Exhibition Essay by Sophia Cai
History operates under a myth of factuality, and there are certain events and figures that have dominated the narrative of Australia’s colonial history. From the arrival of the First Fleet to tales of notorious bushrangers such as Ned Kelly, the story of modern Australia has been largely shaped by a Eurocentric lens and perspective. In truth, however, history is a reflection of cultural and social values as much as it is based on facts and dates. Coloured by human interpretation and power struggles, what the history books tell us is far from neutral.
In his first solo exhibition, Forgotten Faces, Sydney-based artist Kristone Capistrano reconsiders Australia’s history as a penal colony through a personal migrant lens. The exhibition was inspired by an initial visit to Old Melbourne Gaol and the discovery of the death mask of an obscure Filipino cook – Filippi Castillo. Sharing the same cultural heritage as this man, Capistrano became interested in the place of ethnic and migrant voices within the well-versed narrative of Australia’s convict past, which remains heavily white-dominated. Who was Filippi Castillo, and what was his place in this part of history?
Using this death mask as a starting point, Capistrano has created a series of eight portraits of past prisoners who were detained and executed at the Gaol between 1875 and 1894. Alongside the now infamous Ned Kelly, Capistrano has included portraits of lesser-known convicts including Fatta Ghand, an Indian hawker; Claudius Marquis, a half-Chinese half-Portuguese clerk; Fredrick Jordan, a coal-lumper and son of an African-American slave; Ah Ling a Chinese miner; Ah Gaa, a Chinese opium dealer; and the aforementioned Castillo. All the portraits are based on either photographs taken before their death or death masks made immediately after their execution.
Working predominantly in larger-scale portraits, Capistrano’s artistic practice can perhaps best be described as ‘humanist’. Through a labour-intensive process of charcoal drawing, scratching, erasing and smudging, Capistrano’s portraits are built up as layers upon layers. The artist describes his process as a combination of classical realism with the ‘sensibilities of post-internet and post-photographic aesthetics.’ The hand of the artist is clearly visible in these works, which imbues the work with a tactile nature as well as a deeply personal and emotive connection. When viewed together in a gallery setting or a room, these larger-than-life portraits demand attention from a viewer. In the words of the artist, these portraits cannot be simply ‘dismissed or “swiped” away.’
The irony behind the portraits is that all the subjects (except Ned Kelly) could have easily been forgotten or had their names lost to the vestiges of history but the process of their detainment and execution meant that their names and faces were recorded. In this regard, the works raise the question of how many more ethnic migrants have lived in Australia, but not had their stories told.
It is important to acknowledge that Capistrano’s series is not a celebration or endorsement of the criminality of the subjects; rather, there is a much more ambiguous and complex memorialisation happening through the portraits. Rather than regarding them merely at ‘face value’, Forgotten Faces tells a broader story of the historical and continued omission of people of colour in Australia’s history. The act of art-making, in this case, is an opportunity for the artist, and us as audiences, to rediscover or reconnect with these untold stories.
As an island nation, Australia’s modern history is shaped and influenced by movements of migration; from the settlement of Indigenous Australians via South East Asia 65,000 years ago to colonisation by the British, to the post-war influx of immigration, the population of Australia today is a multicultural one. However, this influx of migration has also existed alongside xenophobic and exclusionary reactions such as the White Australia Policy and the more recent policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers.
In some regards, Forgotten Faces is not telling us anything new about the people that history forgets; in a land where sovereignty was never ceded to the First Peoples, where racism and exclusion continue to influence government politics and everyday actions, where refugees are denied entry and basic human rights, the ideas and ideals of Australia as a ‘fair’ nation remain heavily contested. Forgotten Faces asks us to consider what lies beneath the mask of Australia’s penal history, and perhaps our own complicity in accepting this history.
Click below for: Forgotten Faces Opening Page