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'True Light and Shade' is filled with beautiful images by convict artist Joseph Lycett that powerfully capture in intimate detail Aboriginal life, a rare record of Aboriginal people within the vicinity of Newcastle and how they adapted to European settlement before cultural destruction impacted on these groups.
John Maynard writes an engaging short biography of Lycett and his life in Australia and follows this with a detailed commentary on each of the 20 images in the album. Each image is reproduced in full on a double page spread and then, on the spreads following, details have been enlarged to accompany John's text as he takes us through exactly what is happening in every picture: ceremony, hunting and fishing, carrying food (carving up whalemeat), land management and burning, interactions with Europeans, family life, dances, funeral rituals, and punishment. When you return again to examine the full image, you see it in a completely different light. John also includes written records from the time that corroborate Lycett's views.
Some dreamtime stories connected with the areas Lycett depicted are also included, with accompanying Indigenous art. One story explains the earthquakes in the area (kangaroo jumping up and down).
The title quote 'true light and shade' comes from Lycett's words: 'I consider a complete drawing to be an accurate delineation of anything with its true light and shade.'
As a Worimi man from the Newcastle/Port Stephens region, John Maynard brings his own knowledge and insight to his exploration of the drawings, and to the fascinating character of Lycett himself. John is currently a Director at the Wollotuka Institute of Aboriginal Studies at the University of Newcastle and Chair of Indigenous History. He has held several major positions, including as Deputy Chairperson of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and Deputy Chair Humanities, National Indigenous Research and Knowledges Network.
Reframing familiar images of Aborigines.
A new study on artist Joseph Lycett offers a perceptive view.
Convict artist Joseph Lycett has a special place in Newcastle's cultural heritage and his work continues to enrich audiences with its representation of early settlement and contact history.
Of particular interest today are his intricate portrayals of Aboriginal life in coastal NSW, therefore John Maynard's True Light and Shade: An Aboriginal Perspective of Joseph Lycett's Art is long overdue and comes with high expectations.
A Worimi historian from the Newcastle/Port Stephens region, an esteemed academic and recently appointed Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, Professor Maynard's response to Lycett's art makes perfect sense, especially given his specialisation in Aboriginal politicsand activism.
Commissioned by the National Library of Australia, True Light and Shade is an exercise in value adding to its collection, namely The Lycett Album, a sketchbook of 20 watercolour and gouache paintings made between 1816-1822. Never translated into engravings in the 19th century, the album is lesser known among Lycett's works.
Maynard's introductory essay is richly illustrated with colonial artworks and largely dedicated to the retelling of Lycett's sparse biography.
Orphaned at a young age and transported to Sydney in 1813 for forgery, Lycett wasinitially employed as an artist by the publisher Absalom West before being tempted back to forgery.
In 1815,despite backhanded admiration for his ‘‘fine skills of deception'', he was sentenced to three years' hard labour at Coal River (Newcastle).
On Captain James Wallis' appointment as commandant of the new penal colony of Newcastle, Lycett (along with Walter Preston and Richard Browne) was encouraged to document the settlement through painting and drawing.
It is by this stroke of historic serendipity that such significant artworks were created, something Newcastle Art Gallery, with its strong holdings of Lycett's work, has made interesting and scholarly exhibitions out of in recent years. (The postscript is that Lycett returned to Britain, committed further forgeries and fatally slashed his own throat as police attempted his final arrest in 1827.)
After giving primary attention to the artist, Maynard's introduction to the land and Aboriginal people is relatively brief given the paucity of information in colonial records.
The natural abundance, beauty and indigenous industry of Mulubinba [Newcastle], ‘‘place of sea ferns'', is celebrated and endorsed with names from local language. Another welcome inclusionis the recounting of the story ofWhibay-gamba (Nobbys Island), desecrated in the 1830s during construction of the breakwall.
Few readers will be aware that, according to Aboriginal oral archives, Nobbys Island is where the errant and lustful kangaroo Whibay-gamba was imprisoned in the Dreamtime, his violent rages accounting for the earthquakes prevalent in the Hunter Region.
It is in direct response to The Lycett Album imagery that Aboriginal ways of life and cultural practice are afforded special focus, with Awabakal, Worimi and Eora people shown hunting, fishing, performing ceremonies and generally enjoying and using their land.
Art historian Jeanette Hoorn has argued that Lycett's work illustrates the lie of terra nullius (empty land), though Maynard doesn't cite her or historian BillGammage, whose 2010 book The Biggest Estate on Earth draws heavily on Lycett's imagery as evidence of Aboriginal land management through fire-stick farming.
Maynard hardly needs to. The book's emphasis is on reframing familiar imagery through Aboriginal experience and storytelling, not through a Western art historical lens - whether imperialist or post-colonial. As such, it offers a reversal of the prevalent Western scholarship on Aboriginal art . . . and provides a welcome excuse to enjoy the pictures.