Darren Bell, Blacktown Native Institution Community, 2014-15

Darren Bell’s photographic series is a portrait of a community – the Darug, the traditional custodians of the Cumberland Plains in Western Sydney, Blacktown’s broader Aboriginal community, and the non-Aboriginal people who participated in the Blacktown Native Institution Project.[1]

At the Blacktown Native Institution Artist Camps (November 2014 and March 2015) and at community meetings in June 2015, Bell took countless photographs of people. He photographed anyone who was drawn to the project, but his focus was the Darug and descendants of the children who were taken from their families to the Native Institution. Using as his backdrop either Brook Andrew’s ‘Wiradjuri op’ caravan,[2] or the Aboriginal flag, Bell created a group portrait that is remarkable for its insight and complexity. Each subject looks straight at Bell’s camera, candidly meeting his gaze. The images of Aboriginal people are studies of defiance, pride, strength, pain, grace, cultural knowledge and hope, while the non-Aboriginal portraits range from expressions of camaraderie to sober acknowledgement.

The photographs were commissioned to be featured on the Blacktown Native Institution website and on the occasion of the final camp, (the Blacktown Native Institution Corroboree) projected onto the silo that is a remnant of the site’s farm history. Four images from the series were also exhibited at the Civic Actions: Artists’ Practices Beyond the Museum conference in Parramatta,[3] where the portraits proudly and gracefully represented the area’s traditional custodians.

The casual ease of these images masks the artist’s technical skill. Bell habitually manipulates the colour saturation of his photographs, the richness of the images making screens or projectors an especially apt form of presentation. For this project he worked in colour and black and white; by enhancing the richness of the polychromatic images and transforming the black and white images with sepia tones, the candid, naturalistic images are no longer everyday. The colour portraits are boldly saturated, creating a sense of heightened reality. The sepia images, on the other hand, evoke historical or vintage photographs and gesture towards a non-linear sense of time where past identity and culture is alive and in dialogue with the present.

Bell’s honed sense of composition combined with his capacity to render character, so that when they were projected onto the silo at the Corroboree on the evening of 7 November 2015, the portraits exuded a commanding authority. Here the faces of Darug Elders, women, men and children were re-inscribed onto the site of the Blacktown Native Institution. In this empowering intervention the Darug reclaimed their land.

Anne Loxley
Senior Curator, C3West
February 2016

1. The Darug nation extends from Wisemans Ferry in the north to near Appin in the south to the Blue Mountains in the west and Parramatta in the east.
2. Part of Brook Andrew’s Travelling Colony (2012), this caravan was gifted to Blacktown Arts Centre by Koori Radio.
3. Civic Actions: Artists’ Practices Beyond the Museum, University of New England, Parramatta, September 2015

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