Courtesy of the artist and Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney
Though anthropomorphism broadly refers to the designation of human traits to any non‑human form, it has commonly been used as a storytelling device that grants personality to animals through emotion and behavioural attributes. Anthropomorphism speaks volumes about an enduring human propensity to assign systems of value and importance to non‑human matter. Though humour typically frames anthropomorphism in modern-day visual culture – as evidenced in a history of film and television animation – it can mystify complex ideological narratives and power structures that relate, for instance, to colonisation.
Originally from the UK, raised on farming country in New Zealand and now based in Sydney, Joanna Braithwaite is a respected painter whose work playfully examines what anthropomorphism says about human psychology. Her painting of a little corella, Port of Call, 2011, is from a larger body of work called Pecking Order. The corella is part of the Cacatuidae (cockatoo) family, which are generally defined by their intellect, ingenuity, playfulness and mimicry. That some cockatoos are known for their capacity to repeat human speech could imply they are masters of their own anthropomorphism.
Harnessing the conventions of portraiture to amplify various Australian birds on human terms, Braithwaite’s series hints at the nation’s complicated politics through its feathered friends. A chain bearing specific trinkets dangles from each bird’s neck to symbolise their newly endowed persona. Braithwaite regards these as ‘props’ from the human world that establish narrative through witty visual and linguistic puns.
While planning the series, Braithwaite researched histories and myths pertaining to each bird. For the little corella, she had read that one of its earliest sightings dated back to when Australia was being colonised by European settlers. This account inspired the compass as the corella’s talisman. Transformed into a specimen of unwitting colonial power, the bird’s light plumage takes on unsettling connotations of whiteness as racial designation.
By expressing her subject ironically through its absurd monumental scale, Braithwaite exaggerates grandeur and gives a towering sense of importance. A large picture of a little bird, Port of Call mocks the way portraiture was introduced in this country as an instrument of colonial power. Though Braithwaite’s ‘pecking order’ likely refers to the hierarchies assumed of the ‘family’ of birds making up her larger series of paintings, it could very well speak to the politics of class, race and representation that divide those with and those without access to self-representation via portraiture in colonial times.
Long before colonisation, cockatoos held great significance for First Nations people due to the way they help propagate seeds of native plants from season to season.[ii] The connection of seed to soil in relation to cycles of life, death and regeneration make the cockatoo an enduring talisman of rebirth and change. By casting the perched corella as a puffed-up colonist, Braithwaite harnesses the cockatoo’s penchant for mimicry to reveal how sacred Indigenous meaning is subjugated as colonial systems of classification and control take root on stolen land framed by boundless sky.
- Braithwaite in conversation with the author on Zoom, Sydney, 29 October 2022.
- Clare Harrison, Cockatoo symbolism and meaning. Accessed 1 November 2022.
Catalogue essay for The Art of Giving at Macquarie University Art Gallery, Sydney, December 2022 – March 2023.
Published by Macquarie University in 2022.