Joan Ross

The Claiming of Things

Joan Ross’ digital animations explore aspects of colonisation from the perspective of Aboriginal Australia. Since the late 1980s she has exhibited across a range of mediums, from drawing, painting, photography and sculpture to installation and video. Her experimental animations such as The Claiming of Things (2012), Touching other people's butterflies (2013) and Colonial Grab (2014), combine colonial iconography and landscape painting with collaged elements of western commodity culture connected to land tenure and Aboriginal people’s active presence on the land.

The use of fluorescent yellow and high-visibility clothing in Ross’ work symbolises colonisation and fear. Her act of depicting people in this bright clothing and placing fluorescent objects in the landscape does more, however, than simply illustrate colonisation; it also highlights and exaggerates the foreign or alien aspects of her work and its association with the landscape and the cultural and spiritual connection to place.

Ross’ digital animation The Claiming of Things (2012) draws inspiration from the work of colonial painter John Glover. Glover’s landscape painting The bath of Diana, Van Diemen’s Land (1837) is used as the backdrop in the work and is the focal point for Ross’ wry and subversive interventions. An Aboriginal presence is visible in this landscape, along with fluorescent high-vis iconography, an aeroplane, spray cans and other detritus, including a security camera, flat-screen TV, roadside electronic noticeboard, cupcakes and heavy construction machinery.

A colonial couple are shown inspecting the grounds of their new property defined by a fluorescent fence that is built through the centre of the pristine landscape. Fences, by their very nature, let alone luminous fences, are devices that traditionally exclude people from accessing a property or country. The placement of this fence works to lock the Aboriginal people out of their country, in contrast to the work’s earlier scenes showing them enjoying leisure and independence. The woman then vandalises the landscape, using a can of spray paint to tag the word ‘BANK$IA’ on a rock face – a nod to British street artist Banksy and to the colonial botanist Sir Joseph Banks after whom the uniquely Australian banksia tree was named. For the remainder of The Claiming of Things the Aboriginal people sit under a tree in the left foreground, highlighting their ongoing physical presence within this painted colonial landscape and bearing witness to the slow destruction of their country.

The Claiming of Things shows the type of objects collected across both the colonial and modern eras, highlighting the progress of time and the build-up of waste dumped in the river that threatens to overtake the surrounding environment. On a discarded electronic roadside sign the words ‘expect delays’ and ‘prepare to merge’ interchange. A crescendo is reached when a large body of water moves through the valley and takes with it the wealth of material possessions littering the landscape, returning the country to its natural state.

Ross’ animations are full of ironic references and wry puns that mediate the serious themes of dispossession and the environmental destruction of the land underlying her work. Her animations address the impact of colonialism, as well as our disposable culture, questioning the benefits of civilisation and capitalism.

Keith Munro