All Mixed Up is a major solo exhibition featuring newly commissioned paintings, sculpture and installation from John Prince Siddon, first exhibited by Fremantle Arts Centre in Perth, Western Australia, and curated by Emilia Galatis.
A Walmajarri man based in Fitzroy Crossing in the West Kimberley, Prince spent his early years working on cattle stations until losing a leg in a riding accident.
His art combines diverse influences drawn from television, the traditional Kimberley craft of boab nut carving, desert iconography and the epic characters of Narrangkarni (Dreamtime).
Surreal and kaleidoscopic at first glance, these works offer an incisive commentary on the political and social issues of today, and on Western Australia’s dark and mostly undocumented history.
Australia: Mix it all up (2019) by John Prince SiddonMuseum of Freedom and Tolerance
Australia: Mix it all up
"We all mixed up; tru, let’s keep it that way. Just like I said, paintings bring memories. Back whatever young or old. When you start to paint, you’ll never stop! Many of our old people did most painting on their own land, they love even the animals."
"Well to me, I’m doing the same, trying to piece every animal whatever where they from; East, West, South, North - trying to paint them together. Like mix them up, just like a jigsaw. I paint animals who fight each other, hate each other, sometimes love each other.
You know, back when I was young teen, I loved horse riding. But we were forced to work on cattle stations, as juveniles our punishment was to go to the stations and work. We used to steal back then - cars, booze, smokes, money, you name it."
"Young or old, when you start you will never stop. These are my words; these paintings are my words.
Landscape, dreamtime, stories, kids’ paintings, poetry... put them all together, it’s all the same with all my painting it’s all mixed up."
"I really don’t know how to translate it into words but I can by doing art. I’m a shy person, yea. Also, all my art stories are shy, yeah anyways, life goes on, whatever."
All Mixed Up
In the heat
Springs a mirage
Sublime nature of our beings
Rotten depths of our cores
Within the vines
These are hot
And desperate times
Cameras shatter in the heat
Blisters form on novice feet
Watching real movies
Bandaged and ravaged baby bears
Adani, Hawaii, Murray Darling
Mr Houston, Amen
Lost or found in translation
Coal in the courtroom
Come on in
Koala, what you rekon?
Lost, broken, found, rebuilt
Dead, not forgotten
Echo’s softly across
We all mixed up
Not a reason to be blue
The lizards rattling in the roof
Always was, always will be
Panic (2020) by John Prince SiddonMuseum of Freedom and Tolerance
"These are them animals telling the world what happen after the bush fires destroy their bush homes and those who never made it alive, loved ones."
Welcome to the world of John Prince Siddon; the road is rough yet paved with gold.
A man of many pasts; elusively literal, joyfully macabre, fantastically sombre, terribly concerned. Where fantasy is lore, myth stems from reality, and reality is a studio in the heart of Fitzroy Crossing, 400 km east of Broome, in the remote West Kimberley region of Western Australia.
"This painting is all about Covid-19 and it’s all over the world but the Clive Palmer want the people to enter Western Australia but Mark McGowan want the people to be safe in WA but Scott Morrison wants people to come to Australia to bring Covid-19 in Australia so Mark is GOOD CLIVE IS UGLY SCOTT IS BAD so there are good the bad and ugly."
For Prince, myth can be loosely described as First Nation’s concepts of Narrangkarni (Dreamtime), which are fixed, through systems of lore, and reality is a combination of contemporary TV, media, radio (the outside world) and Fitzroy Crossing community life (the inside world).
This dog-eat-dog world we live in; life, death, morality, mortality, incineration, judgment, reformation, rebirth – Prince always puts you somewhere on the edge, in viewing his work you’re usually left somewhere between elation and anxiety.
The significance of Mangkaja Arts to Walmajarri people
Mangkaja Arts is a significant Kimberley organisation with roots firmly entrenched in advocacy and opportunity for the multiple language groups of the Fitzroy Valley region.
Supporting a minimum of four different language groups including Bunuba and Gooniyandi of Martuwarra (river country), and Walmajarri and Wangkajunga from the jilji, (sand-hill Desert Country).
"It's hatching time for the babies in the eggs. Some birds, some lizards."
"I have painted the Light Horseman to the right, some get blown up and the horses are being shipped to Gallipoli in World War I but most of the horses didn't come back and only a couple of soldiers came back. They miss their homeland Australia."
Originally from the Great Sandy Desert, Walmajarri people were displaced and relocated through systems of colonisation, resulting in being used as unpaid labour on cattle stations across the region. Prince is a Walmajarri man whose father, Pompey Siddon, was one of the founding members of Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency.
The organisation was incorporated in 1993, however, prior to this, Mangkaja (a Walmajarri word for shelter or gathering together) was operating from a small building near the highway. Led by the local men, Mangkaja provided a place where people could study and paint their personal stories, bush trips and histories.
Many stockmen were laid off upon the introduction of Equal Wages legislation and were forced to the fringes of Fitzroy Crossing. Displaced from traditional homelands the many culturally different groups forged new ways of working together.
Prince: From stockman to storyteller
Like many men from the Kimberley, Prince spent his early years working on cattle stations, until he lost his leg in a horse-riding accident. After the accident, the doctors said he would never walk again. Determined to recover, he has been walking ever since, often remarking how he proved the doctors wrong. After the accident, he discovered art.
Deliberately avoiding explicit narration of specific Narrangkarni, the concepts and principals embedded in his work contextualise these ancient principals for the modern world.
In this way, Walmajarri cosmology can be seen as a grand morality tale for the times we find ourselves in; visions of a future that respect and integrate Indigenous practices, healing our past.
The clues are there within his technicolour occult where desert iconography surfaces, often encrypted, and in uncanny places.
Prince's 8 Parables (2020) by John Prince SiddonMuseum of Freedom and Tolerance
Prince's 8 Parables
"This painting I done will probably be stupid or dumb but anyway, I’m doing it my way to make you understand the meaning of what I have painted. And I’ll be the first artist to who has ever done this before. I have been gathering information from watching the news on TV and start painting them."
One: Stranded Poor Sheep (WA)
Our sheep poor fellow standing on a ship headed to Kuwait. Some got cramped waiting in Freo, WA. We all felt sad and sorry for them, looking at them on TV news stranded. Man, that’s really sick, stranded, poor sheep.
Two: Two Racisms
Remember Michael Jackson sang doesn’t matter if your black or white? People around the world don’t get that. Maybe it’s just because people hate the colour black? Tell you one thing, I’m proud to be black.
I wanna share this poem written by Maya Angelou:
“You may write me down in history with your bitter twisted lines. You may tread me in the dirt but still like dust I’ll rise.”
Three: Wow Cathy!
Cathy man what can we say! You’re a living back legend, you done us proud. Just like Slim Dusty sang- you done us proud, you made history in your own way winning the 400m in the Sydney final Olympic games in 2000. And most of all how you carried the land rights flag- you made us all proud when we saw the flag waving on TV. You showed the Nation, everywhere, you did that. That’s why I paint you, you part of this painting, a true black legend.
There you go Cathy.
Four: Black Lives Matter
You know the story.
Bullies can kill somebody. Its hurtful, I been bullied many times on message on my phone, it’s really sick. Some people, our kids, can pick on you when you’re old or when you really good at something. I’m saying this cause arts is my passion and stop bullies.
Six: Save our Whales
I have never seen whales in real life, seen on TV. The pastor read to us when we were kids, telling us about a good whale who help Jonah in the bible.
Jonah was frightened he thought he was going to die inside the whales belly. It’s the same stories when a baby whales get stuck in the ocean on a shark net crying to be saved and free by us. Remember in the bible the whale saved the man. So I think back and do something for our whales.
Seven: Pope Francis
We love many Nation who saw it on the news around the world about the biggest fire and its sad and true. The livestock, the koalas, many people lost their lives. Fighting to save one another, thanks Pope for blessing our Nation, Australia.
Eight: Climate Change
This really bothering many nations. I mean look in our outback Australia, even witchetty grubs are dying.
And Uluru, the main rock it’s don’t rain on the rock no more. And the billabong once used by Jolly Swag man who came by the billabong and the sheep’s don’t drink water- there is no more you see.
All Mixed Up: A culmination of Prince's life's work
All Mixed Up encourages you to play Prince’s universal tarot; take an icon, take an image; every time you will see something new. Deciphering these fragmented realities demands repeat visits, and even then things continue to recalibrate, new things emerge and old things fade away.
“Go back and read it properly”, he told me once. That I did, realising I had missed a whole point within a four word text.
The man vomiting a snake, the man from Snowy River, a kangaroo ocean mirage, spider union jack, wheelchairs, boat people, footless people, cockroaches, Scomo, lizards wielding spears; the list goes on.
All Mixed Up, 2019 is the literal mixing of icons – culturally diverse Australia, Kimberley communities, and our current political situation – for the most part his message is light, yet sinister. The giant HMAS Sydney with its pointed canon protruding from Ned Kelly’s pants confirms this.
Fear, 2019 and Escape, 2019 also talk to this. Yes, the animals are all going to die in the fire, yes, it’s about life and death, but when we think of Indigenous land management strategies, this work is also about renewal and regeneration.
It is about ancient principles and ways of being that we, the settler/coloniser, have tried to destroy; knowledge and practices which now make perfect sense in the face of catastrophic devastation.
Painfully serious, familiar yet unfamiliar, the lightness and the darkness, allured yet confused – as I unravel these works, I feel more twisted.
"Same here, the fear most insects have when the fire is closer."
"Some small insects will try to get a lift by trying to hop on the big animals back or foot or even tails, trying to outrun the fire."
Reflecting on dark histories
Right now, we find ourselves at a political turning point, as people we are changing, yet our shifting consciousness, our new awareness is being resisted by the political leaders of our Country. All Mixed Up offers a unique and critical voice to these challenging times, a time of intellectual revolution, a time when the dominant narratives are being questioned.
Prince’s work, in many ways, reflects the absurdity of our time. For many Australians, the true history of our country has never been taught. Indigenous art has always ran parallel to history books, documenting a history of our nation and a history of Country which continues to be under the custodianship of Indigenous peoples.
The 1967 referendum was not that long ago. Many artists have told me over the years that they feel the Kimberley was forged off the back of slave labor and that the wealth of the state can be tied to the Indigenous workforce that built it and were never remunerated.
"The Purlkartu is making a web out of the Australian map, all the animals are caught in its trap."
Today, the push for water and other resources can be seen as an extension of that disparity, Aboriginal people are still forced to compromise on decisions that impact the health of their Country, their communities and their cultural selfhood.
The consequences of Equal Wages legislation from 1968 saw the introduction of a new set of horrific circumstances. A senior artist in Kununurra remarked to me recently: “When we all got laid off, they left us on the fringes in camps and told us not to worry, that the government would look after us… that’s where we have been ever since”. Many of these issues remain unresolved; it’s hard to fully understand the layers of complexity in what is essentially a continued frontier experience.
Many of these issues remain unresolved; it’s hard to fully understand the layers of complexity in what is essentially a continued frontier experience.
These are our brutal narratives to own, they are the history of our nation, whether people like it or not.
A portrait of John Prince Siddon standing in front of Australia: Mix it all up at the All Mixed Up exhibition launch at Fremantle Arts Centre, Perth, Western Australia.
Art as truth-telling
Prince is part of a long tradition of Kimberley men who see truth telling, communicating their personal history and lived experiences as a matter of urgency. In the works of Rover Thomas, Ben Ward, Mervyn Street, David Downs or Tommy Ngarralja May for example, paintings of the Narrangkarni cannot be separated from the politics of place, of recent history and contemporary reality.
Prince’s work is urgent – magnificently meshing two incongruent worlds into a mixed-up version of Australia. In his words: “We mixed up, true, let’s keep it that way!"
A story within a story, within a global story.
Prince is definitely wrestling with these concepts in the same way the green vines wrestle with his objects. He is concerned with the macro and the micro, his world and the world at large. His role and function as an artist has become more critical, more intense.
All Mixed Up is the synthesis of his life’s work and marks the beginning of the next phase of his career. There is a new clarity and intent, shining through the vines of parable and riddle.
Prince is overtly political, yet there is softness and compassion in his work, and in his life.
Prince’s studio is at a support facility where his wife Susan resides. Occasionally the resident aged care pet, a pink and grey cockatoo makes an appearance in his work.
All Mixed Up challenges traditional and conservative notions of Indigenous painting; it disrupts our notions of Australian contemporary art. Creating links between space, time and history, All Mixed Up takes a critical look at where we are, in reference to where we have been.
All artwork by John Prince Siddon. All images supplied by John Prince Siddon.
Words by Emilia Galatis, taken from Galatis' curatorial essay.
All Mixed Up is curated by Emilia Galatis and presented in association with Perth Festival in collaboration with Mangkaja Arts.
This work was first exhibited at the Fremantle Arts Centre in Perth, Western Australia.