Fine Art: Musings on the Australian Cultural Inheritance (and my own)…or, how one peice of art can challenge identity

Warning: this is longer than usual and has less pictures, but it is so so worth it! I’m particularly proud of the bits of writing that go on to inspire other art, my own or other’s, and this is one of them. If you must skim, catch the bold sentences. If you digest it all, please comment.

The QAG: Queensland Art Gallery

For a day trip, I attended the Queensland Art Galleries. Both the traditional and modern art galleries are centrally located on South Bank as well as the Queensland State Library (a prominent visit all on its own), the Queensland Museum, and the Queensland Performance Art Center. Both the museum and the galleries have free admission, which I was grateful for. I strongly believe that people of every economic class should have access to the arts. Obviously, the local government shares that value and I was able to put that belief into practice on the receiving end for a change.

While I didn’t find the Museum particularly spectacular, I got a great deal out of the Art Gallery. I know just about nothing about Australian artists besides a Canadian artist friend who has Australian parents. (Bless her, but not exactly an education.) I responded to many pieces and even found one I would love to own a reproduction of, at whatever point that I have a home again. I’ll list some of my favorites at the bottom of this blog, but what is really sticking with me after the fact, and synthesizes all of my experiences there, is one of the first ones I responded to, titled The Home Wind by Charles Napier Hemy circa 1901 (the year Australia’s constitution was written). Hemy was from England and immigrated with his family to Australia at the age of 11 in 1852. Unfortunately for my following digression, he moved back only a scant three years later, but I didn’t know that when I viewed the painting, and it didn’t change the truth of my reaction.

The Home Wind by Charles Napier Hemy

painting, Queensland Art Gallery

The Home Wind c.1901
by C. Napier Hemy

Hemy is known for nautical paintings depicting life on the open water. In “Home Wind,” I saw a skiff, buffeted by waves coming right up to the edge, threatening to deluge the tiny boat. And yet, the sailor in the middle, closest to the waves, does not seem to be afraid. I thought of them in these Australian waters, far far from what they might call homeland, and riding a northern wind. Perhaps they thought of their northern origins then, even as they navigate a strange sea they are learning to call home. Perhaps they are reminded that is they that are the foreigners, even as all the bodies of water in the world are connected. They are new Australians, and can always remember and even feel a little British when riding the “home wind.”

Cultural Inheritance: the gifts of our ancestors

As I viewed the rest of the gallery I encountered German expressionism, classical Italian frescos, surrealism, European whimsy reinterpreted amongst an Australian landscape, and vast amounts of Australian Aboriginal art. I thought of the pride there was in each of these expressions, many of which were the culmination of sentiments held by a certain group of people in a particular culture at a particular time in history.

Canada, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia (as well as a number of other countries) have a similar legacy to varying degrees. We are countries on continents with a prominent indigenous population that was colonized and settled by Europeans to the extent that the previous majority pre-colonization is now the underrepresented minority post-colonization. Our extreme geographical separation from Europe has helped us to develop our own identity, and we have each become a unique recipe made from the ingredients of different cultures that were colored by historical migration waves, world events, and the flora and fauna of our new-found homes.

Unless we are Indigenous North Americans (in current Canada or the U.S.), or Maori, or Aboriginal Australians, we cannot claim a shared cultural inheritance that unites our style, outlook, language, beliefs, history, artistic production, scientific advancement, and the land we live on. Even if we were born in one of these countries, we will always be foreigners by blood and I don’t think enough time has passed for us to adapt at the genetic level, and certainly not the cultural or psychosocial level to these relatively recent surroundings, familiar as they may be in our individual lives.

Unintended Consequences in the New World

I myself have only one, and in some cases, two generations in the ground in my country of birth and yet only a very shallow connection to the world those and previous family members have come from. This causes me some feelings of alienation, like I’ve missed out on something essential to by being on both sides of the water. I can’t look at German expressionism (much as I enjoy it) and say this is my cultural inheritance. My grandfather was German. I am not. I wasn’t taught the language, the humor or the sadness of his people, and I know only a small portion of the stories that come from that area. His is not a community I’ve had access to, and so I’m not even a German-American.

The only groups in my area of the United States who seem to have kept something like that together is the Jews. Despite all the intermixing, they have a culture that even if you only know 5 words in Yiddish or Ladino, as far as the American Reform Jews are concerned, you’re in. You can sing L’chaim with Tevye, attend the Jewish Film festival, dress up for Purim parties (as I have done), and eat maror and challah till the cows come home. I was not raised with this. I discovered as a teenager that I was part Jewish, and by that time the damage of de-culturalization was already done in my family. Unlike the indigenous people who were forced from their heritage, we had done it to ourselves.

There is a loss of context when you abandon the culture you came from in favor of a new one. This is especially true when that new culture is still being formed from nothing (300 years or so is nothing when it comes to culture) and the prevailing philosophy is to jettison any former identity, culture, and values in favor of this nothingness, rather than fusing them. No matter how exciting the enterprise to re-write everything, no matter how you may want to recreate things for the better, you cannot deny your past any less than a settlement on Mars could deny needed plants from Earth, or at least regular food shipments. We are not Martians. Our very bodies are shaped in conjunction with our environments, with cells being entirely replaced every 7 years and impacted by contact with a limited number of organisms in a certain radius. Our minds are shaped certainly by experiences, but those experiences are filtered subtly and profoundly by the cultural and genetic inheritance handed us by our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents going back before there were such things as countries. I do take comfort in the fact that if nothing else, I have a human cultural inheritance.

On Discovery and Ambition: the upside of wanting more

One thing many European descended Americans, Canadians, and Australians have in common is that for whatever reasons, unless brought or sent by force, our ancestors wanted something more than the cultural inheritance they were handed. If my family has stayed in Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, England…I might have my German expressionism, or my Swedish minimalism, or my Dutch blue decorated china, or my British wit to be proud of, but perhaps I would also have the mindset that I should always primarily identify by the limited set of values those express, and promote conformity to them for the sake of tradition.

It’s unlikely that I’ll find a limited set of values I’m willing to conform to anywhere in the world, regardless of how well-formed and proud the identity may be. In the states we have stereotypes about a traditional “Leave it to Beaver” life with a nuclear family, 2.5 kids, the latest appliances, a white picket fence, a family car, an owned home with a big back yard and a dog. This is “American success and happiness.” The only updating needed is a large flat screen TV, mobile phones for everyone, and at least one 401(k) (a decent retirement plan).

This is not my idea of happiness and if I had all those things, in fact, I suspect many people who DO have those things, don’t feel happy or successful, though they may feel guilty about that fact. I want more for my life than those things, and I’m willing not to have those things to get that “more.” In this way I, like my ancestors, am an adventurer. Perhaps it’s the very spirit of adventure, of wanting to grow beyond what I was given, which is my true inheritance. If I were to have children in Germany, I wonder, would those children or grandchildren feel as I do now? Would they feel orphaned from some American heritage and want more than the life and culture I had built there? Would they always feel distinct from it? It’s an irony to be sure. Maybe my parents missed what makes the culture in these countries (Canada, USA, Australia) unique and worth being proud of. Maybe it isn’t the “American Dream” that’s worth attaining, but the dream of diversity, tolerance, adventure, and self-realization. Maybe the dream and identity worth having is one of openness: the seed of all these things.

Creating a Legacy We Can be Proud of

It’s not enough to replace one homogenous set of values and lifestyle for another. We end up where we started, and become another version of what we worked to escape. It might be enough to make a cultural practice of progress and growth, both for the individual and the society (and in many more fields than the economic.) If progress were something that could make me “American,” I could be proud of that. Ironically, it may be easier to be proud of that everywhere but the states, where people fear difference and progress as much as anywhere else I’ve been in the world. By merely existing separate from the new status quo, I might exemplify the very values of progress that make me belong amongst those first brave Americans in my family. Perhaps I could be a satellite representative, a wandering tribesman.

I suspect something similar is true in Australia too. The high value they place on international travel would certainly suggest their connection with adventuring ancestors. Perhaps in this way, immigrant-descended Australians have made their own peace with the tension between where their people have come from, where they are, and how this informs their identity. Perhaps we are all in the same “boat,” taking comfort in a home wind, though it comes from so far away, and carries us always towards the new. All the while, we navigate the waves closest to us, a turbulent reminder that this foreign environment is both exciting and dangerous.


P.S. I have written a performance piece about my national identity that was inspired by these experiences. I’ll link it when I can at whatever point I perform and record it.

P.S.S. If you made it this far…please comment. I am curious to know how others feel and think about these things.

Paintings/Sculpture I responded to and could talk about, but won’t for now:

(All pictures of art are taken with expressed permission of the museum.)

James Gleeson, “Structural Emblems of a Friend”

painting, Queensland Art Gallery, James Gleeson

Ian Fairweather, “The Bus Stop”

painting, Queensland Art Gallery, Ian Fairweather

Daphne Mayo, “The Olympian” and “Sketch (of a Boy)”

sculpture, Queensland Art Gallery, Daphne Mayosculpture, Queensland Art Gallery, Daphne Mayo









Authur Loureiro, “The Spirit of the New Moon”

painting, Queensland Art Gallery, Aurthur Loureiro

Sydney Long, “Spirit of the Plains”

painting, Queensland Art Gallery, Sydney Long

Favorite: Bernard Hall, “The Quest”

painting, Queensland Art Gallery, Bernard Hall

Luca Giordano 1672-74, “Rape of the Sabine Women.”

painting, Queensland Art Gallery, Luca Giordano

& lots and lots of Australian Aboriginal art to be discussed at a later time.

All can be seen at the Queensland Art Gallery in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Info here.

Next up….Turning 30 and The Magic Hour (my first Australian theatrical performance)

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