The story of one of Queensland’s first contemporary aboriginal artist is currently on show at the Queensland Art Gallery. Joe Rootsey: Queensland Aboriginal Painter 1918-63 is open until the 26th of September. The exhibition showcases the life and art of Joe Rootsey from 1954 when he was discovered as a patient sketching in Cairns Base Hospital, until he died in 1963.
(Cape Melville lava rocks) 1958
Image: Queensland Art Gallery
The work in the exhibition was greatly impacted by the political context of the time. His contemporary and European approach to his landscapes greatly reflects the cultural ban on customs and practices of aboriginal people in the time of Assimilation. This policy had a dramatic effect on the indigenous population of Australia who not only ultimately lost some of their past and heritage, but also the connection with their home and their ‘country’ which is a huge part of the Aboriginal ethos.
Working in this political context his landscapes, although lacking in any traditional aesthetics, still reflect his culture through his connection with the land. This connection with his heritage in a time when practicing Indigenous culture was forbidden is a defining feature of Rootsey as an artist and is something the exhibition doesn’t duly bring to light.
After traveling to Brisbane in 1958 to receive technical training in watercolour painting his works become more confident and coherent and the vibrant colours and passion for his subject matter is articulated in his landscapes. The works, although individually beautiful, are quite similarly composed with the viewer continually looking down on the landscape from a higher plane. These repeated viewpoints result in the works blending in with each other making the exhibition unexciting.
(Eastward from Bathurst Head) 1958
Image: Google Images
A different curatorial approach that directly looked at the indigenous cultural context of his assimilation driven art practice would have benefited the exhibition. As this would have provided a more insightful understanding of Rootsey’s landscapes, accentuating the underlying melancholy of his works as an attempt to hold onto something that was in jeopardy of being lost forever.
Regardless of the success of the exhibition it is still celebrating the amazing story of an incredible man through his art and is well worth taking a look at.