“Mr Yiribana” at home with big bad Banksia and Gymea Lily (portrait of Brett Cuthbertson – head of the Packing Room at Art Gallery of NSW)
2021
Oil on linen
198.5 x 152.5 cm

Brett Cuthbertson is the Head Packer at the Art Gallery of NSW’s Packing Room. He has worked at the AGNSW since he was 19. His father, Blair Cuthbertson, also worked at the Gallery, and was a gallery guard for 8 years until he retired. Brett was the AGNSW’s first employee to assist with installation works. The Gallery is like his home.

I first met Brett in 2015, when I was introduced to him by his friend and fellow football fan (and his former boss) Edmund Capon (AGNSW Director, 1978 – 2011). I tentatively agreed to paint his portrait some years later, after having painted Steve Peters (https://tianlizu.com/works/painting/this-is-it/). In 2019, I mentioned to him that I liked his installation of ‘The essential Duchamp’ exhibition and suggested developing the concept around that. ‘I don’t like Duchamp’, Brett said to me. ‘What do you like?’ ‘I like Aboriginal art.’

As the longest-serving staff member of the Gallery, Brett talked to me about “Archie 100” with pride and excitement. He wanted to be a part of it – to have his portrait painted and hung in the 2021 Archibald Prize. ‘You can pick any artist to paint you’, I said to him. Somehow, I became the one to paint his portrait. I was thrilled to have such a wonderful opportunity.

In November 2020, Brett introduced me to his friend and colleague, Coby Edgar. She is a curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art at the AGNSW. We met at the Yiribana Gallery.

‘Brett told me about his love for Aboriginal art. Will you share some insights with me?’ I asked. ‘Everyone at the Gallery calls Brett “Mr Yiribana”. He respects our culture. Whenever he comes down here, he greets the artworks as if they are real people’, Coby explained.

To help me understand Brett, Coby answered my questions about various artworks in the Yiribana Gallery.

‘Something I don’t understand. These artworks – they have been painted on canvas with acrylic paint and installed in a museum environment. In the 1980s, I used to go to the Chinese countryside and observe peasants making art. I did papercuts with them. They didn’t know how to papercut when they were offered high-quality paper!’ I observed.

‘These works have been taken out of context. They were originally painted on bodies’, Coby explained. ‘We paint and dance. Through dance, we get closer to nature – earth, the rocks, the plants, and the water – which has taken care of us. We, in turn, must take care of the earth.’

‘Why do you do it then?’ I asked.

‘We do it [on canvas with acrylic paint] because we want to help others understand our culture. Art is a bridge between Western cultures and ours. Brett is like an art warrior. He understands us. He guards our spirit.’

Coby’s insights emphasised the significance of displaying Aboriginal art in a colonial museum setting – it opened up the possibility to have conversations, and to engage cross-culturally. In that moment, I decided to look beyond the gallery space to portray Brett.

Outside his work at the Gallery, Brett enjoys wandering the bush. I asked if I could walk with him. He agreed without hesitation. I went to where he lives so that he could show me his world. It was 42 degrees that day and we walked for nearly 3 hours.

‘My grandmother used to take me bushwalking and show me different plants and species. Those were my first biology lessons,’ he said. ‘People don’t like the bush because it’s not like European landscapes. It’s messy, but I love it!’

I painted this work with oil, a knife, and small tree branches. I sought to express my new understanding of the Australian landscape – the messiness of it all – through the texture and depth of the oil painting.

Whilst bushwalking, Brett told me that his favourite childhood story was Big Bad Banksia Men by May Gibbs. It happened to be one of my favourites too (albeit in my adulthood, after I arrived in Australia). I depicted Brett in front of Banksia branches.

I painted Brett with the Gymea Lily for two reasons: first, he lives near Gymea, in the Sutherland Shire; and second, as Coby shared with me, ’Brett is full of contrasts – big and masculine on the outside, with a soft soul inside.’

I portrayed Brett’s face half in the light and half in shadow to reflect the current human conditions – intense, emotional, fragile, and ever-changing. I also tried to capture the temperature of the day – because of the long walk in the heat and the haze, I could hardly see any details. In the composition, nature takes up half the space. Brett is relatively small, emerging from the bush. I painted the concrete ceiling of the AGNSW (his home) to mirror Brett’s strong yet humble characteristics.

Green has become a recurring colour of mine – ‘it is the colour of rebirth’, as my first Archibald subject Edmund Capon put it.

I was inspired by Brett’s connection with nature, art and spirituality. The work manifests the contradiction within the real. My perception of art’s role in this world very much resonates with Brett’s – as a means to connect nature and society in this otherwise disruptive world.

My painting of Brett Cuthbertson, ‘“Mr Yiribana” at home with big bad Banksia and Gymea Lily’ did not get selected to be hung in the 2021 Archibald. It is now showing at its foster home, the SH Ervin Gallery in the 2021 Salon des Refusés – The alternative Archibald selection.

2021 Salon des Refusés – The alternative Archibald and Wynne Prize selection
S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney NSW
5 June – 15 August 2021
The David Roche Foundation, Adelaide SA
9 October – 11 December 2021