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Imants Tillers

White Aborigines  1983

oil stick and synthetic polymer paint on canvas

254 × 381cm installed

Museum of Contemporary Art, gift of Loti Smorgon AO and Victor Smorgon AC, 1995

1995.248

About the Artwork

White Aborigines, by Imants Tillers, is a painting made of 100 small canvas boards arranged in a grid. Tillers has transposed figures copied from a nineteenth-century German woodcut by Wilhelm Busch onto the boards, alongside text in German lettering – both referencing Tiller’s Latvian heritage and its Teutonic history. The painting’s title, however, refers to Australian cultural and artistic identity – in particular, a post-WWII approach to forming this identity by assimilating traditional Aboriginal cultural forms into contemporary art. In the early 1980s some white artists extended this approach by adopting Aboriginal painting styles, reinforcing the idea that an ‘authentic’ Australian artistic identity was to be found in Indigenous or regionally specific styles.

In White Aborigines, Tillers opposes this idea by reusing existing imagery – in this case, German illustrations – to show that in a postmodern society all our perceptions of national or artistic identity are already mediated through other images and representations. Art historian Rex Butler said of Tillers: ‘His point was that the specificity of Australian art was not to be found in anything actually within the country (its landscape, its light, its people), but in the fact that it is almost entirely mediated through other people’s perceptions of it. There is no authentic Australian art: the only thing original about it … is that there is nothing original about it, that all of its images are imported from overseas’.[1]

Tillers’ investigation of the Australian dependence on mechanically reproduced images and the impact of imported visual cultures is evident in this work through his use of Germanic imagery, reflecting his interest in his own Latvian background and images remembered from childhood books. He has said of this appropriative strategy that he sees ‘the relationship that reproduced images have to their originals as being analogous to that of people displaced from their cultural sources to their actual cultural sources.’
Updated and approved August 2016.

[1] Rex Butler, ‘Two readings of Gordon Bennett’s The Nine Ricochets’, eyeline, winter/spring 1992, p.19.

‘Cultural convergence’ is attractive as an idea because it offers a painless way to expiate our collective guilt … while simultaneously suggesting an easy solution to the more mundane but nevertheless pressing problem of finding a uniquely Australian content to our art in an international climate sympathetic to the notion of ‘regional’ art.
Imants Tillers, 1982.

Imants Tillers

– About the artist

Born 1950 Sydney, New South Wales. Lives and works Cooma.


Imants Tillers is an artist, writer and curator. Since 1981 he has used his signature canvas boards to explore themes relevant to contemporary culture, from the centre/periphery debates of the 1980s to the effects of migration, displacement and diaspora. Most recently, his paintings have been concerned with place, locality and evocations of the landscape.

Tillers has exhibited widely since the late 1960s, and has represented Australia at important international exhibitions, such as the São Paulo Biennial (1975), Documenta 7 (1982) and the 42nd Venice Biennale (1986). Major solo surveys of his work include The Long Poem, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth (2009); Imants Tillers: One World Many Visions, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (2006); Towards Infinity: Works by Imants Tillers, Museum of Contemporary Art (MARCO), Monterrey, Mexico (1999); Diaspora in Context, Pori Art Museum, Pori, Finland (1995); Diaspora, National Art Museum, Riga, Latvia (1993); Imants Tillers: 19301, The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand (1989); Imants Tillers: Works 1978–1988, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (1988).

Tillers has also exhibited in numerous group exhibitions around the world, including Seen from Elsewhere, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, New Zealand (2015); The Skullbone Experiment: A Paradigm of Art and Nature, Tasmanian Land Conservancy, Launceston, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Inveresk and UNSW Galleries, College of Fine Arts Gallery, Sydney (2014); Mix Tape 1980s: Appropriation, Subculture, Critical Style, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2013); Out of Australia, British Museum, London (2011); Curious Colony: A Twenty-first Century Wunderkammer, Newcastle Art Gallery, NSW (2010); Prism, Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo (2006); Kunst Nach Kunst (Art After Art), Neues Museum Weserburg, Germany (2003); Biennale of Sydney (1979, 1986, 1988 and 2006); The World Over/Under Capricorn: Art in the Age of Globalisation, City Gallery Wellington, New Zealand and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1996); Australian Perspecta (1981, 1987–89); Antipodean Currents, Guggenheim Museum, New York (1995); and An Australian Accent, PS1, New York (1984).

Tillers’ major commissions include the Federation Pavilion, Centennial Park (1985–87); the Founding Donors Painting, MCA, Sydney (1991), and two key sculptures for Sydney Olympic Park (2002). His work is held in numerous major state and regional collections in Australia, and in collections in New Zealand, Japan, Spain, Finland, USA, Latvia, Mexico and a number of private and corporate collections.

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