Helen Tiernan is a Canberra-based visual artist, who explores the ideas of identity, Aboriginality and colonialism in her works. Her paintings navigate the complex terrain of early colonial visual art history, and the interpretation of early colonial encounters in Australia and Oceania by Europeans. Her works deal with historical and contemporary events and issues affecting Aboriginal people, particularly marginalisation and cultural retrieval.
She has received high praise for her works, including from renowned historian and author Professor Ian McLean, “Under Tiernan’s investigative gaze, archival histories of colonial encounters are re-contextualised or ‘re-skinned’, highlighting ‘the incommensurability’ of two distinctly different cultures that inevitably ended in collision.”
For Tiernan, the pursuit is personal as much as it is of a professional interest. Born to an Aboriginal mother, and an Irish father, Tiernan says that growing up a lot of her Aboriginal history was kept silent. “It wasn’t really spoken about, so we just talked about the European side.” Tiernan would later learn that her mother had been forcibly taken as a child as a member of the Stolen Generation.
While her genealogy is not something that Tiernan directly addresses in her works, it does influence her decisions to use her art to question ideas of identity, and the interplay between Indigenous and colonial culture. “You start off thinking about ‘the self’ and then broaden out to consider ideas of culture and the marginalised,” she explains.
Her works are informed by the way in which Aboriginal and Oceanic people have been represented in the varied accounts of Indigenous and European exchange and interaction, over the 230 years since Cook’s first arrival in the Antipodes.
As she draws upon the works of dozens of writers and artists, Tiernan seeks to challenge the viewer through paintings that range from large-scaled panoramic works, to miniature portraiture. She fashions Aboriginal life and history as ‘live performance’ where reality, time and space do not conform to the expected norms.
Tiernan also explores concerns in relation to the validation of feminine experience and its transformation from craft to art and from the private to the public arena. Throughout each body of work she continues to indulge her fascination with exotic folds of fabric, drawing on the sensual surfaces of traditional seventeenth century Flemish and Edwardian artists and consulting the work of nineteenth century textile designer William Morris.
While her works entertain through their theatricality, her urgent concern is to ask her audience to think again about the colonial depiction of Indigenous culture and identity today, “Ultimately it is about creating a discourse and discussion,” she says.