1949 – 2012

Deaths in custody 1990 Place made: Spencer Region, South Australia, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, synthetic polymer paint on canvas

Dimensions: 150.3 h x 150.4 w x 3.6 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1991
Accession No: NGA 91.685
Image rights: © Trevor Nickolls. Licensed by Viscopy
  • Trevor Nickolls' painting of an Aboriginal inmate presents a confronting scenario. The image is based on a photograph which appeared in a Brisbane daily newspaper of an Aboriginal person held in custody in a cage. On the back wall is an image of a hanged Aboriginal man set against an Aboriginal flag. All the elements of the painting are contained within the prison cell itself yet work to effect an invasion into the space of the viewer.

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

  • One of the recurring themes in Nickolls’ paintings concerns the place of the Indigenous person in modern society. In the 1980s, he created a series of paintings under the collective title of From Dreamtime to Machinetime in which he explored notions of the loss of identity and individuality in the cacophony of city life, particularly from an Aboriginal perspective. Nickolls rarely tackled overtly political subjects, however the sheer number of Indigenous prisoners found dead in their prison cells at the time he made the series was of great concern to the artist. In 1990 he saw a newspaper photograph of an Aboriginal prisoner in a cage—for Nickolls, it encapsulated the entire decade.

    The photograph became the template for this painting—the prisoner is grasping the bars of a cell as though an animal in a cage. The bars and the man’s hands are brought to the very front of the picture plane in such a way as to invade the viewer’s space. The figure is drawn as a solid mass with little definition of form, while the impasto paint produces a surface of extreme tension. A set of concentric circles burns in the figure’s belly. The cartoon device of a thought bubble shows the man yearning for the freedom of an idyllic traditional life. On the back wall is an image of a hanged man set against an Aboriginal flag. Other elements in the painting symbolise the contrasting experiences of Indigenous people in the modern world, and some of these motifs are ever-present in Nickolls’ visual repertoire. These include a sinister prying movie camera, an Aboriginal family living rough, a hand stencil as seen in ancient rock paintings, a didjeridu player and the bird/boomerang. The image is intentionally shocking and confronting, challenging the viewer not to ignore the plight of the subject.

    Wally Caruana

    Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
    From: Franchesca Cubillo and Wally Caruana (eds) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art: collection highlights National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010