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Imants Tillers

White Aborigines 1983

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

oil stick and synthetic polymer paint on canvas

H 25 W 38cm
H 254 W 381cm

About the Artwork

This large work White Aborigines by Imants Tillers reveals through its title and its exploding aesthetic and fractured surface, a concern with the politics of cultural and artistic identity. Tillers’ regular inclusion of text, together with his use of visual appropriation, makes his work typically postmodern.

His work sets up an aesthetic dialogue, referencing both well- and lesser-known artists, by superimposing images, visual motifs and text within the one composition. In this work, the large black figures and the text are taken from a 19th century German cartoon by Wilhelm Busch, whilst the smaller figures derive from an illustrated children’s book from Latvia. The work refers to the Teutonic past of Latvia, the country from which Tillers’ parents sought refuge after the World War II. The painting’s composition contains echoes of both the work of mid-20th century artist Ian Fairweather and Australian Aboriginal art.

Over the past four decades a number of social and political concerns have informed Tillers’ practice, ranging from issues concerned with centre-periphery to themes of place, identity, cultural memory and dispossession. In the 1970s Australian art was deemed to suffer from a ‘provincial problem’ because of its distance from the major international centres of art, but this perceived impediment was positively redefined in the 1980s as Australia’s critical distance from Europe and the USA, and the rapid absorption of old and new influences became synonymous with postmodernity. Tillers’ intertextuality and radical appropriations placed his practice firmly within this discourse.

In more recent years Tillers’ focus has turned to the natural world, in particular the ecology, ideas and histories pertaining to the Snowy Mountain region of New South Wales and the spare Monaro landscape in which he lives.

The textured paintwork is applied with the artist’s fingers as well as a brush. He has used a canvas-board system, where the work is composed across a number of sequentially numbered small boards – all of which are part of an extensive, ongoing project entitled The book of power. The 100 canvas boards in White Aborigines number from 840 to 939, indicating this was a relatively early piece in the development of the project.


Anna Davis (curator), Introduction, MCA Collection: New Acquisitions in Context, (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney 2010; Vivienne Webb (curator), Introduction, MCA Unpacked II, (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney 2003; Julie Dowling, ‘Windjarl Ngalar Kaarny Koorl Yay? Where does our spirit go now?’, MCA Unpacked II, (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2003

Imants Tillers

– About the artist


Imants Tillers has been at the forefront of contemporary art for over three decades. Since 1981 he has used his signature canvasboards 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.

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