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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Davida Allen, 2016 by Mark Mohell
Davida Allen, 2016 by Mark Mohell

Standing by a window with a child, we point to a kangaroo outside and brightly ask ‘What’s that?’ If they don’t say ‘A kangaroo’, we tell them that’s what it is. Going around a gallery with a child, we point to a painting of a dog and brightly ask ‘What’s that?’ If they don’t say ‘A dog’, we tell them that’s what it is. We don’t say it’s a shape inscribed by an artist that’s popularly understood to signify a dog. That’d only serve to foster a smarty-pants. As we get older, we accept, mostly, that the old way of seeing things won’t do; but a lot of us still look at art as if it’s only there to point to some reality beyond it.

As a Brisbane schoolgirl, Davida Allen covered her naked body in paint and rolled around to make art. She still loves the smell of oil paint, and she’s keener than ever to put her bare hands in it. She’s an intensely personal painter, her subjects including what she sees while bushwalking, her yearnings and imaginings, her grandchildren. In 1986 she won the Archibald Prize with a portrait of her tetchy-looking, shirtless father-in-law. Yet her luxuriation in her medium underpins most of her paintings, which have a marked quality of materiality.

Coming to Kangaroos as a substantial object bearing symbols inviting interpretation, the viewer identifies a human torso, its bespectacled head slightly more feminine in appearance than masculine, which floats in a pink ground. Conventional signs for floor, wall, furniture are absent, yet he infers an interior scene because in the upper half of the canvas he encounters a painting of the bush on a blue day, two logo-like ‘kangaroo’ shapes in front of a cluster of tree-symbols. The figure’s ‘arms’ are short and stiff, there are no certain markers of shoulders or elbows, the ‘hands’ are simply flurries of pink. Between them is a disc toward which a happy-dog-shape, ‘tail’ aloft, is oriented. Processing these painted symbols into characters, he attempts to build a narrative, but comes up short.

Peaks, blobs and swells of paint on canvas or board are called areas of impasto. Looking at a painting with impasto it’s enjoyable to stand back, move in close, repeat; and to look from the side, too. (Much fun can be had with a torch.) In the topography of Kangaroos, the hills are the ‘eyes’. They pop through the ‘glasses’, which are inscribed flatly on the canvas. It’s entertaining to identify the colours in the ‘face’: mustard, salmon, yellow, red, white, navy. Looking intently, the viewer sees the effort the artist’s put into certain areas: the set ‘lips’ for example. The figure faces forward but looks sideways; intriguingly, in the viscous riot of the face, apprehension is conveyed. The right eye of the ‘dog’ hangs out. Look twice and the animal’s colour’s revealed as a kind of hi-vis camo-khaki. 

Davida Allen lives in the vicinity of Purga and Boonah, west of Brisbane, on acreage home to kangaroos. Sometimes she looks after a dog called Naughtie. If Naughtie gets wind of kangaroos she’s off. Worrying that she won’t return from a chase, Davida keeps the meat scraps up to her so she’ll hang round the house. Only knowing that story can the viewer make sense of the title Kangaroos and the tense, furtive mien of the figure. Knowing it, too, we understand that in Kangaroos, that’s a window, not a painting.

When we adults visit galleries, we’re not looking at women, dogs or kangaroos who are active in the world. We’re responsible for responding to shapes, textures and colours people have combined with intent. We know that paintings aren’t windows. 

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Davida Allen

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The National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.