‘Keep the dream alive’

Trevor Nickolls 1949 - 2012.


South Australian artist Trevor Nickolls valued humour so he might appreciate an image of himself leaving this world in a big yellow taxi. Or maybe that should be the lime green FJ Holden he depicted fellow Aboriginal artist and friend Rover Thomas driving through the heavens. On the don’t-know-what-you’ve-got-till-it’s-gone principle coming to terms with Nickolls’ death will take time.

He died recently aged 63 after an illness and as always with profoundly creative and productive artists there is always a sense of being robbed of remarkable art still to come. He was in every sense a true innovator, someone who brought together influences from Aboriginal and Western art. This fusion, which incorporated figurative and dot painting styles from within contemporary Aboriginal art, defined a new style of expression which explored issues such as Maralinga, the Stolen Generation, Aboriginal Diggers, and Deaths in Custody but also addressed the contamination of the spiritual life of all peoples through materialism and the mindless embrace of technology.

If there is one image among hundreds which exemplifies this ongoing struggle between the spiritual and mechanistic life it is Nickolls’ emblematic Dream Time Machine Time split visage which took a standard Cubist trope and gave it a mordant, contemporary twist. The artist once remarked that this describes,  “What happens when we go to sleep at night. I believe that the spirit leaves the body and partakes in the dreaming world. And when we wake up, I believe we wake up in what I call the machine time, influences of machine and technology.” Of some consolation, Nickolls, within his lifetime, was honored and recognised. With Yvonne Koolmatrie he is the only South Australian artist to represent Australia at a Venice Biennale (1990 with Kimberley artist Rover Thomas). Critical appraisal comes no higher than Brenda L Croft’s description of Nickolls as the “father of urban Aboriginal art”.

All this fuss for someone who as a ‘tray boy’ selling lollies at the movies and local theatre, watching Broadway shows, the Russian Ballet and more and thinking in his own mind that one day he might as an artist have stories to tell. As he concludes, “A lot of my paintings … are theatre scenes with curtains. The word’s a stage.” The good news is that a Trevor Nickolls Art Award has been established to support emerging Aboriginal artists.

Further information about this award is available from Angelika Tyrone at AI ARTS on aiarts@adam.com.au

Image: Brush with the Lore (detail)



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