I am sitting in my studio making work for an upcoming show and I find out that Trevor Nickolls has died.
I thought I’d just say a few words about what Trevor Nickolls means to us.
There are artists who work hard and innovate; they persist and endure. And there are artists who give themselves permission to strike out on their own and make a space where there was none before.
For Blackfellas like me, the work of Trevor Nickolls, in the 1970s and ‘80s was a visual language that gave voice to the confusion and complexity around the identity politics of the times. As a visual artist, he gave voice to our frustration and anger at our powerlessness and our invisibility like no artist before had.
He had arrived on the scene at a good time. As happens sometimes, when as artists, as a people, we really need someone to point us in the right direction, a direction of substance, Trevor Nickolls turned up, brush in hand. On the back of the Civil Rights era in Australia and in an era of much political change for Blackfellas his ‘Dreamtime-to-Machinetime’ works were like nothing any of us had seen before. And Nickolls is rightly known and remembered for these paintings more than anything else in his canon. In 2010 I saw Nickolls’ survey show at the Samstag Museum in Adelaide and was lucky enough to catch it again in Woolongong. It all seems familiar now.
As a young fella in the 1980s, my first seeing the work of Trevor Nickolls left me knowing that there was more to Aboriginal art than what I was seeing in the fabric prints, and knick-knacks and t-shirts that tourists paraded about in Cairns. In Nickolls’ work I found potential, potential for art, potential for Blackfellas. And I felt encouraged too. I still had to find a way to achieving the kind of permission Nickolls somehow allowed himself. But I knew I would go looking for it. Certainly, in the late-1980s/early-1990s, post-‘Bicentenial’, I came to admire the work of Fiona Foley, Tracey Moffatt, Gordon Bennett, Gordon Hookey and Richard Bell, and many more since, all contributing to, and shaping the space that Nickolls opened up for us.
In 2012 we are still grappling with identity and art. It is a healthy dialogue I think. And Nickolls is as much a part of that discourse as he ever was. I think back to when I first moved to Brisbane in the early 1990s and people began talking more and more about this thing called ‘Urban’ Aboriginal art. Trevor Nickolls was before all that.