State of the Art: Helen Johnson

Anna Walker 17 June 2021

Australian painter Helen Johnson on her work displayed in the upcoming Tate show, A Year in Art: Australia 1992.

Reader's Digest: How would you describe your own artwork?

Helen Johnson: I make large-scale paintings that are often figurative, their surfaces constructed by processes of layering, obscuring, and preserving traces of different registers of imagery. I try to make surfaces that are immersive, and that reveal different parts of themselves over time. 

Australia 1992 entry hall

RD: What inspires your work?

HJ: The content of the work I am making at the moment concerns continuities of coloniser behaviour, and the role women have played, and continue to play in colonial processes in Australia; making connections between the present-day colonial society here and what people are generally more comfortable thinking of as "history," as though it is of the past and separate from our lived experience today.

I make this work from my subject position as a white woman, and a beneficiary of colonisation. I feel it's important to understand in a complex way that the present and the past are fused, and I think that painting is a useful space to reflect on this.

Tate show tapestries

RD: Can you tell us a little about the upcoming show at the Tate: A Year in Art, Australia 1992 and the work that you'll be showing there?

HJ: This exhibition takes the Mabo Decision on land rights, handed down in 1992, as a departure point. The case, led by Eddie Mabo, acknowledged the Meriam people's rights over Mer (Murray Island), which had implications for Indigenous claims to sovereignty throughout Australia and the Torres Strait. (The whittling away of Native Title legislation that followed is a long and sad story). The exhibition brings together works by Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to talk about Indigenous relationships to Country, and the continuing harm of colonial processes.

I am exhibiting two works: one focuses on the Speaker's Chair in the parliamentary chamber at Westminster, and the fetishistic replica of it that is installed in Parliament House in Australia, becoming a symbol of sycophancy and cultural cringe; the other painting deals with theft, and depicts a number of introduced species, both plants, and animals, that have become pests, disrupting the ecological balance; the proposition being that theft can involve bringing things in as well as taking things away.

paintings in the Australia 1992 exhibition

RD: The themes this show tackles—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land rights in Australia, and the legacy of colonialism—are huge. In your view, what is the place of art in discussing these themes?

HJ: There is still a great deal of reluctance, on the part of many people, to face the uglier realities of colonisation in this context; on the part of the conservative media, there is active and coordinated resistance against it.

Art can be a means to invite people to think about difficult ideas, drawing them towards some harder truths through the poetic, through aesthetic experience, sometimes even humour. It can become a space for discourse.

tate paintings

RD: What is the significance for you, as an Australian artist, of showing these works in Britain?

HJ: These works were made specifically for a British context, being commissioned by the ICA in London for an exhibition in 2016. In my experience, there seems to be a hunger for these kinds of stories in the UK. The lived experience of empire, and the ways in which it is enmeshed in the present, are very different in Australia and Britain.

I feel it's important to bring these perspectives to the UK, to this place that still has this vestigial idea of itself as a centre; it's not our centre, but it casts a long shadow.

RD: What insights do you hope British visitors take away from the exhibition?

HJ: There is a lot of powerful and generous work in this exhibition. I hope it offers an opportunity for people to think differently about their own subject position as they encounter these other perspectives, and to see some expressions of how colonisation remains a raw immediacy.

Tate show screens

RD: In keeping with the theme of the Tate show, are there any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists you are a particular fan of? 

HJ: Apart from the artists in this show, I am an admirer of Hayley Millar-Baker, Moorina Bonini, Peter Waples-Crowe, Yhonnie Scarce, Julie Gough, Amy French, Doreen Chapman, Megan Cope, Karla Dickens, Peta Clancy and Katie West. I could go on, honestly, but all of these people are incredible artists.

RD: I'd love to know about any experiences of visiting an exhibition that has been particularly formative or inspiring for you?

HJ: Dale Harding recently held an exhibition titled Through a Lens of Visitation at Monash University Museum of Art. It presented a vision of growth, connection and strength. My heart was full after seeing that.

I've also found the recent rehang of the 19th Century collection at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra to be inspiring.

A Year in Art: Australia 1992 is at Tate Modern until summer 2022. Research supported by Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational. With thanks to MCA Australia for their help and support in the development of this display. To book a free ticket please visit tate.org.uk

Read more: How to understand art

Read more: Shona McAndrew interview

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter