Colonial to Contemporary Photography in Australia: Re-Representation

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Alexandra Guerman is a Sydney-based researcher and curator. Alexandra has a Master of Curating and Cultural Leadership University of NSW.

While white Australia was getting ready for celebrations that commemorated 200 years since the arrival of First Fleet, the Aboriginal Australia was documenting their protests of invasion. “Australia’s Bicentenary provided impetuous for compelling documentary photography, that allowed for First Nations people to reclaim their identity and representations.” [i] It is around this time, in the 1980’s that a number of Aboriginal Australian photographers emerged on the art scene. This emergence can also be attributed to the increased access of institutional art education, which was a relatively new thing at the time. [ii]

Brenda L. Croft, a Gurindji/Malngin/Mudburra woman was one of these emerging artists that started out by photographing protests around and during Bicentennial celebrations. Living in Redfern, an area which was a densely populated by Aboriginal community at the time, she found herself in the middle of action, that enabled her to document freedom marches and protests. Croft recalls, that by being urban-based Aboriginal person she didn’t feel the affinity with the traditional forms of Aboriginal art such as dot painting which at the time was being pushed as the only form of art for Aboriginal artists.[iii] Croft majored in photography at Sydney College of the Arts in 1985 and in 1986 exhibited in the first photographic exhibition of the Indigenous artists, which was NADOC ’86 Exhibition of Aboriginal and Islander Photographers at the Aboriginal Artists Gallery, Sydney.

3.2 Photograph, Brenda L. Croft, Gurindji/Malngin/Mudpurra peoples, Michael Watson on the Invasion Day Long March of Freedom, Justice and Hope, Redfern, Sydney, 26 January 1988, B& W, 61x50cm, Courtesy of National Library of Australia Trove.

Croft soon felt dissatisfied with the social documentary style of photography, which in her opinion lacked intimacy. She preferred to photograph people that knew her and felt comfortable with what she was trying to do, which was to show members of Aboriginal community in a completely different setting to what has been the standard ethnographic or documentary style. In her work The Big Deal is Black, 1993, Croft depicts themes that are rarely seen in the mainstream media. She is representing Aboriginal women and their families in a truthful and willing way, contrary to the established view of the dominant coloniser culture.[iv] These are colour, large almost life scale photographs featuring confident, happy, proud people equal to the viewer. The subjects in her photographs are no longer specimens or victims, they are photographed not the clinical way but in their own homes. These photographs are in complete contrast to the earlier colonial photographs of Foelsche and Lindt. Their expressions and gestures relay a sense of comfort with the camera and photographer. “…some grinning from ear to ear and some disinterested almost bored with the prospect of being photographed, their attentions elsewhere; this representing a sign of comfort with the photographer.” [v]

3.3 Brenda L. Croft, Gurindji/Malngin/Mudpurra peoples, The Ingrams: (back row) Norma, Sylvia, Jarin and Millie (middle row) Shanae and Jemiah (front row) LeeAnne, Jayden and Sue, 1993, dye destruction photograph, 99.4 x 99.0 cm (sheet), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1994 © Brenda L. Croft/Copyright Agency.

Croft’s most recent work is the photographic installation at Barangaroo, titled Naabami (thou shall/will see): Barangaroo (army of me). A collection of 60 large scale black and white portraits were created using a 19th century method of wet plate collodion, then digitally scanned and printed on metal.[i] These large metal stands were installed around 9 locations around the waterfront of Barangaroo. A reclaimed maritime site that was named after a fierce matriarch warrior from the Cammeraygal clan who lived in and around the north harbour and Manly. Independent and strong, she had her own way of dealing with the early settlers.[ii] Barangaroo is believed to be buried in the Governor Philip’s Garden, present day Circular Quay, not far from the installation site. Historical records from early contact depict Barangaroo as obstinate and defiant, who refused to wear European clothing and drink their wine.[iii] She challenged the idea that colonisers can take whatever resources they wanted from the land and made her presence felt. [iv] Croft’s images depict leading contemporary Indigenous women such as cultural activists, politicians and creative practitioners, that imbody Barangaroo’s qualities and spirit. [v] Croft says. “I like to think that two centuries after she lived and died, they stand as her sovereign avatars and soldiers carrying on her spirit.”[vi] Croft has made a decision to secure the metal stands with sandstone blocks which are reclaimed cast-off pieces from colonial buildings.[vii] She is using these props in symbolic and tangible act, emphasising the defiance as the metal stands that represent the strength of First Nations women rise up from them against all the odds. It is interesting to note how the props are used in a positive and powerful way, completely contrary to the way Lindt created his work. Her works are often titled using just a first name of the subject, but unlike in Lindt’s example this indicates a form of familiarity and close friendship that Croft has with her subjects.

3.4 Brenda L Croft (Gurindji/Malngin/Mudburra Peoples), Barangaroo (army of me), Brenda L Croft, (Gurindji/Malngin/Mudburra Peoples) Naabami (thou shall/will see), 2023 photographed by Daniel Boud. (Installation view)

[i] L. Morris, Warrior woman Barangaroo inspires new Sydney Festival show, SMH, 2023,

3.5 Brenda L Croft (Gurindji/Malngin/Mudburra Peoples), Linda II (Wiradjuri), 2022, Tristan (Dharawal/Yuin) 2021, Ali I (Biripi), 2022 from the series ‘Naabami (thou shall/will see): Barangaroo (army of me)’ 2016–22, courtesy of the artist and AGNSW

[ii] Barangaroo, Barangaroo the Woman,

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] L. Morris, 2023

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] T. Alouani-Roby, Cultural artefacts that seem to have floated up from the bottom of the harbour, Indesignlive, 2023,

Brenda L Croft who is a professor at Australian National University and also soon of Harvard University often uses herself as one of the subjects in her photographs. As in the Naabami (thou shall/will see): Barangaroo (army of me), Croft also used her own portrait in Strange Fruit after Billie Holiday’s 1939 hit.[xiii] The work focuses on the obsession Eurocentric society has with classifying Indigenous people by colour and shades of their skin. In these photographs she has portrayed Aboriginal women that like her, have fair skin, something that the general public does not expect an ‘authentic’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person to be.[xiv] Initially this could be attributed to power imbalance and the lack of European women in the colony, which led to forced bi-racial relationships and rape of Aboriginal women. It is also due to many massacres around the continent where Aboriginal women of some mobs (eg Dharawal – Appin massacre)[xv] saw all their men killed and could only carry on their culture by breeding with Non-Aboriginal men. More recently these women are a product of Australia’s assimilation policy which forcibly removed children of mixed-blood from their parents. They are commonly known as the ‘Stolen Generation.’ It was and still is common practice to classify people of colour using derogatory terms. The classification terminology made up by colonised countries such as half-blood, mulatto, tercon etc. was used in order define and control this group.[xvi] “This fixation on classification reflects the extraordinary intensification of colonial administration of Aboriginal affairs from 1788 to the present.”[xvii]

Another First Nations artist that explores the politics of skin and terminology used to classify and assign based on race is Archie Moore, who is a Kamilaroi man. His work Blood Fraction, 2015 was made in response to various public commentators who question a person’s Aboriginality, authenticity and legitimacy.[xviii] The mugshot style of the photographs resembles Foelsche’s subjects, with Moore staring back at the viewers in defiance. Who is the real Archie? What does that question entail? Moore explains that it only takes one drop of Aboriginal blood to be accepted in the Aboriginal community, however it is a different story when it comes to white Australian politics. It is astounding that the Aboriginal people have to explain themselves, because they may not be perceived as “full Aboriginal”, which is largely attributed to painful colonial violence and later assimilation policy. Moore re-creates a colonial ethnographic aesthetic in his work to comment on the ongoing racial injustice, not only through black and white mugshot style and classification terminology but also through sheer number of photographs, resembling the exhaustive anthropological archives.


3.6 Archie Moore (Kamilaroi people), Blood Fraction, 2015, Purchased 2016. This acquisition has been acquired in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum. (installation view)

3.7 Archie Moore (Kamilaroi people), Blood Fraction, 2015, Purchased 2016. This acquisition has been acquired in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum. (close up)

Comprising a wall-size compilation of 10 x 10 images, the artist’s self-portrait appears 100 times – each superimposed with text. A few steps back for the viewer and it’s apparent that there’s a certain formality in Moore’s use of ‘colour’. His face in the portraits appears darkest in the top left corner (Full Blood) and evolves to lightest shade (or Hectoroon) at bottom right. “At the same time, assuming the role of scientist or anthropologist, Moore’s partially invented and Latinised nomenclature travels in an orderly direction across each row of photographs, descending downward in strict classification.”[xix] This work was exhibited at the Galleries UNSW in alongside his updated work Family Tree, 2018, an inclined plane, a sixteen-foot-square board on a wooden frame. With white conté crayon Moore had meticulously drawn thousands of rectangles linked by lines to create a genealogical maze purporting to be his family tree. A sprawling chalkboard style genealogy resembles complicated historical diagrams drawn up by anthropologists.

3.8 Archie Moore (Kamilaroi people), Family Tree, 2018 wall drawing. Courtesy of UNSW Galleries (Installation view)

3.9 Archie Moore (Kamilaroi people), Family Tree’, 2018 wall drawing (close up) Courtesy of UNSW Galleries

“The descent-line record reaches back thousands of years from known named people like the artist himself; a box on a long limb at the bottom enclosing “Me,” back into the past, to “A Full-blood Aboriginal” and those existing only as numbered individuals.” [xx] (Djon Mundine)

Traditionally these anthropological diagrams were drawn as triangles for males and circles for females, in the later years however, social workers have adopted these diagrams, which now depict non gendered squares called “genograms.” Djon Mundine wrote that Moore’s family tree diagram could be described in postcolonial terms and the constant meddling of social workers in Aboriginal lives shaped by traditions of anthropological fieldwork.[xxi] There are three gaping holes that break the flow of the diagram, which signify a broken link, lost family, due to a massacre, smallpox outbreak, destroyed family records. Toni Ross suggests that the gaps may represent limited or lost knowledge of Moore’s Aboriginal heritage. [xxii]

Another artist that portrays concepts of loss and broken knowledge due to ancestral displacement and dispossession is Daniel Boyd. Boyd, who a member of the Kudjla, Eastern Kuku Yalanji, Kangulu, Jagara, Bandjalung, and Kuku Djungan peoples of Australia, also has roots in Pentecost Island, Vanuatu. One of Australia’s most acclaimed young artists Boyd has gained prominence in Australia and globally in 2005, when he began appropriating and reinterpreting historical moments from an Aboriginal perspective. Working with images that have played significant roles in the formation and dissemination of that history, “he used portraits of colonial explorers and members of the British monarchy and re-imagins them as thieving buccaneers”.[xxiii]

In his solo exhibition at Art Gallery of NSW, Treasure Island, 2022 he interrogates Australian colonial history from political and personal perspectives. A section of his artworks is dedicated to the period of “blackbirding” in Australia, where people from South Sea Islands were brought to Queensland as slave labour to work on sugarcane plantations.[xxiv] Pentecost Island has a personal significance to Boyd because his great-great-grandfather Samuel Pentecost was forcibly taken from this island to work in Queensland sugarcane fields. “The forced movement of people from Pentecost Island to mainland Queensland is a particularly Australian story and again a type of interaction with extreme power differences that echoes Aboriginal experiences.”[xxv]

Without a record of his great-great-grandfather being taken from the island, the exact village that he was from, is unknowable.[xxvi] However, historians believe that the archival photos he references are based on J.W. Beattie’s photographs of Pentecost Island from the early 1900s.[xxvii] The use of landscape images and unidentified people further emphasise the broken thread with his personal history and family archives, it draws attention to how Boyd understands the past and re-imagines it as his own.


3.10 John Watt Beattie, 1906, Series: Thomas Edge-Partington album 8, digital photograph, 8.80cm x 13.90cm. Courtesy of British Museum

The archival photographs he draws from, to create his work are much smaller in scale and are clearer and more pronounced. He recreates the photograph, but then blurs it so the details such as the gender of the figures or the types of plants, remain unclear.[xxviii] The drawing of a photograph is rendered in charcoal and layered with archival glue, which gives it a black and white appearance, “in contrast to the typical colourful depictions of carefree island life.”[xxix] Boyd began using archival glue, layered over drawings during his residency at the Natural History Museum, London, in 2011[xxx]

3.11 Daniel Boyd, Untitled (SCAMSCI), 2018; oil and archival glue on linen; 189 x 266.5 cm

The use of tiny glue dots or “lenses”[xxxi] on the surface of his artworks references traditional painting but also acts as a screening device that draws the viewers in yet shelters the subjects from the voyeuristic intrusive gaze. Instinctively you want to peer in but the closer you look the less you see. “Veiled in transparent dots, the view of Country is partial, incomplete, like the recording of history”. [xxxii]


3.12 Daniel Boyd, Treasure Island, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2022-23 (installation view) Courtesy Roslyn Oxley 9 Gallery and Art Gallery of New South Wales



[i] H. Reynolds, Truth-Telling, History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement, 2021 New South Publishing

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] L. Morris, Warrior woman Barangaroo inspires new Sydney Festival show, SMH, 2023,

[vii] Barangaroo, Barangaroo the Woman,

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] L. Morris, 2023

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] T. Alouani-Roby, Cultural artefacts that seem to have floated up from the bottom of the harbour, Indesignlive, 2023,

[xiii] A. Amoako, Strange Fruit: The most shocking song of all time? BBC Culture, 2019,

“On April 20, 1939, Holiday recorded Strange Fruit. It was to become her first substantial cult hit.”

[xiv] Between 1910 and the 1970s*, many First Nations children were forcibly removed from their families as a result of various government policies.

[xv] Monument Australia, ‘Appin Massacre’, “Early one morning the military’s leader for the Appin area Captain Wallis and a number of his men came across a Dharawal men’s camp. They slaughtered the men who were mostly elders, cut off their heads and took them back to Sydney. While Captain Wallis returned to Sydney the remaining men hunted down the local Aboriginal clan (Dharawal people). They found the camp where the women and children were staying. They shot and trampled them under their horses and drove them over the cliffs at Broughton Pass.”

[xvi] E. Fernandez, 2002.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] The Commercial Gallery Sydney, Blood Fraction, 2015,

[xix] S. Wolff,

[xx] D. Mundine, Archie Moore: 1970-2018, ArtLink, 2018,

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] T Ross, ‘Archie Moore: UNSW Galleries’, ARTFORUM, vol. 59, no. 9, May 2021,

[xxiii] Daniel Boyd, The unseen and the in-between, AGNSW, 2022,

[xxiv] W. Higginbotham, ‘Blackbirding: Australia’s history of luring, tricking and kidnapping Pacific Islanders’ ABC, 2017,

[xxv] M.A.E. Tyquiengco, Rewriting Ethnographic Photography Reuse of Ethnographic Photography by Contemporary Indigenous Artists, University of Pittsburgh, 2016

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Daniel Boyd, AGNSW, 2022,

[xxx] B. Arends, Pointillist observations in notebooks of Earth and universe. In D. Rule (Ed.), Daniel Boyd: the law of closure (pp. 69–73). Perimeter Editions. In M.A.E. Tyquiengco, 2015

[xxxi] P. Gibson, How the art of Daniel Boyd turns over the apple cart of accepted white Australian history, The Conversation, 2022,

[xxxii] M.A.E. Tyquiengco, 2016

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