Daniel Boyd was born in Cairns, Queensland, in 1982. The youngest of three children, he is of the Kudjila/Gangalu peoples, from Clermont South to the Dawson River region of mid Queensland.
Listed in Australian Art Collector magazine1 as one of the country’s 50 most collectable artists, his talents were visible from a very early age. Boyd’s childhood passion was to make copies of drawings by the grand masters, and in turn, his grand reproductions caught the attention of teachers and family members who encouraged him to apply for Art school. As a young man, Boyd was also a keen sportsman, and played rugby league and semi professional basketball with the Cairns Marlins. Despite his abilities on the pitch being much in demand, art won, and at the aged of 19, Boyd relocated to Canberra where he undertook a Bachelor of Arts at Australian National University’s School of Art.
This was a time for artistic experimentation and it was in these studios that Boyd began his exploration of printmaking, installation and sculpture. He discovered he had an aptitude for casting his sculptural works in bronze. Boyd was always a voracious reader and throughout his degree, any available free time was spent utilizing the library for his self-directed research. He discovered a deep fascination for the history of Indigenous people that was never taught at school, the Eurocentric view of Australian history and the consequences of colonialism. It was this research that paved the way for his future work.
In 2005 (Boyd’s last year of art school) he began the body of work that was to launch his career: The Captain Cook series. These were postcard sized, oil on canvas paintings that reworked the portraits of famous colonial icons, recasting them as pirates and murdering plunderers. The Imperialist projects of the British Empire were exposed, transformed and reframed as illegal acts of banditry, their heroes destabilized. Captain no beard (2005), the first work in the series, was Boyd’s response to the portrait of Captain James Cook by John Webber, held at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. In his 2005 artist statement, Boyd informs the viewer:
“Prior to seeing Webber’s portrait I’d come across documents such as the Secret Instructions Cook had in his possession during the three voyages from 1768 to 1779. They stated that Cook was ‘with the Consent of the Natives to take possession of Convenient Situations in the Country in the Name of the King of Great Britain (King George III). I immediately drew parallels between a common practice of the time, the act of Piracy. Nationalistic rivalry with Spain and others drove the practice of employing privateers to engage in combat with other countries, resulting in the British indirectly participating in piracy”.
Governor No Beard(2005) is an appropriation of an oil painting by British artist Francis Wheatley, a portrait of Admiral Arthur Phillip, the British naval officer who was appointed governor of the first European settlement in Australia. Dated 1786, it is held in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London. Governor No Beard shows Arthur Philip with an eye patch, his medals replaced by a parrot, sitting defiantly on his shoulder. The expression ‘no beard’ refers to an account of Cook’s first landing in Australia; Indigenous people were said to have thought Cook and his men were women, due to their lack of facial hair. ‘No beard’ is also a reference to the notorious Blackbeard, an English pirate, famous for his debauchery on the high seas.
'Polly don’t want no Cracker neither’, Boyd’s first solo exhibition in 2005 at The Mori Gallery in Sydney, caught the attention of Brenda L Croft, who at that time was the Senior Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the National Gallery of Australia. She acquired Treasure Island(2005), Boyd’s witty appropriation of the Tindale Language map, in which colourful segments depict the 300 plus pre-colonial linguistic regions of Australia.2
2005 saw the artist exhibit in four other group shows: 'What The World Needs Now’ at Phatspace, Sydney, 'Superspective’ at Manuka, Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Canberra, 'No War Fundraiser’, at Mori Gallery, Sydney, and 'CHECKPOINT’ also at the Mori Gallery.
At the end of 2005, Boyd moved to Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, where he continued to work assiduously towards the next two exhibitions: 'Someone Shows Something to Someone’ at Canberra Contemporary Artspace, Canberra, and 'From the Edge’ at Wagga Wagga Regional Gallery and the Ivan Dougherty Gallery, College of Fine Arts, UNSW. Boyd also had another solo show in 2006 at the Mori gallery: 'THERIGHTEOUSWILL REIGN’.
The continuing dialogue between Boyd and Brenda L Croft came to fruition in 2006 when The National Gallery of Australia began to acquire his work. The first painting to enter the Gallery’s collection was Captain No Beard, followed by King No Beard and Jolly Jack. In 2007 Croft invited him to exhibit in 'Culture Warriors: National Indigenous Art Triennial’. This show toured to the Art Gallery of South Australia and the Art Gallery of Western Australia in 2008 and the Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane and the Katzen Arts Centre in Washington DC, USA in 2009.
In his artist statement for 'Culture Warriors’, Boyd explains his work in the following terms:
“Questioning the romantic notions that surround the birth of Australia is primarily what influenced me to create this body of work. With our history being dominated by Eurocentric views it’s very important that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to create dialogue from their own perspective to challenge the subjective history that has been created”.
King No Beard (2007), one of the three paintings exhibited by Boyd in 'Culture Warriors’, is an appropriation of a portrait of King George III, painted in 1773 by Sir Nathaniel Dance Holland, one of the founding members of London’s Royal Academy. While Holland’s version shows a proud and jewel-bedecked king, Boyd refutes the idea that King George III had honourable motives by replacing the gold necklace with skulls and covering one eye with a pirate’s patch. In the background of the painting we see Boyd’s head, pickled in a jar, gazing mournfully outwards. This rendition is a reference to the Australian Bidiigal warrior Pemulwuy, who led Aboriginal resistance fighters in battles against the first European invaders, and how, having eventually been shot in 1802 and decapitated, had his head ghoulishly preserved in alcohol and sent to London as a ‘trophy’. 3
A move from Blackheath to Sydney in 2007 saw Boyd set up a home and studio in Marrickville in the city’s inner-west. In April 2008 Boyd’s work was shown alongside 13 other young Australian male artists, including T.V. Moore and Christian Bumbarra Thompson, in the exhibition 'MAN: Depicting Contemporary Masculinity’ staged at the Penrith Regional Gallery. Luke Parker, curator of the show and author of the accompanying catalogue essay ‘The Myths of Masculinity’, alludes to the historical influences behind Boyd’s work:
“There is a contemporary tendency to regard piracy through a lens of romanticism. However, as with the process of colonization, there is a darker reality beneath these tales of adventures on the high seas. While post-colonialism offered a rebuttal to much of the hidden or unacknowledged histories of Australia, the currency of Boyd’s critique is evidenced by the regrettably persistent public debate that has come to be known as the History Wars”. 4
In 2008 Boyd’s work was also included in 'Contemporary Australia: Optimism’ at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane. Early in 2009, Boyd was invited by the curator Annie Laerkesen to be part of a new artist-in-residence trial on Cockatoo Island, Sydney, along with 7 other New South Wales art practitioners, all at varying stages of their careers.
Boyd’s fourth and fifth solo shows at the Mori Gallery in Sydney 'Fatal Impact Invasion of the South Pacific’ (2007) and 'I’m still in Love With You’ (2008) proved highly successful. In November 2009 he decided to accept an offer to exhibit with Roslyn Oxley 9 Gallery.
'Freetown’ was Boyd’s first solo show at Roslyn Oxley Gallery, and the work, although still concerned with ideas of imposition and liberty, equality and procurement, had transferred its gaze to a different continent. In his artist statement for the show, Boyd reflects on the research behind the paintings:
“Freetown; capital of Sierra Leone; ‘Province of Freedom’. The premise for its establishment: a location for emancipated slaves following the abolition of slavery. The process of British liberation resulted in the relocation of Africans to an idealized and constructed freedom, often far from the life before. One that is imposed rather than chosen. These works are about the idea of freedom. A freedom that is complex, constructed and idealist. A lion painting shows the return of the animal to its natural environment after captivity. The titles are love songs to illustrate a romantic idea of freedom”.
In 2010, Boyd was selected by artist and curator Bindi Cole to be part of the unique exhibition 'Nyah-bunyar’, which took place at Melbourne Arts Festival at the Arts Centre. 'Nyah-bunyar’, which takes its name from a Wathaurung word meaning 'temple’, explored the complexities of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs and their significance in modern urban life “where the decimation of culture and spirituality is more strongly felt”. 5
In an interview conducted for this biography, which took place outside the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in April 2011, Daniel Boyd made a heartfelt reference to his experience of becoming a father, and its influence upon his work:
“[As] previous works were dealing with icons of colonization, having a child has made me want to be more engaged with family history, although it hasn’t altered my output, there is a shifting to something closer”.
4.The ongoing ideological debate on the interpretation of Australia’s history, including the mistreatment, dispossession and genocide suffered by the Indigenous nations, has come to be known as the History Wars. For an overview see Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars, 2nd edn, Melbourne University Publishing, Carlton, Victoria, 2004.
5.Nyah-bunyar Exhibition Melbourne arts festival: http://www.melbournefestival.com.au/program/production?id=3777