JAMES TYLOR: NGUYA: THE AUSTRALIAN SMALLPOX PANDEMICS
Nominated by Hetti Perkins
James Tylor is a multi-disciplinary artist whose practice explores the Australian environment, culture and social history. Working across photography, video, painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, sound, scent and food, Tylor examines Australian cultural representations through the perspectives of his multicultural heritage that comprises Nunga (Kaurna), Māori (Te Arawa) and European (English, Scottish, Irish, Dutch and Norwegian) ancestry.
Tylor was nominated by Hetti Perkins who commented that Tylor draws on his heritage ‘… to craft images both profoundly beautiful and meaningful. In the way that our history resonates in our present, James’s contemporary works are “perforated” by the past. Here, events and stories from our preand post-colonial history disrupt and rupture the easy complacency of modern Australia, puncturing the fragile illusion of our country as the home of the “young and free”.’ (Perkins, 2020)
Tylor responded to the STAGES commission with a series entitled Nguya: the Australian smallpox pandemics that explores the smallpox epidemic in Australia in the 18th and 19th centuries. His photographic series traces the path of the fi rst smallpox outbreak, referred to as gal-gal-la by the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. The spread of the disease began in the British colonial town of Sydney in 1789, and moved westward along Indigenous trade routes across the continent of Australia, from Warrang (Sydney), down the Murray River and the South East coastline to Tarntanya (Adelaide). Tylor’s artist proposal spoke to the impact of the smallpox outbreak that resulted in the deaths of approximately 700,000 Indigenous Australians during the smallpox pandemic from 1789 to the 1830s.
‘In a time when our contemporary experience of the COVID-19 global pandemic is considered by the media as “unprecedented” in the history of our country, I want to remind contemporary Australians of the smallpox epidemic that killed well over half the population of this continent only 200 years ago.’ (Tylor, 2020).
The title, Nguya, refers to the word for smallpox in Kaurna language. With no medication available to treat the disease, smallpox psychologically and physically scarred a population. The devastating impact and the hopelessness felt by the community as they struggled to combat the disease was captured in a song, ‘Nguyapalti’. While not recorded in Kaurna language the song was recorded in Djab Wurrung language from Western Victoria, east of the Kaurna nation. It was believed that the disease could be halted by singing the song, which had been taught by the eastern tribes. As Tylor states, the song
‘… gives an insight into the physical sensations of the disease: “Red hot echidna spikes burning me, piercing me until pain overwhelms me”’. (Tylor, 2020)
This is reflected in the works as these are pockmarked and pierced and displayed on top of felt-woolen fabric that references the blankets handed out by the British government to the Indigenous population, that may very well have helped to spread the disease.
Nguya smallpox, Barkindji 2020
from the series Nguya: the Australian smallpox pandemics
pigment ink-jet print with bumps and holes from echidna quills
25.0 x 25.0 cm
courtesy of the artist, Vivien Anderson Gallery (Melbourne), GAGPROJECTS (Adelaide) and N.Smith Gallery (Sydney)
These photographs of the Australian landscapes by artist James Tylor have been pricked with echidna quills. This symbolises smallpox, another disease that spread in Australia in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
James has called this series Nguya, which is the word for smallpox in Kaurna language from Adelaide (Tarntanya). There was no cure for smallpox at the time, and so many Indigenous Australians died. Kaurna people described smallpox in a song called Nguyapalti, which said that it was like having red hot echidna quills piercing your skin.
Did you know about the smallpox epidemic in Australia?
Why is it important to learn about past events like the small pox pandemic?