Traces Unseen Curator Aimee Board talks to artist Damien Shen
Damien Shen The greatest victory is that which requires no battle, 2020 two etched tin types, 5 x 4 in courtesy of the artist and MARS Gallery
AB: This new body of work features yourself and your family members including your mother. How does this series build upon your previous practice?
DS: The work followed a similar thread obviously that I've been exploring for a while now. My practice really took off in about 2014. I think about six years ago. I think coming into an art practice a bit older gives you more life experience to draw from. For me, I've been able to process things more maturely. I've always been interested in portraiture as either someone who draws or someone who paints and my mum was a photographer back in the late '80s and '90s like a street photographer. She's got some work in the NGA collection.
AB: I didn't know that…
DS: As a child, I used to spend time helping her develop black and white photos in her darkroom. We'd go out photographing graffiti murals that were around. There's the photography connection that I have maintained since I started, but this new body of work has come about via a couple of things. I’m interested in the wet plate photographic process and the obvious links to earlier days. There's also similar elements there to standard black and white photographic processes. I had a couple of sources of, I guess, inspirational mentorship. One was when I went over and did the residency over at the Kluge-Ruhe Museum which is in Charlottesville, Virginia over in the US. That's the only sole collection of Australian Aboriginal art in America. I went over there in 2016.
AB: How did that come about?
DS: Each year they have two Aboriginal artists from Australia come over for a month-long residency at the museum and artists engage with the community and university. I did a lot of workshops, took a couple of drawing classes with students at the uni and did various talks and presentations in the community. It was amazing. It was just one of the best experiences I've ever had as an artist.
From the moment I landed, the workers and the community there were just so welcoming and incredible. During that time I got to meet a photographer from Richmond which was a couple of hours away, and she was kind enough to come to Charlottesville and basically take me through how to do wet plate photography in a lot of detail, and then also worked as a tech for a shoot. I got access to a gross anatomy lab at the university where I was able to access and photograph skeletal remains.
AB: We see that in your earlier bodies of work, don't we? With the skulls and Union Jack featuring in your Still Life After Penn series.
DS: Yes, Still Life After Penn– I’m very much a fan of anything Penn. His approach to still life in particular and so when that opportunity came up it was like, "Oh, man this is amazing I have to get in there. I wrote to the professor and he was like, "Yes, come in. So that was one key moment in the progression of my understanding of the tintype process. The other was just spending time with a mate of mine, James Taylor
AB: You're both in the NGA collection together now, aren't you?
DS: Yes.He's spent a lot of time doing tin types and other analogue processes So I also got exposed to the wet plate techniques through him.After the Kluge-Ruhe residency, I had enough confidence and skills to come home and set up a small darkroom.
AB: Can I ask, when you were meeting with the communities in Charlottesville, was there interesting/insightful discussion with local First Nations peoples?
DS:In Charlottesville, I shared the floor with a first nations elder during a dinner talk that focused on the historical theft and repatriation of ancestral remains. There is a shared history of these kinds of abuses towards our peoples. When I left Charlottesville after a month, I was fortunate enough to spend a week in Washington DC. During that time, I was hosted by the Deputy Director of the Smithsonian Museum for American Indian. It was a wonderful experience to meet the First Nations community there, in an environment they felt so proud of.
AB: I can see how your work reflects those discussions and communicates these ideas of repatriation, true?
DS: Definitely. My uncle, Major Sumner has been pretty heavily involved in the repatriation process. He’s traveled overseas and brought the remains back to Australia. It's been an interest of mine for quite some time.
Leading into Tarnanthi last year my practice expanded and evolved while engaged in a mentorship program supported by Guildhouse, a South Australian local arts hub and the Art Gallery of SA.I paired up with the curator and writer from WA, Glen Iseger-Pilkington, and went to Canberra to visit collections and generate ideas for the Tarnanthi works, which are the larger red-framed works in the show. Through that mentorship, I focused in on the idea of adornment, which links into this new body of work.
Damien Shen Uncle Puppsie, 2020 etched tintype, tintype made from charcoal drawing, 5 x 4 in courtesy of the artist and MARS Gallery
AB: Referencing traditional costumes and figures from the Song dynasty, are those markings also related to your Ngarrindjeri history?
DS: The carvings that you’ll see on shields from the Lower Murray region is where the influence comes from for the mark making.
AB: Can we also talk about the messages that you're conveying as a father figure, as a future elder in your community as well? Your work is obviously communicating really important truths. Looking at the imagery, I'm specifically looking at the triptych, Treat Your Soldiers Like Your Sons And They Will Follow You Into Any Battle, and if we can tap into the power relations going on with yourself standing there on your land, weaponry at the ready as Emperor, can you speak about the site here and your positioning, politically?
DS: The title for this works is inspired by Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese military general who wrote The Art of War. The relationship between the Emperor and the guards is a conversation about masculinity, leadership, and my personal belief that young men benefit from having positive male role models.
AB: Can I ask at this point about your father and his connection with his culture, having migrated here, and how connected you were to your Chinese heritage growing up?
DS: Yes. My dad's passed now but when he came over he was pretty young. I think he would have been probably 13, somewhere around that age. I think coming over in the 1960s was not an easy time for Chinese people coming into Australia. He had to assimilate pretty quickly. He never really made an effort to teach us the Chinese language, which is a shame.
When I think of male leadership in my life, it comes more from my Chinese grandfather, who was highly disciplined, cup half-full sort of guy. He used to sit me on his lap as a little boy to share with me his experiences when he was doing business in China as well as what life was like during the war with the Japanese.
AB: So tapping into these strong ties with your beloved ones, the framing of these works, is there any reference to 19th-century mementos?
DS: Yes. Some of the works that were developed in a very standard kind of box frame, but the images in the red frames were definitely inspired by looking at old ornamental Chinese framing and furniture, and working out how can I best utilize design to also tell part of the story. The central image of that, the red circle frame is referencing the prosperity symbol, which is a symbol you'd normally see during Chinese New Year. The other frames are referencing the carving patterns from various Ngarrindjeri shields. It's talking about both aspects of culture in the frames themselves.
AB: When you were in the US, were you looking at early war photography at all?
DS: I didn’t specifically search for them though I did see quite a few in Washington DC when I was visiting the Smithsonian museums. There were a lot of old civil war era tintype images that were so captivating.
AB: I'm just thinking about some of the early war photography of soldiers in a studio setting with the landscape behind them. I think the whole idea of the studio setting is really evident with these tintypes.
DS: That's right, there's been deliberate play in that space with some of the earlier works that I've done too. The works that were done that are in the National Gallery of Australia collection are partially based around the history of ethnographic documentation. There's no hiding that from us, as you know, either.
AB: Yes, it’s a complex history that must be told – explicitly. Moving on to your images of your family members. Can you tell us about this new series of family portraits?
DS: Yes. The show is entitled A Stone From Another Mountain. One side, you have the Chinese heritage discussion through the depiction of me as various Chinese dynasty military figures. On the other is mainly the Aboriginal heritage discussion in the form of traditional head-shot portraits. The portraiture component for these headshots is based on charcoal drawings that I had done a while ago, my first series in fact, where I went around and spoke to all of my mum's family who had grown up on the mission. I interviewed them all about what their first memory was of being on the mission and then began drawings. The best part to come out of that is hours and hours of my familie’s oral history.
AB: Is there any referencing to scarification in these images?
DS: No, not this work, but from what I can tell is that practice was probably happening in the past, according to the 19thcentury paintings of George French Angas. It’s hard to confirm though as it’s hard to find any discussion of scarification in any documents I've come across that relate specifically to the Ngarrindjeri.
What I'm looking at is this idea of the Aboriginal person as an object. For example, when Norman Tindale came through the Raukkan Mission in 1939, he photographed all four of my great grandparents and produced data cards for each person. The cards included information such as Hair color, hair samples, eye color, measurements, blood quantum. Part of his thesis revolved around how quickly does it take for an Aboriginal person to biologically assimilate into a white community to the point where they are no longer considered different.
AB: How offensive.
DS: So the anatomical etching of the face is really a link to that practice. Ultimately it’s the idea of people being considered objects to be studied, catalogued and removed from where they belong.
AB: Do you have a particular vision for how your practice will look in a few years time?
DS: Not really, though as artists we’re just driven to keep creating. I guess I'll go to my grave a happy man if I've just gotten into a few respectable collections where my grandkids can visit one day and view them. For example, works that the NGA collected which were about the very first time I ever got painted up with my uncle and captured it in that studio setting.
AB: You’re communicating such an important story, that is your story, Damien, and your work teaches us so much about our shared histories…
DS: I guess it’s what makes me unique as an artist. We all have an angle we can tap into and explore. You never want to lose your history so it's important to pause and take the opportunity to research and understand. You will grow as a result.