Unknown Land: Mapping and Imagining Western Australia

Frederick Garling View across the coastal plain 1827 watercolour and pencil on paper 13.2 x 37.5 cm State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia Purchased 1978Traversing the west coast of Australia, Unknown Land maps Western Australia as seen through the eyes of those arriving from Europe in the early 1800s including professional artists, illustrators, surveyors, and explorers.

Over 150 works drawn from the State Art Collection, supplemented by key national and local loans, depict coastal views, landscapes, and detailed sketches of the flora and fauna as encountered by European explorers and settlers. The exhibition includes primarily works on paper – drawings, prints and watercolours – alongside a focused selection of paintings.

A highlight of the exhibition is the display of Art Gallery of Western Australia’s entire collection of colonial watercolours – the first time since 1979. These detailed works deliver surprisingly intimate and personal views of early European life in Western Australia.

Early WA encounters came in the form of images made by explorers – the Dutch, the French and the British who travelled past the WA coastline over the centuries. Topographical artists recorded, in a seemingly empirical manner, the look of the land, its peoples, plants and animals.

Later settlers made more intimate views of the new places they called home, while political cartoonists back in England lampooned the Swan River Colony enterprise. Unknown Land explores the purpose of these early visual depictions, inviting visitors to reconsider the narrative conveyed, and it is a timely review of the early exploration of WA through the critical lens of today.

A counterpoint to the European impressions of WA is provided by Aboriginal artists Julie Dowling, Chris Pease and Shane Pickett. Their works interrupt and remind visitors that while the land was ‘unknown’ to European emigrants it has been home to the traditional owners of the land, the Aboriginal People, for thousands of years.

To broaden views of these highly topical issues, the Art Gallery of Western Australia also presents two fascinating exhibitions to counterpoint and complement Unknown Land.

Dissenting Voices is a strongly political show which demonstrates how artists, including significant Indigenous practitioners, use the visual as means of protest, debate and robust dissent. It includes works by Indigenous artists; Gordon Bennett, Julie Dowling, Gordon Hooke, Tracey Moffatt and Lin Onus.

By contrast, the Gifts to the Fallen exhibition is a reflective and emotionally charged expression of the Aboriginal voice. This exhibition of Aboriginal work focussing on responses to death, and the ceremonies around it is breathtaking. It presents a combination of traditional and contemporary objects that reference Aboriginal mortuary beliefs and practices. It’s a poignant, beautiful and resonant rejoinder, perhaps, to those who thought they were walking an “unknown land”.

Unknown Land: Mapping and Imagining Western Australia
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth Cultural Centre, Perth
Exhibition: 17 September 2016 – 30 January 2017
Admission fees apply

For more information, visit: www.artgallery.wa.gov.au for details.

Image: Frederick Garling, View across the coastal plain, 1827. watercolour and pencil on paper. State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased 1978