NAIDOC WEEK – 2017 @ MARS
1 – 8 July 2017
A message from God to the Blackfellow
A message from God to the Blackfellow, 2017, is a significant body of work by Ngarrindjeri-Chinese artist Damien Shen. In continuing his engagement with archives and museums, Shen draws on the encounters between Reverend George Taplin and the Ngarrindjeri people, to establish a thematic framework for this series. These encounters are drawn from Taplin’s diaries and give great detail on his engagement with Ngarrindjeri. Shen was particularly drawn to Taplin’s entry about a discussion with a ‘native’ on April the 7th, 1859.
“I then endeavoured to explain to him that I had a message from God to the Blackfellows, and what it was, and asked him to tell the others about it. He seemed to understand me but was evidently surprised. It is my impression at present that more will be done by individualising the natives than by teaching them collectively. I shall see how this idea is confirmed or otherwise bye-and-bye.”
Shen’s response to the righteous and paternalistic views of Taplin, which position his ancestors as inferior black subjects, initially took the form of a series of large portraits, depicting two of his great grand-parents, whom were both photographed and studied by Norman B Tindale at Raukkan in South Australia. These original studies depicted figures from his family, rendered in a dark and sombre palette with almost no light hitting their skin. A stark white background framed their faces, perhaps a visual cue to the anthropological methods utilised in ‘documenting’ Shen’s family. Whiteness didn’t just surround each of his forebears, but pervaded into their very being. They were submerged underneath a sheath of pale rhythmic dotting, ghosted in the virtues of whiteness while their selfhood was simultaneously erased by ‘well-meaning’ messengers of God, in state-sanctioned, publically funded assimilation machines.
In this body of work, which contribute to a growing series, Shen has instead focussed on depicting missionaries, including Taplin, and a selection of other messengers of God, alongside one image of his Great-grandfather. The intentional dominance of representation of ‘the missionary’, over a single image of his Ngarrindjeri ancestor, speaks to the overt imbalance of power that Indigenous people were forced to negotiate whilst under the ‘care’ of the church and of the state. Furthermore, this pictorial imbalance interrogates an Australian culture committed to the continued aggrandising of men with ‘good intentions’ in positions of privilege and power, regardless of the great violence their work, their words, or their choices inflict on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Glenn Iseger-Pilkington, 2017
 Reverend George Taplin, The Journals of the Reverend George Taplin, Missionary to the Ngarrindjeri People of the Lower Murray, Lakes and the Coorong,1859 – 1879, 7 April 1859, http://www.firstsources.info/uploads/3/4/5/4/34544232/taplins_diary_1859-79.pdf
Damien Shen is a South Australian man of Ngarringjeri and Chinese bloodlines. His artistic practice is embedded in histories, revisiting the people, places and stories that shape the world he occupies. From time consuming, labour intensive drawings to bleeding water colours and velvety smooth oil paintings, Shen is constantly constructing and deconstructing the world around him through his imagery to better understand his identity and the identity of those that help to shape the world he lives.