An Indigenous perspective of Joseph Lycett's art

An Indigenous perspective of Joseph Lycett's art
Casting True Light and Shade on Aboriginal life in the Newcastle region
19 December 2014

An invitation from the National Library of Australia to undertake a study of convict artist Joseph Lycett and his artwork did not take me long to ponder over. Lycett and his work have long held great fascination for me, particularly as someone born in Newcastle, one of the areas most strongly connected to his work. The result of this study is True Light and Shade: An Aboriginal Perspective of Joseph Lycett's Art.

Twenty years ago when I was first at the Wollotuka Institute of Aboriginal Studies at the University of Newcastle, I went round Newcastle and its surrounds armed with a good quality camera and a booklet of Lycett's images. Wollotuka was to present at an education conference in Tasmania (this was before PowerPoint) and I had suggested combining Lycett's images and corresponding photos from the same location some 170 years later.

Aborigines Spearing Fish, Others Diving for Crayfish ...

Joseph Lycett (c. 1775–1828), Aborigines Spearing Fish, Others Diving for Crayfish, a Party Seated beside a Fire Cooking Fish, nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an2962715-s17

Being able to sit in locations with the images and examine the changes over that period of time was a remarkable experience and enhanced my interest in this striking individual. There is not a lot of extant written material about Joseph Lycett. In some respects, he remains a man of mystery. But the best understanding of the man himself is clearly to be gained through his incredibly rich and diverse artwork that remains today as one of the greatest insights into Australian Aboriginal cultural life before the catastrophic impact of European invasion, occupation, dispossession and cultural destruction. Lycett's work also stands in complete contrast to many of the early accounts that described Aboriginal people as savages not connected to land and not using it. His work reveals something completely different.

There is no way Lycett could have captured such detail and accuracy if he had not established great trust and respect with local Aboriginal groups. His work depicts their rich cultural life, including hunting and gathering, ceremony and entertainment, and caring for country. The landscape that Lycett captures was a virtual paradise of plenty in which Aboriginal people cared for and sustained their living environment, ensuring that it was handed down to each respective generation protected and maintained.

A Contest with Spears, Shields and Clubs

Joseph Lycett, A Contest with Spears, Shields and Clubs, nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an2962715-s9

Although Lycett was clearly not a skilled artist of the human form, his work shows the Aboriginal population as incredibly fit and healthy. This is substantiated by some settler accounts that depict Aboriginal women diving into what is now Newcastle Harbour and returning to the surface with lobsters three and four times the size of anything seen in Europe. The marine environment of south-east Australia provided a rich and varied food supply that was harvested seasonally and also controlled by the initiation process which defined what could and could not be eaten at various times and stages.

Despite his close ties with local Aboriginal groups, Lycett does not depict the secret sacred ceremony of initiation. This is readily explained and understandable, as he would not have been given access to such activities.

Fishing by Torchlight ...

Joseph Lycett, Fishing by Torchlight, Other Aborigines beside Camp Fires Cooking Fish, nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an2962715-s8

I personally love the night scenes that Lycett so vividly paints of Aboriginal people camping on the foreshore of Newcastle, corroborees detailing the dancing, singing and rich cultural activities of these large gatherings, and of night fishing out on Lake Macquarie. The night fishing image is particularly relevant to me as the people in the picture with their lighted torches are clearly spotlighting for crabs, something I have done many times myself with modern spotlights.

Joseph Lycett has left us all a rich tapestry of traditional Aboriginal life and a legacy of how peoples of differing cultural backgrounds can interact and live harmoniously with one another.

Professor John Maynard's True Light and Shade: An Aboriginal Perspective of Joseph Lycett's Art was released by NLA Publishing in November 2014.