Doug Heslop, Monarch of All I Survey, 2023

Doug Heslop’s new body of work aims to retell aspects of the settler-colonial history of the invasive formation and expansion of the Hunter Region in New South Wales. Born and raised on a farm in the area, Heslop discovered much later as an adult that he shares ancestral ties with Benjamin Singleton, who came to Australia as the son of a transported convict and is now famed as the explorer who ‘pioneered’ the town of Singleton. Along with other colonists after whom we have named towns, rivers and roads, Heslop’s Great-Grand-Uncle Ben Singleton’s contribution to the formation of the region and by extension the country, was at the expense of Aboriginal communities. Dominant colonial histories entwined with an ongoing practice of extraction capitalism in the present, thrive from the wilful erasure of the violence, trauma and bloodshed enacted towards the First Peoples in the creation of what has been colloquially known as The Lucky Country. Through the contemporary lens of truth-telling and his own conflicted subjectivity as a white male Australian, Heslop’s exhibition offers a reinterpretation of significant events that shaped the character and local history of the Hunter Valley.

Drawing on a diverse range of figurative and vernacular styles of painting, Heslop subverts the heroism of History Painting, a Western art historical pictorial genre that evolved from 17th century depictions of classical, mythological, and biblical narratives into a mode of painting that could express subjects of contemporary social and political relevance. This type of imagery works to blur actual and speculative histories with religion and folklore, creating an ideological obfuscation of the lived conditions of reality and truth. Surely this is why our visual culture today stems from an inheritance of confusion, conspiracy and propaganda. Resistance and revisionism are necessary actions towards the dismantling of master narratives conveyed by those with access to privilege and platform.

Each of Heslop’s paintings employ diverse styles as a way of refracting, complicating and diversifying their narrative perspective. The palette swings between typically earthy evocations of the Australian bush into naïvely styled scenes of lurid psychedelia. Frequently the picture plane is layered with action relating to colonial conquest and expedition on the one hand, and the massacres and hangings of the Wonnarua people on the other. While Heslop’s project is an exercise in truth-telling, its emotive dramatisation as contemporary History Painting reveals how representation is always inevitably detached from the real, and at odds with an unmediated truth.

First and foremost, Heslop consulted with Wonnarua traditional owners and custodians who granted permission for this story to be conveyed through his paintings. In this way, Heslop is aware of the burden of whiteness, the privilege of his speaking position, and the importance of consultation before telling a story that can retraumatise as it reanimates the horrors of our colonial past. We all have blood on our hands as white Australians, this exhibition declares, but in doing so offers an opportunity for this shared history to be unshackled from colonial amnesia and to instead motivate respectful conversation, change and reconciliation for us all.

Doug Heslop, The 'Pioneer' Viewing the Valley for the First Time, 2023

Exhibition text for Doug Heslop: Colonial Truth at The Creator Incubator, Newcastle, 13 – 24 April 2023.

Published by The Creator Incubator in 2023.