A message from God to the Blackfellow, 2017, is an ongoing significant body of work by Ngarrindjeri-Chinese artist Damien Shen. In continuing his engagement with archives and museums, Shen draws on the encounters between Reverend George Taplin and the Ngarrindjeri people, to establish a thematic framework for this series. These encounters are drawn from Taplin’s diaries and give great detail on his engagement with Ngarrindjeri. Shen was particularly drawn to Taplin’s entry about a discussion with a ‘native’ on April the 7th, 1859.
“I then endeavoured to explain to him that I had a message from God to the Blackfellows, and what it was, and asked him to tell the others about it. He seemed to understand me but was evidently surprised. It is my impression at present that more will be done by individualising the natives than by teaching them collectively. I shall see how this idea is confirmed or otherwise bye-and-bye.”1
For these new works, Shen’s response to the righteous and paternalistic views of the times, which position his ancestors as inferior black subjects, takes the form of a series of large portraits, depicting two Ngarrindjeri elders, whom were both photographed by Samuel Sweet at Raukkan in South Australia. These paintings depict figures from the community, rendered in a monochromatic and sombre palette. A stark background frame their figures, perhaps a visual cue to the anthropological methods utilised in ‘documenting’ the Ngarrindjeri community. Whiteness didn’t just surround each of his forebears, but pervaded into their very being. They are submerged underneath a sheath of pale rhythmic dotting, ghosted in the virtues of whiteness while their selfhood was simultaneously erased by ‘well-meaning’ messengers of God, in state-sanctioned, publicly funded assimilation machines.
1 Reverend George Taplin, The Journals of the Reverend George Taplin, Missionary to the Ngarrindjeri People of the Lower Murray, Lakes and the Coorong,1859 – 1879, 7 April 1859, http://www.firstsources.info/uploads/3/4/5/4/34544232/ taplins_diary_1859-79.pdf