, who moved extensively as a child and grew up without aunts; Forging these relationships in her new communities helped her settle in and feel welcome.
“Whenever I met an Aboriginal woman and she let me call her aunt, I felt safe and happy.
“I got feedback from someone who recently bought Auntie with a Black Earring and they said the painting made them feel calm and protected.”
The collection is expanding
The Latest Aunt is based on da Vinci’s Lady With An Hermione and features an Aboriginal woman holding a Devon sausage, an injection of “Blackfella” humor Ms Salmon said was becoming more regular with each painting.
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“A lot of people I know who aren’t Blackfellas don’t get it when I talk about how much Devon I used to eat,” she laughed.
“Every Blackfella knows we love Devon, you know it’s Devon!”
Mr Onus laughed as he watched Devon in Ms Salmon’s latest work.
“There’s a wonderful charm and there’s one of those products from my childhood in this Devon that seems to follow me everywhere,” he said.
“There are certain items and products that resonate deeply with Aboriginal families, like Devon and corned beef in a tin or Keen’s curry powder.
“If you think of the classic works, they often show people and their everyday world to a certain extent.”
Ms. Salmon plans to paint an adaptation of da Vinci’s The Last Supper, featuring every aunt in the series.
For her, the series is a reminder of how much has changed over the past two centuries when it comes to depicting Aboriginal people in art.
“A few hundred years ago we were portrayed as servants, and now we’re free to do The Aunty Collection.
“I don’t think I realized how much impact that would have.”