The past & present of 200 years

Place Oceania: Australia, New South Wales, Sydney
Accession Number AWM2020.721.1
Collection type Art
Measurement Framed: 94.1 cm x 123.3 cm x 4 cm; Unframed: 91.5 cm x 120.7 cm x 2.2 cm
Object type Painting
Physical description synthetic polymer paint on canvas
Maker Campbell Jr, Robert
Place made Australia: New South Wales, Kempsey
Date made 1986

Item copyright: AWM Licensed copyright


This is one of two important 'bicentennial' history paintings by Robert Campbell Jr (1944-1993) which feature a series of panels that chronologically set out Australian history through Aboriginal eyes, from the arrival of the British through to the present day.

Sydney is the subject of 'The past & present of 200 years' and the painting's narrative begins with the arrival of the first fleet in 1788 through to the modern land rights movement and the city of Sydney 200 years later. At the centre of the composition, the largest panel features a map of Australia and a traditional Aboriginal family at home, surrounded by totemic animals of the Ngaku clans. The presence of paired figures such as those of the ships is also characteristic of his work and lends the paintings a visual logic that reflects the passage of time and a changing society. Thus in the first panel of 'The past & present of 200 years', two ships of the first fleet are shown having entered the harbour, while in the final panel two ships are shown leaving, suggestive of outbound trade.

The catalyst that drove Robert Campbell Jr to paint was the desire to teach his children Australian history from the Aboriginal perspective. In his youth, Robert would draw designs on boomerangs that his father made for the tourist trade. These designs are based on traditional imagery and patterns, as is evident in early decorated shields by Ngaku makers in the northern coastal region of New South Wales. Ngaku shield designs feature patterns of parallel and wavy lines alternating with lines of dots, which are translated in Robert’s paintings into meandering waves that animate the picture surface. A recurring image in Robert’s paintings is the depiction of the oesophagus of all living creatures, human and animal, as in the Aboriginal X-ray style of drawing.