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Embracing Otherness: An Interview with Anthony White

Image courtesy of Christophe Maizou, 2019, ADAGP, Paris
Australian artist Anthony White lives and works in Paris, France. White’s art practice encompasses painting, collage, and printmaking, through which he explores the intersection of societal issues, both current and historical, and how they relate to contemporary image-making production. Over the past two decades, White has exhibited internationally with solo exhibitions in Sydney, Melbourne, Paris, the United Kingdom, and Hong Kong. In 2007, he was the recipient of the Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship; and last year was awarded the Creative Fellowship at The National Library of Australia to research the late Australian artist Sidney Nolan’s archive. White’s work is held in public and private collections. His representation includes Informality Gallery, UK, Nanda Hobbs Contemporary, Sydney, and Metro gallery, Melbourne.

Lucy Cox: Why did you become interested in Nolan’s work? Have you started researching his writing, sketches and notes?

Anthony White: On-site research has stalled due to the pandemic, so I’ve started some online research before leaving France. Having been interested in Nolan’s work ever since I started painting as a teenager in Australia, I recently became inspired by his work again, particularly the large mural, The Eureka Stockade, at The Australian National University in Canberra.

LC: What do you hope to get out of the residency? 

AW: I hope to find out more about the genesis of Nolan’s ideas and references surrounding The Eureka Stockade. The library houses an enormous archive.

Eureka Stockade by Sidney Nolan, Reserve Bank of Australia, Melbourne, corner of Collins and Exhibition Streets, completed 1965, jewellery enamel on copper, 20 x 3.6 metres. Image: Reserve Bank of Australia.

LC: Aside from the Australian connection, do you see aspects of Nolan in yourself? 

AW: Like myself, Nolan worked prolifically; the catalyst of that enormous output came from two things: firstly, the themes he explored and secondly, his experimentation with unusual materials. When themes in my work correspond with other research areas, I become incredibly motivated to describe those correlations in visual forms. For me, image and text go hand in hand. Text conjures up imagery and stimulates philosophical ideas in the reader’s mind, invoking the power of the imagination. 

Sidney Nolan in London, 1962. Photo by Peter Abbey; Camera Press. Image: The Sydney Morning Herald.
The Chase by Sidney Nolan (Ned Kelly Series), 1946, enamel paint on composition board, 90.5 x 121.3 cm. Image: National Gallery of Australia.

LC: When did you become interested in ‘the ethics of aesthetics’ and the relationship between identity, politics and art? What attracted you to these themes? 

AW: My interest in the ethics of aesthetics started about ten years ago during a residency in Leipzig, where I wrote about my practice daily and documented the things that spoke to me. Recording experiences allows concepts to grow.

 LC: In your Signs of Civilisation series, you describe the paintings as ‘embracing the Otherness of the non-image.’ Can you expand on that? 

AW: Georg Hegel believed that otherness is fundamental to self-awareness, which Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan developed further in their self-consciousness theories. Today, otherness signifies how dominant groups derive a sense of self by defining smaller groups as different or other to them. I reference otherness as a compassionate call to millions of minorities displaced worldwide and actively resist the rise of fascism, which, in my opinion, has increased since 2016 and is still flourishing despite the exit of the Trump administration. 

Sigmund Freud by Max Halberstadt, c. 1921. Image: Wikipedia.
The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Image: Wikipedia.

LC: Tell me how you work with materials, colour and gesture. Considering that your art is politically and socially engaged, are the processes entirely planned or are you also prompted by instinct? 

AW: I plan from various sources, both contemporary and historical, and develop themes from newspaper articles, literature and images that emotionally touch me before trying to let paintings evolve instinctively. 

LC: What has been your experience of lockdown? 

AW: I was productive at the beginning, but now I need a change. The lockdown here [in France], like in the UK, has lasted for too long. I’m the sort of person that needs human interaction; it recharges me. 

LC: Have the recent global political and social turmoil amidst the pandemic spawned new ideas for you? 

AW: Yes. Social turmoil is an interesting phenomenon in itself; it confirms in my mind that the concepts that underpin our democracy and society are somewhat fragile. 

LC: What personal experiences have shaped you as an artist? 

AW: Positive experiences: growing up in a pristine environment like Australia, you experience the landscape; it stays with you, always. Negative experiences: losing my mother when I was four years old. After her death, I began creating things. I agree with the artist Louis Bourgeois that art is catharsis, and artists can show things that other people are terrified of expressing. 

Political issues are becoming more vital in my art because of my teenage experiences. I think Australia has a culture of violence related to colonisation and violence against the Aboriginal community. In the 1980s, in the area where I lived, creative people weren’t generally understood or tolerated. Perhaps the anti-fascist leaning in my practice has born out of those adverse events and enforced a sense of compassion for others, even if I don’t understand them. 

LC: What are your hopes for the future? 

AW: To further develop a practice that embraces otherness. There is real power in the act of feeling compassion for others. I also hope to push the boundaries of the traditional role of art and further explore ethics and aesthetics issues. In the current political climate, it is time to look at how artists can address international human rights issues through art and influence public opinion.

Further reading

Anita Heiss, Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2018)

Georg Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019)

Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection (Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge Classics, 2001)

Paula Dredge, Sidney Nolan: The Artist′s Materials (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2019)

Peter Gay, The Freud Reader (London: Vintage Classics, 1995)

Sarah Kendzior, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2021)

Portrait photograph of Anthony White: Courtesy of Christophe Maizou, 2019, ADAGP, Paris.

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