The creation of visual stories from an original Tasmanian.
“I am a Tasmanian Aborigine. The artwork that I produce is unique in that the Tasmanian Aboriginal art culture has been lost in a short period of time. Consequently, the images that I create are my own. Because the culture which we had was stolen and discarded, I have had to create my own symbols.”
Some years ago I went to the annual Bruny Island Art Exhibition at the Adventure Bay Hall. One of the artworks jumped out at me. The centrally-focussed composition of Busy was so self-contained in its circularity that this neat little package expressed the title and place merely through fluid line and a sense of buzzing movement. Therein was a most powerful use of only two subject elements: ants and gum leaves. This strong and simple image was immediately iconic and held many ancient stories connecting the original Tasmanians and Allan Mansell’s personal experience of the local Bruny landscape.
The title Busy was poignant to my life at that time, so I decided to purchase this compelling lithograph to have as a lasting memory of this place and time. I am glad I did, as an opportunity presented itself to meet the artist, an original Tasmanian. Allan hailed directly from the survivors of the British invasion, who had inhabited the islands of the Furneaux Group in Bass Strait: the largest being Flinders, Cape Barren and Clarke Islands. Most visitors to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery will have seen the mairineer shell necklaces, woven bags, kelp water containers and stringy bark canoe in the exhibition dedicated to Aboriginal Tasmanians. However, there has not been any evidence of an Aboriginal painting heritage found in Tasmania, to date.
I researched further images by Allan Mansell and found an extensive body of work at Art Mob Gallery and the shop website. His visual vocabulary had taken on a very specific style and aura that encompassed the Tasmanian land and the flora and fauna that were found around the island. Allan expresses these emblems of his past and present through exquisite compositions, conveying simplified forms of echidnas, swan eggs, leaves, stones, berries, insects, water holes, webs, snakes, mutton-birds [yolla] and the four seasons. “I want to retain what is left of my culture, and express it through my art”, he says.
During a stint at the University of Tasmania, he researched other Aboriginal artists with whom he felt cultural and artistic links: Dennis Nona from Torres Strait Islands, Gordon Bennett, an urban artist and Lin Onus from Yorta country. All three had developed personal forms to express their individual messages. He writes: “Their stories all revolve around their cultural and historical experiences.” Some were more traditional and others appropriated images from western art. Here we have images that are both confrontational, political and others that are purely narrative. He absorbs various elements from indigenous art, as is the tradition in all the arts; we take from the past and build a personal style. This enforces a richness of depth and connectedness to culture and in the case of indigenous art, to country. Allan writes, “In his [Denis Nona] linocuts he uses repeating patterns. I use similar repetitive patterns through which I tell stories ut my environment and culture.”
The result of his research and exploration of forms is a collection of drawings, prints and paintings. He explains that the images seem to come from within. It is as though he had inherited the knowledge and understanding through genetic memory; it was always there, just waiting to be revealed. His body and mind merely transported this highly significant set of emblematic icons through time. He has become a component of the transmission of a lost culture. How did this happen and most importantly when?
For most of his life, Allan has worked as a manual labourer. He was a maintenance officer for Parks and Wildlife; worked on fishing trawlers, carpentry and building; and of course, his time with his own people gave him the experience of the traditional ‘mutton-birding’, a way of life on Cape Barren Island. As we discussed his past life, the story that unravelled was not always similar to his life of today. Apparently, he had been doing manual labour even as a child, from about eight years of age, when suddenly he and his siblings were taken away from their parents, who, like so many of that time, were deemed unfit to bring up their own children. This is a story of the stolen generation. He found himself in a home, many of which were managed by churches and other organisations.
At one stage he and his sister were adopted by a family that already had some daughters, so they gave back his sister and life went on without her and his own family. Allan was born in Hobart to Beulah Maynard. He was brought up by Beulah and his father Elvin Mansell. When asked where his parents lived, he replied, “Nowhere really. They were gypsies, the last of the nomads: the wandering Tasmanian Aborigines.” His resume states: “As a child, Allan and his family moved around Tasmania a great deal, following seasonal work such as mutton-birding, small fruit harvesting and various agricultural work.” When he was snatched away from his family, he was also cut off, suddenly and cruelly from his known life and culture. How terrifying and confusing this must have been. Some children of that time have never recovered from this experience, but Allan talks about it with a mixture of humour, irony and surprisingly, only a touch of bitterness. He has a calm demeanour and makes conscious decisions to ensure he has a fruitful and adventurous life, making the most of whatever comes his way. He is a father of two, and now lives a contented life with his partner Christine Churchill, who is herself a sixth generation Bruny Islander.
When asked where and when he attended school, he tells of how he ended up in a ‘special school’ in Hobart. By this stage he was classified as a child who was not able to respond to mainstream education. He emphasises that after six or seven years of attending school he was still unable to read or write. Laughing uproariously, he extrapolates, “I moved a lot of furniture around, especially pianos and was always picking up papers,” child labour – or so it seems. Christine laughs, adding, “So that is why you are so good at moving pianos!”
Up until ten years ago, Allan had never produced any art, having had no formal training. What happened to create this glorious twist of fate? He explains that his second child was born ten years ago. Suddenly, he found himself in Switzerland attending the funeral of his then partner’s parent. Hence, this Aboriginal Tasmanian, who has spent all of his life well below the equator in The Antipodes, was transported to the other side and end of the globe to old Europe. He observed, and no doubt took in, the vastly different environment and culture. He visually sensed the structure of the local terrain and cultural life at the various altitudes of this mountainous little country. In his unique way, he formed a picture in his mind and heart of how this society functions: how all the pieces fit together in harmony. He found himself at a meeting for children who suffer from severe arthritis. Instead of taking notes, he started to draw for the first time. He drew a picture of the meeting. The benevolent group is represented in his signature form, a self-contained circle. He borrowed female and male signs from mainland indigenous art, but here for the first time he used the iconic eucalyptus gum leaves encircling the group, which is now contained in harmony, working towards a positive goal. The result of this was The Meeting, the naissance of a substantial output of a personal iconography that was to ensue over the next ten years.
He then found himself rendering a picture of how he encapsulates the Swiss landscape in his mind. He was struck by the harmony of the terrain and agriculture; how neat and defined each level of the mountain was. There were snowcaps, grazing meadows, farm buildings and beneath in the valleys, the lakes, villages and roads. All this was surrounded by highways and everything was interlinked, appearing to be perfect.
He adds something truly significant: “I remember going to an art gallery in Zurich and seeing a huge exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s work.” For Allan this was mind-blowing and perhaps activated an inner capacity that had lain dormant, exposing him to the power of drawing and expressive imagery.
Eventually at fifteen he was released from the home, which had dealt out punishments of isolation and forced labour. He finally returned to Cape Barren Island and rediscovered his extended family, culture and true home. Allan explains, “You don’t forget those kinds of people.”
There are about seventy children that were taken from their families at this time in Tasmania, whether they had parents or not.
His work out in the bush and on the water fostered his love and intricate knowledge of nature, the extent of which enabled him to deliver his own child who came into the world abruptly, with no fuss, at all, at home. His art has become an important means of procuring money to buy petrol to get to the surf at Cloudy Bay, with a little left over for beer. Christine asks, “What did you draw back then?” He replied: “Sheep, echidnas, whatever was there.” “Why sheep?” she asks. He explains, “They were the best source to learn the perception of shape, tone and form, and besides, sheep stand still for long enough.” This was his first use of paper and pen to communicate ideas, as he explains that labour work is carried out through oral communication. Next thing, a friend from Launceston encouraged him to apply for university. He was accepted. He succeeded in the practical subjects, but theory and history writing were another story. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, “I got what I wanted.” Printmaking became his preferred vehicle of expression, although, he has completed some huge commissions which entail designing images for large murals, such as, Reaching Out at 188 Collins Street in Hobart. The original composition was a painting measuring two by two metres. It was then reproduced on site and enlarged to eight by eight metres. Allan has artwork hanging in the Australian Embassy in Washington, the National Museum in Canberra, and Australian Government offices in Sydney, Japan and the Netherlands.
After university, Allan Mansell was employed by The Aboriginal Education Unit to present a series of instructive programs throughout Tasmanian schools, the university and museums. This is a wonderful outcome, as it furthers Allan’s wish to spread the understanding of Aboriginal culture, his love of the natural world and generally, to spread harmony throughout society. It is a good way, and maybe the only way through, for a man who survived such a disparate life as a boy, both physically and spiritually, experiencing the turmoil of being dislocated from his people and endeavouring to make a good life for himself and those who know him.
Words: Jules Mc Cue
Images: Christine Churchill, Jules McCue & Allan Mansell