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  • Christopher R. Inwood

The Australian National Identity Meme _ writing

“A national identity is an invention. There is no point asking whether one version of this essential Australia is truer than any other because they are all intellectual constructs, neat, tidy, comprehensible, and necessarily false.” [1]

The concept of an ‘Australian national identity’ is one that acts as a meme and has evolved through its interaction with ‘environment’, however it cannot lend itself to a accurate essential ‘national identity’. This will be explained through an investigation of the artworks Ned Kelly (1946) by Sidney Nolan and Shearing of the Rams 1890 by Tom Roberts, and will also be illuminated through an understanding of the nature of the ‘Australian national identity meme’. Richard White has described and outlined ‘types’ of national identities within the Australian context from 1688-1980, and the evolution of the meme’s visual depiction through-out the changing social, political, cultural, and environmental influences on ‘national identity’ will be demonstrated through the selected works.[2] This essay will also highlight the exclusionary nature of a ‘national identity’, and will show that the catalyst for its evolution is its inability to embody a depiction or identity that is truer than another.

‘National identity’ is best described as a meme, as it exists in the mind and prospers by its usefulness to humans or groups. [3] [4] The foundations of the ‘identity meme’ evolve through movement of time in reaction to the social, political and environmental factors, and depend on the popularity and ability to replicate its self as meme through imperfect imitation.[5] [6] There is no point asking if one version of ‘the essential Australian identity’ is truer than any other, as an identity meme is time dependent and serves as a snapshot of an in-group’s accepted ‘national identity’ of that period. However, the evolving memes have delivered a framework of personal identity that encouraged a young colonial altercentrism nation to group together, and this began the evolution of a constructed identity that reacted to the changing social, political and environmental ‘landscapes’, and its ‘popularity’ ensured it’s replication.[7] The ‘in-group’ nature of the ‘national identity meme’ is beneficial for those that identify with an ‘Australian’ nation, as it strengthens the psyche of the ‘included group’ to continue its practices as a community. The bonds of those who identify with the identity are also strengthened, which encourages the group to dominate the broader environment and rule within the belief and power structure of the identity, and this further propagates the meme and encompasses the ‘in-groups’ identity boundaries.[8] Understanding the nature of the evolving ‘national identity meme’ allows the viewer to look back at ‘iconic’ depictions of the Australian ‘national identity’ and illuminate the evolution this meme has taken.

Largely accepted ‘Australian identities’ fail over time due to the change in social, political and environmental variables. These changes encourage the groups or individuals who existed ‘outside’ of popular identities or who became ‘out-groups’ to gravitate towards both new perspectives and depictions of identity, or towards imposed conformity.[9] This gravitation is due to the physiological and social benefits of being a member of an ‘in-group’ and these actions re-define the image of the Australian ‘national identity meme’.[10] This is achieved by incorporating or excluding elements of the previously held Australian identity into a newer, broadened or divergent Australian identity. This nature of ‘national identity’ develops a vague reflection of the period, in which it is analysed. Various Australian ‘national identities’ existed and were propagated until it was/is acted upon by the ‘environment’ in which it existed/s, causing the meme to either evolve or die.[11] Any meme of ‘national identity’ from any period cannot be considered true as the exclusion of coexisting counter identities lack reflection in any analysed period. However, these identities can encompass the views and beliefs of the ‘in-group’ or authority in power, of the period in which it is analysed. The analysis of the visual depiction of a ‘national identity’ of a period can illuminate the social and political factors from which the meme evolved.

In his book Inventing Australia Images and Identity 1688-1980, White identifies 10 manifestations of ‘national identity’ through-out colonial Australia, which include: ‘Terra Australis Incognita’; ‘Hell upon earth’; a ‘workingman’s paradise’; ‘another America’; ‘the national type’; ‘bohemians and the bush’; ‘young white happy and wholesome’; ‘diggers and heroes’; ‘growing up’; and ‘everyman and his Holden’.[12] The sheer number of identities identified by White alone highlights the way in which identity changes over a 292-year period, which does not allow the meme to hold true in its entirety. Each identity has been depicted by groups and artists in an obsessive chase of identity during the prevailing period of their works, and this obsession aligns with the understanding of ‘national identity’ provided by Daniel Druckman, as it has an ability to give groups a unification in beliefs and ideologies, which are beneficial for the survival of individuals and groups, and can be used for both positive and negative outcomes.[13]

Figure 1

Ned Kelly, Sidney Nolan, 1946

Ned Kelly Series, Enamel paint on composition board,

90.8 h x 121.5 w cm

The artwork Ned Kelly (1946) by Sidney Nolan is seen to be one of Australia’s most iconic depictions of ‘national identity’ and the strongest representation of a visual depiction in the way a ‘national identity’ is constructed and evolves as a meme. Ned Kelly depicts the story of colonial Australia and is a representation of the ‘in-group Australian’ of the 1940’s. Ned Kelly is a painting of the armoured bushranger Ned Kelly riding on horseback through flat ochre country. The painting unifies, broadens, and draws from the Australian colonial history creating a new, evolved representation of the Australian ‘national identity meme’, which resonated with the pre-established authoritative Australian public. The evolution of the ‘national identity meme’ can be clearly identified in Ned Kelly through the incorporation of: an evolution of landscape painting, which has been the main visual representation of a ‘national identity’ since ‘terra Australis Incognita’; the history of Australia’s evolution into a nation through the use of the Ned Kelly story; the acknowledgement of the altercentrism attitudes and histories of Australia depicted by the use of a Modernist style; and the evolving ‘national type’ through the use of relaxed brush work.

Australia’s landscape has preoccupied Australians since the early colonial settlers. The melancholic landscape identified by the art historians Ian McLean and Tim Bonyhady depicted the struggle with country and identity that colonising Australia faced.[14] [15] Nolan’s depiction of Australian country in Ned Kelly was fundamental to the evolution of the trend of the naturalist’s depiction of country and the impressionists of the Heidelberg School. Nolan’s painting of the Australian landscape has evolved as it represented as harsh, flat, ochre and baron country, with similar visual depictions to those that Russell Drysdale and Fred Williams achieved. Nolan’s work seems to visually reflect the darker characteristics of Australia, through his depiction of a barren and harsh landscape that lacks living flora. Nolan’s depiction of the harsh landscape incorporated the nation’s reaction to the Great Depression and WWII (1929-1945), which allowed the contemporary into the evolving meme and facilitated its acceptance as a depiction of identity. Each visual representation of Australian country was ‘true’ to the ‘in-group’ viewer’s perception held within their period, however, the depiction of country morphed in reaction to the socio-political environment of Australia that was then reconstructed to reflect the new meme of ‘national identity’ and re-structure of the ‘in- and out-groups’. Ned Kelly incorporates the perceived connection that Australian cultural history has with country through the use of landscape histories as a background for the painting, which allows the depiction of an evolved narrative of ‘national identity’.

The loose and relaxed application of paint in Ned Kelly is a further hint to the history of Australian identities as it reflects the laid back, casual dress and attitudes of the morphing ‘national identity’ that gained hold and has been nourished by the reshaping of Australian ‘in-groups’ since colonisation. This laid back attitude has been strengthened as a ‘national identity’ through each period by personal resonance with these histories and attitudes that provided a sense of belonging as an Australian. This attitude was highlighted by James F. Hogan in 1880 as ‘The Coming Australian’ a ‘national type’, which held three core attitudes, the third being a dislike of mental effort.[16] Although this ‘laid back’ ideal is represented in Ned Kelly and has gained prominence over time to be commonly recognised as an ‘Australian identity’, it can more accurately be described as a reflection of the perceptions of the popular Australian culture over time.

The symbol of the iron mask that Nolan uses to depict Kelly allows the viewer to easily place them self into the role of Ned Kelly, which incorporates the viewer in to the myth and legend that surrounds Kelly. This forcibly makes the viewer apart of the shared meme of the ‘national identity’. Nolan further ties the ‘Australian identity’ to an Australian past as an altercentrism nation that later found pride in its federation from its forbearers, represented by the depiction of the now iconic bush ranger and outlaw Ned Kelly. Similarly to the morphing narrative of history and identity outlined in Inventing Australia, Kelly’s story highlights to the nation its progression and evolution of history and identity from ‘Terra Australis Incognita’, to ‘Hell Upon Earth’, to ‘Workingman’s Paradise’, to ‘Another America’, to a ‘national type’, to ‘Bohemians and the Bush’, to ‘Young White, Happy and Wholesome’ to ‘Digger and Heroes’.[17] The 1880 story of Irish born Ned Kelly works as a symbol and ties together the evolution that the Australian ‘national identity’ has taken.[18] This story resonated with the Australian populous to self-identify within a 1946 atmosphere. Nolan’s use of the Kelly story visually reshaped and repackaged the evolving ‘national identity meme’.

The Modernist artistic style present in Nolan’s painting Ned Kelly is another key element that is representative of this evolution and has been incorporated and accepted into the Australian nation’s ‘identity’ of the period.[19] The modernist style of European and British artists highlights the altercentrism root of Australian identity and its influence on culture. This incorporation of a Modern artistic style into the previously British academic tradition in art, allowed the evolution of the ‘national identity meme’. This conformity by the Australian artists and Nolan holds true to the progression of art movements and style of European descent. Nolan taught himself from the books of Picasso, Paul Klee, Henri Matisse, and the Surrealists, and this education echoes this connection.[20] The modern style of Ned Kelly’s depiction aligns with Australia’s reluctance to break physiological and historical ties with the country’s British and European heritage. Through Nolan’s alignment with the modernist style of Europe, the altercentrism roots of Australia have been integrated into, and maintained, as part of the meme of the ‘national identity’.

Nolan’s painting is seen to amalgamate White’s identified 292-year history of an evolving colonial Australia into one succinct image that is commonly recognised as the ‘Australian identity’. However this image, no matter how these histories are integrated, cannot be a true depiction of ‘national identity’ as representation of countless key elements from the focal period alone are omitted, including representation of the first people or the depiction of women. These elements have been cast aside throughout the morphing identity story that Australia seeks and constructs. This construction of identity is also present in Nolan’s creation of the Kelly Gang series, which was composed in studio 66 years after the events of the Kelly gang and highlights the fictitious nature of identity, as not something that is captured or shown but as something that is constructed. Rather than embodying the misconstrued notion of a ‘national identity’, as clearly highlighted, Nolan’s piece Ned Kelly clearly represents the perspectives of the ‘in-group’ Australian populous of the era.

The Shearing of the Rams

Tom Roberts, 1890

oil on canvas on composition board