Danie Mellor is one of Australia’s most acclaimed contemporary artists – the Australian National Gallery has 24 of his works and recently acquired his monumental Landstory. Born in Mackay, Danie has lived in Bowral since 2012. He tells ALEX SPEED how landscape, history and his indigenous heritage infuse his work.
Artist Danie Mellor knows sometimes a work emerges as a slow reveal, its nexus a defining moment years before. Like his recent monumental work, Landstory. The immersive nine panel photographic piece began germinating in Danie’s mind more than 25 years ago. Recently acquired by the National Gallery of Australia, the work fuses Danie’s photography of his mother’s country – the rainforest country on the Atherton Tablelands in north Queensland – and other lands with images by late-colonial Cairns photographer Alfred Atkinson.
The NGA calls Landstory “an extraordinary moment of resolution. This complex and sophisticated work speaks to both the past and the future and defines the times. . . it is set to become an icon of the Australian national art collection”. The work hangs alongside landscapes by luminaires Fred Williams, Rover Thomas, Ian Fairweather and John Olsen.
Arguably one of Australia’s most influential, if largely low-profile, indigenous artists – he is descended from his mother’s Mamu and Ngadjon people – Danie lives in a quiet leafy street in Bowral with wife and artist Joanne Kennedy. His acclaimed works challenge traditional notions of Aboriginal art and address the complex, often troubling histories of our indigenous, colonial and settler communities. The NGA recently acquired Landstory through the Members Acquisition Fund, which Danie says gives it an added frisson.
“It’s always great to have something on the National Gallery’s walls,” says Danie, who has 24 works in the gallery’s collection. “I particularly like that it was acquired by the gallery’s community. As an artist, to have a holding in a public collection is special because it kind of reflects your development as an artist over the years.”
Danie’s home sits tucked into the side of Mount Gibraltar and doubles as his studio. Its 1950s open-plan design is awash with his and Joanne’s sculpture and mixed media works. These include prints, drawings and tableaux created in Danie’s trademark blue and white willow engraving technique, the practice that first garnered him national and international attention. Multi layered, some intricately drawn from photographs, the patterning seeks to denote Josiah Spode’s tableware that travelled the world with its British colonialising owners in the 18th and 19th centuries. Although Danie’s practice has moved on from those days, this work remains sought after by collectors.
Now 48, Danie first won acclaim in 1994 when he was awarded the Australian National University Award. In 2009, his work From Rite to Ritual won the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award. Landstory represents a stepping off point from past works, he says, by encompassing a broader discourse about the importance of land, nature and space, and cultural histories in it.
“Landstory is about that idea of land space,” says Danie. “A kind of spatial narrative that takes into account western perspectives around telling a story as well as more intangible dreaming stories that are the fabric of understanding in Aboriginal cultures.”
The seed for Landstory was Sidney Nolan’s masterpiece Riverbend, the nine panel panoramic masterpiece on permanent display in the Australian National University’s Drill Hall Gallery.
“I remember standing in front of Riverbend for the first time when I was a student at ANU’s Canberra School of Art,” says Danie, who later returned to lecture at ANU’s School of Art and then the University of Sydney’s Sydney College of the Arts.
“It was 1992, the same year Nolan passed away, and it was like I’d encountered this work that had such an important place in Australian art history, and even though I didn’t know Nolan, never met him, it felt important to me.
“I saw how Nolan was really engaging not just with the landscape but with the kind of histories that showed up in his work, like the Kelly series. So the inspiration I took came from the composition and framing of the work, but also the presence of people within the panels and the way Nolan works in his intergenerational themes and undercurrents. For me to encounter Riverbend at that time was critical. I would often go and stand in front of it at the Drill Hall and say hello. It was very influential in my development as an artist.”
Danie’s portfolio includes ceramics, printmaking, object installation, mixed media and recently, infra-red photography of his rainforest country alongside archival imagery of his own ancestral history. He has exhibited widely and internationally and is represented in collections overseas at the National Gallery of Canada and National Museums Scotland, and at home in the NGA, Museum of Contemporary Art, major state and regional galleries and the Kerry Stokes Collection. He was appointed to the Visual Arts Board at the Australia Council in 2010, and until 2015 held positions as a board member and also Chair of the Board and Artform.
Danie was born in Mackay. His father Milton is Australian with American heritage, his mother Doreen of the indigenous peoples of the rainforest lands of the Atherton Tablelands. Both Doreen and Milton were primary school teachers and Danie and his two brothers spent their childhoods living in Mackay, Stirling in Scotland, Adelaide, Cape Town and the Northern Territory. Danie did art at school but thoughts of studying design or architecture were forgotten after a dramatic gap year.
“I took a year off and went to work on prawn boats in the Gulf of Carpentaria because I wasn’t really sure what to do, and I had a very serious accident,” he says. “Two huge rocks were dragged up by the nets which fell and hit me on the deck and gave me a severe back injury at 19, so that sort of made me reconsider everything and was my impetus for going to art school.” He enrolled at art school in Adelaide and then did a Bachelor of Arts at ANU’s Canberra School of Arts.
After finishing his degree, Danie did a master’s in fine art in Birmingham University in 1995-1996 and it was here he met Yorkshire-born artist Joanne. Joanne works with Danie and has encouraged his newer works, which take inspiration from the research he completed for his PhD in 2004. Danie’s thesis looked at late colonial photography by photographers such as Alfred Atkinson, how indigenous people were depicted and how contemporary artists respond to that archive of images.
“It took a little while for my work to really engage with the research I did back then, but in the past few years since I began showing photographs in 2015 at Sydney Contemporary as a way to broaden my practice, photography has become a more important part of my work, which includes looking at that idea of complexity in photographic images and the richness of the medium’s history.”
Atkinson was a late-colonial portraiture artists and regularly photographed generations of Danie’s family. Danie walks to his living room where one of his most recent pieces, a large drawing on paper in crayon wax, whitewash and watercolour is taking shape on the floor. Taken from the original silver gelatine photographic print Atkinson took of Danie’s great-great-grandmother Ellen, the piece was commissioned for exhibition Queen’s Land: Black Portraiture From the Late 19th Century to the Present, which will open at Cairns Regional Art Gallery in May.
“For a long time I have been interested in the history of photographs, and perhaps one reason for that is the impact of our family archive, which goes back to the early 20th century. Every year Atkinson would return and take a carte de visite of my great-great-grandmother Ellen, my great-grandmother May and my grandmother Doreen,” says Danie.
“Ellen was removed at a very young age from her family, who were originally from the Atherton Tablelands, and taken into domestic service in Cairns. The family were incredibly protective and good to her so in that sense she had quite a fortunate life. I go up to that land every year to photograph and walk and see family and the relationship I have with those spaces is very important, personally and within my work as well.
“In the original photograph I am using for this work, Eileen is photographed standing in front of a blanket, which has real colonial overtones, as blankets were given out as rations when indigenous people were removed from their lands. I wondered if I should have that conversation again in this piece but I decided instead to turn the backdrop into rainforest, which is more in keeping with the relationship the people had with the space and country.”
Danie stops and brings out the original black and white photo he is creating this work from. It shows his great-great-grandmother Ellen as a young girl in service in her late teens.
“It is quite amazing to have this material from my own family archive and I saw a quote a while ago that said artists always end up using what is closest to them. But using it in my work has been a gradual thing as it’s a complex and confronting piece of my history and story. There are stresses and rewards to this being part of my life and I guess my work is deeply political but quietly so as it feels very private. This piece of Ellen feels like a very important piece to me as it sort of feels like it’s going home.”
Danie and Joanne spend most of their days working in their light-filled split-level home but Danie also likes to swim, walk and photograph. He laughingly reveals the couple are hardware store tragics because “that’s where you find stuff you make, stuff you do and stuff you need”. They moved to the Highlands in 2012 when Danie, a long-time lecturer at ANU also began lecturing at Sydney College of the Arts.
“We needed a halfway point and then we kind of found this house and space by accident and made the decision for me to leave teaching and concentrate on my work. It’s been a really beautiful place to work.”
Danie leads the way upstairs to a gallery space above the carport. Here sits a collection of maquettes of mangrove trees that will soon materialise as five metre bronzes for a major sculptural commission in Sydney. On the wall are works Danie showed in China in the inaugural Yinchuan Biennale in 2016, alongside works by Yoko Ono and Anish Kapoor. There is also a skull study that formed part of a bigger photographic composition, acquired by the ANU. Elton John bought the companion piece.
“It was after his last tour of Australia in 2017. He played in my home town of Mackay and the council were looking for something to give him so they bought one of my small photographs and presented it to him,” says Danie.
“He is a photographer himself and has a pretty amazing collection and he called me before going on stage to play in Cairns and bought another one. I’m told they are in his gallery in London, which is pretty cool.”