Daniel Boyd’s canvasses are adorned with the characteristic dotted lines and graphic swells of Aboriginal painting, yet complex imagery lies buried beneath the surface. Boyd has adopted traditional techniques in order to rework photographs, maps, and documents, overlaying select images with a “veil” of painted marks. Obscuring the details, he reflects on the silencing of indigenous voices in the writing of history, and the incomplete nature of all representations.
In his work, Boyd aims to uncover the nation’s colonial past. Many of his projects are initiated with archival research pertaining to local histories of slavery and conquest. One series features textbook heroes such as King George III or Captain Cook rendered in the naturalistic style used in most history painting, and then adorns some figures with the insignia of pirates: eye patches, bandanas, and parrots. For his painting We Call Them Pirates Out Here (2006), Boyd takes up Emmanuel Phillip Fox’s The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay, 1770 (1902). Boyd’s Captain Cook wears a black eye patch, and a skull and crossbones graces the windswept Union Jack, reframing Britain’s imperialist expansion as a barbaric act of looting. This work also reveals the artist’s interest in archives and museums as caretakers of cultural artifacts, based on the research he has conducted in the National History Museum in London and its First Fleet collection. In so doing, this painting also implies an institutional critique that exposes the complicity of museums in sustaining colonialist narratives.
In his work for the Biennale di Venezia, Boyd draws inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) and this time considers the “pirate” motif in the context of museums, framing Western archaeological expeditions as modern treasure hunts, their spoils now preserved throughout national collections. Here, he presents a series of objects held in various institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia; and Cambridge University Library in the UK. Each image in this Treasure Island series pertains to a navigational chart of the Marshall Islands, which lie northeast of Australia. These paintings also highlight the subjective nature of maps, which entangle geographic data with histories of power, conquest, and discovery.