“For me, Emma Lindsay’s lusciously painted King Island Emu is a powerful reminder of the tragedy of mass extinction. The bird’s inquisitive pose is only an illusion – its stiff, immobile body has been coaxed back to ‘life’ by a taxidermist. Offering us more than an acutely observed nature study, Lindsay presents a poignant tribute to this extinct Australian bird.”
– Emily Poore, Curatorial Assistant, UQ Art Museum
Emma Lindsay is a Brisbane-based artist whose paintings explore the relationship between nature and culture, and the replacement of the natural environment with synthetic imitations.1 Her interest in depicting the taxidermied bodies of rare and extinct Australian birds was sparked in 2007 by a visit to the Queensland Museum collection archive, where she first viewed a specimen of the elusive Night Parrot.2 Since that time, Lindsay has focused on painting images of the preserved bodies of birds and mammals.
To create her Extinction flock (29 extinct Australian bird specimens), Emma Lindsay visited the archives of major natural history museums in Australia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, where she painted specimens of extinct Australian birds. Over more than seven years, she conducted her research in numerous collections that included the Queensland Museum, Brisbane; the American Museum of Natural History, New York; National History Museum, London; and the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris. It was essential that she conducted her research in this way – museums in Australia do not contain examples of all the Australian birds that have been declared extinct.3
Lindsay’s menagerie includes each of the 29 species and subspecies of Australian birds that have become extinct since European settlement. Of these artworks, 28 are taxidermied birds painted on white backgrounds and one is an emu skeleton painted on a black background. Her white ‘archive series’ is painted in lush, impasto strokes of paint that make palpable the colour and texture of feathers. The creatures’ bright, tactile and lifelike forms are contrasted by their poses and surroundings: some show the mounts of a taxidermist’s intervention, while others have curled feet and tagged, stiffened bodies that signify lifelessness. Engulfed by white voids, the birds are separated from their natural habitats, highlighting the irony of human intervention as a preserver of nature.4
One of these paintings, King Island Emu (Dromaius ater) Musée national d’Histoire naturelle (France), will be displayed on the Art Museum’s New to the Collection wall during July 2016. In this work, Lindsay has used lively strokes of colour to capture the King Island Emu’s delicate plumage and distinctive blue skin that lies beneath its neck feathers. This significant specimen, which is housed in the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris, was collected during French explorer Nicolas Baudin’s expedition of 1800 to 1804 to map of the coast of New Holland (Baudin died in 1803 on the return voyage). The emu was exploited by seal hunters living on King Island – they trained dogs to hunt the birds and devised recipes to make best use of their meat.5 By 1805, the King Island Emu had been driven to extinction in the wild, only three years after it was first identified.
Lindsay has described the personal connection she feels with her subjects:
For me, the bird is the most common form of wild species I encounter on a daily basis at my home that I care about … the permanent loss of these visitors and their song would be unbearable. It made sense to use birds as my series focus, and in my current paintings they function as a metaphor for all biota under the threat of extinction.7
Animal extinction is a particularly pertinent conservation issue for Australia. Most of our native wildlife is unique to the continent, yet over 1,700 species have been identified by the Australian Government as being at risk of extinction.8 It is also regrettable that many of these extinct species, once unique to Australia, can only be viewed in international collections. In sharing her rare perspective, Lindsay invites her audience to see birds that they will never have the opportunity to view in the wild, and may not realise ever existed. Through her vivid, tactile paintings, Lindsay communicates the realities of mass extinction that have occurred as the result of hunting, culling, habitat loss and predation by feral animals.9 In viewing her work, we simultaneously marvel at the wonder of nature while grieving for what has been lost.
Emma Lindsay graduated in 2009 from Queensland College of Art with a Bachelor of Fine Art majoring in Painting (First Class Honours). The following year, she was awarded an Australia Council Artstart Grant and a Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts and Arts Queensland Fresh Ground Grant and Residency. Other residencies include the BAER Art Centre Artist Residency and the Hill End Residency through the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery (both 2011). In 2016, she completed her practice-based PhD (Fine and Studio Arts) at RMIT, Melbourne. Her research topic, ‘Visualising extinction’, focused on Australian native birds. Twenty-nine of the paintings created during this project were displayed in the foyer of the Queensland Museum as part of the 2016 World Science Festival ‘On a wing’ program.
Emily Poore, Curatorial Assistant, 2016
1. Australia Council for the Arts, “Emma Lindsay Visual Arts,” ArtStarters, http://www.artstartgrant.com.au/ArtStarters/Previous/32?name=Emma%20Lindsay.
2. Emma Lindsay, “Artist Statement,” Emma Lindsay, http://emmalindsayartist.wordpress.com/about/.
3. Jordan Ogg, “Emma Lindsay: The extinction project,” The Island Review, http://www.theislandreview.com/emma-lindsay-extinction-project/.
4. Emma Lindsay, “Artist’s statement,” artist file, UQ Art Museum, University of Queensland, 2013.
5. Tim H Heupink, Leon Huynen, and David M. Lambert, ‘Ancient DNA Suggests Dwarf and ‘Giant’ Emu Are Conspecific,’ Public Library of Science One, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3073985/.
6. Email from Bruce Heiser, 31 March 2016, UQ Art Museum artist’s file.
7. Emma Lindsay quoted by Ogg, ibid.
8. Australian Wildlife Conservancy, “Wildlife,” http://www.australianwildlife.org/wildlife.aspx.
9. The themes explored in Lindsay’s paintings are reminiscent of Rachel Carson’s book Silent spring 1962 in which she uncovered the disastrous impact of pesticides on bird populations.