#Nolan 100

NO 80. Explorer and Township - Helen Idle

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NO 80. Explorer and Township - Helen Idle

This small white face here, almost hovering at the edge of town, draws me back to her time and again. Her bright green shawl brushes down the side of one cheek, perhaps in preparation for a dust storm predicted by the haze in the distance. She stands silently.

The whiteness of her face holds the attention, and the tension, of the painting Explorer and Township (1962) in its muted greens, blues, and browns. What is she thinking? Tall dark marks (figures?) emerge out of the mirage-like horizon toward her, the Explorer faces toward her, she is placed as the focus point in the painting.

Artworks may offer us fresh ways of thinking about being in the world, and viewing Nolan’s paintings anew in 2017 affords new interpretations made in a particular place and time in history. My encounter with this painting was in the storeroom for the art collection of the University of Western Australia, located on Noongar land, Whadjuk Noongar boodja, in Perth, Western Australia, beside the Derbal Yiragan (Swan River). I saw it first in May then again in October.

In the intervening months this petite white face came back to mind to join media images of refugee women from Syria, women in India fighting for their rights, the women of Rohingya fleeing violence. Women displaced, out of place, focussed on surviving each day. She is presented similarly out of place, neither of the township nor of the country. In all likelihood she too is negotiating with agents of power that affect her day to day life.

Looking more closely we can see that she glances out of the painting to her right, directing us and the man on the camel away, out of her realm. The camel seems to acknowledge her presence and authority, and is angled to leave. The Explorer, high above her on the camel, appears skeletal with hollowed eyes and a dark slash for the mouth. On closer inspection the slash is the clasp of a headscarf, his eyes and nose depicted clearly above the wrap and below the hat. As noted by others ambiguity is not unfamiliar in Nolan’s paintings, and so my reading of this particular one continues. The rider may be predicting his own demise by looking dead and alive at the same time. His eyes also look out to the side of the picture, following hers. There is something, somewhere beyond the township and the painting. She may be guarding the country behind her with the support of the sentinels that lead off in two directions towards the horizon, through the watery mirage, marking a boundary between township and country.

Placed here in the centre of the story she is a woman quietly directing events with small gestures. Her story as an ‘explorer’ in this place is harder to imagine than the much-told story of Burke and Wills and others, as seen in Nolan’s Burke and Wills Expedition ‘Gray sick’ (1949), Burke (1962), and Antarctic Explorer (1964). Perhaps she has been sent from Ireland or Britain as a child or on the bride ships, never-the-less, when we imagine the narrative in this painting from her point of view it opens the way to listen to other unheard stories – ones that she glances toward (knowingly). By placing this female figure in plain sight Nolan invites us to consider her, and what she can glimpse.

Assuming she is depicted in country not her own (if she is an explorer) this asks whose country is it that has been appropriated and claimed here by sketchy buildings and a water tank. Kate McMillan notes (No.46) that Nolan was aware that histories of colonial violence and conditions for Indigenous people are occluded by national narratives – those narratives, I am suggesting, are embodied in the figure of the Explorer. The white-faced woman alerts us then to narratives that may be just out of sight to the (whitefella) viewer.

Through the presence of the white-faced figure Nolan offers the us a chance to think again about which stories of nations get told, by whom and how. He encourages us to consider multiple ways of being in, and thinking about, the stories of people inhabiting this continent we now call Australia. This is not my ‘favourite’ painting but I accepted its provocation there hanging in the stores in Whadjuk Noongar boodja.”


Dr Helen Idle is a research associate with the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at King’s College London. Helen acknowledges the past and present elders of Whadjuk Noongar country and thanks them for their continuing custodianship of their land on which she was born.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Kate Hamersley, Registrar, University of Western Australia Collections for facilitating my visits, and to Amanda Fitzwilliams for welcoming me to the Rodd earlier in the year.

Sidney Nolan, Explorer and township, 1962, oil on composition board, 121.5 x 121.5 cm, The University of Western Australia Art Collection, The Joe and Rose Skinner Bequest, 1981. © Sidney Nolan Trust 

No.1 - Four Abstracts - Alexander Downer

No.2 - Self Portrait - Angus Trumble

No.3 - Arabian Tree - Kendrah Morgan

No.4 Riverbend I - Francine Stock

No.5 - Desert - Andrew Logan

No.6 Dog and Duck - Jane Clark

No.7 Vivisector - Tim Abdallah

No.8 In the Cave - Rebecca Daniels

No.9 Young Soldier - Clare Woods

No.10 Ned Kelly - Shaun Gladwell

No.11 Bird - Deborah Ely

No. 12 Hare in Trap - Nicholas Usherwood

No.13 Untitled (Catani Arch, St Kilda) - David Rainey

No.14 Death of a Poet - Simon Martin

No.15 Study for Samson et Dalila - Elijah Moshinsky

No.16 Rimbaud at Harar - Edmund Capon AM OBE

No.17 Quilting the Armour - Jackie Haliday

No.18 Snake - David Walsh

No.19 Angel and the Tree - Dr Nicky McWilliam

No.20 Brian the Stockman at Wave Hill Mounting a Dead Horse - Damian Smith

No.21 Steve Hart Dressed as a Girl -Jennifer Higgie

No.22 Women and Billabong - Anthony Plant

No.23 Agricultural Hotel - Philip Mead

No.24 Policeman in a Wombat Hole - Kay Whitney

No.25 Peter Grimes - David Lipsey

No.26 Self Portrait in Youth - Barry Pearce & Duncan Fallowell

No.27 Riverbend I - Ian Dungavell

No.28 Drowned Soldier at Anzac as Icarus - Paul Gough

No.29 Thames - John Tooley

No.30 Girl - Amelda Langslow

No.31 Ned Kelly and Policeman - Daniel Crawshaw

No.32 Tarred and Feathered - Nick Cave

No.33 Self Portrait - Denise Mimmocchi

No.34 Peter Grimes's Apprentice - George Vass

No.35 The Emu Hunt - Roger Law

No.36 Luna Park - Paula Dredge

No.37 Rose in Coffee Pot - Anthony Collier

No.38 The Cardplayers - Nevin Jayawardena

No.39 Bathers - Lesley Harding

No.40 Aboriginal Girl - Jennie Milne

No.41 Pretty Polly Mine - Michael Brand

No 42. Roses in a Merric Boyd Vase - Jack Galloway

No 43. Brett Whiteley - Jonathan Watkins

No 44. Island - Nick Yelverton

No 45. Luna Park - Bill Granger

No 46. Face of the Damned - Kate McMillan

No 47. Central Australia - Leanne Santoro

No 48. Crane - Brian Adams

No 49. Myself - Simon Mundy

No 50. Going to Work, Rising Sun Hotel, 1948 - David Ferry

No 51. Figure at Harar - Andrew Turley

No 52, Greek Figures - Simon Pierse

No 53. Randolph Stow - Suzanne Falkiner

No 54. Landscape No.27 (Convalescence) - Suzanne Falkiner

No 55. Self portrait - Oliver McCall

No 56. McMurdo Sound - Mike Clements

No 57. Faun, Woman, Rider, Horse - Mark Fraser

No 58. Season in Hell (Benjamin Britten) - Anne Bean

No 59. The Slip - Humphrey Ocean

No 60. Central Australia - Chris Drury

No 61. Riverbend - Christina Slade

No 62. Head - Celia Johnson

No 63. Myth Rider - Desmond Browne

No 64. Stockman - Bridget McDonnell

No 65. Untitled (flower) - Roma Piotrowska

No 66. Chinese Landscape - Celia Perceval

No 67. Untitled - Des Hughes

No 68. Crucifixion - Rod Bugg

No 69. Icebergs - Laurence Hall

No 70. Bather in a Lily Pool - Amanda Fitzwilliams

No 71. Breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head - Michael Berkeley

No 72. Carcase in Swamp - Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva

No 73. Ern Malley - Isabella Boorman

No 74. Mrs Reardon at Glenrowan - Adrian Kelly

No 75. Landscape Carnarvon Range, Queensland - Catherine Noske

No 76. Abraham and Isaac - Sarah Bardwell

No 77. Rosa Mutabilis - Catherine Hunter

No 78. Artist drawing nude - Victoria Lynn

No 79. Boy and the moon - Natalie Wilson

NO 80. Explorer and Township - Helen Idle

No 81. All Tastes Like Dust in the Mouth... - Carolyn Leder

No 82. Young Boy Who Was Good at Latin - Roxy Shaw

No 83. Mrs Fraser - Anne Carter

No 84. Paradise Garden - David Oliver

No 85. Leda and the Swan - Marilyn Sweet

No 86. Burke and Wills at the Gulf - Jenny Watson

No 87. Dream of the latrine sitter - Ryan Johnston

No 88. Footballer - Gerard Vaughan

NO 89. Sketch for Ned Kelly - Amanda Fuller

NO 90. Woman in Lagoon - Jinx Nolan

No 91. Cherries in a bowl - Peter Blake

No 92. Fountain - Heywood Hill

No 93. Artist and painting - Charles Nodrum

No 94. Death of Constable Scanlon - Anita Taylor

No 95. Untitled (abstract) - David Jaffe

No 96. Digital image - Joe Studholme

No 97. Seated figure and bird - Sally Aitken

No 98. Burke and Wills expedition 'Gray sick' - Gary Sangster

No 99. Kangaroo at Ayers Rock - Pru and Anthony Napolitano

No 100. The Galaxy - Elizabeth Langslow

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