‘Self portrait as Steve Hart: Adding new voices to old legends’
There are only three items on the National Cultural Heritage Control List forbidden from ever leaving Australia: Victoria Cross medals, certain Indigenous artefacts of extreme importance, and Ned Kelly’s armour 1. Australia is infatuated with the Kelly Gang legend as a symbol of a defiant national psyche. We are constantly retelling it, from Australia’s first feature film in 1906, to Sidney Nolan’s infamous Ned Kelly painting series (1946-47), to Peter Carey’s novel True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). But is this legend an appropriate foundation for modern Australian culture? For artist Luke Roberts, it champions murderous, heteronormative masculinity and fails to represent alternative voices.
A member of the Kelly Gang, Steve Hart is most notably remembered for riding his horse side-saddle, dressed as a woman, to avoid being recognised by the authorities. Because Hart is embedded in the ultra-masculine Kelly Gang legend, Australia has preferred to view his choice of attire as an antiauthoritarian jest rather than an expression of gender or sexual identity.
In his 2006 photograph Self-portrait as Steve Hart, Roberts sits side-saddle on a horse before a backdrop of dry paddocks and power lines. The artist’s business shirt, tie, black pants and shoes are just visible beneath a floral dress. His chin and eyes are raised, never yielding to the viewer’s gaze, and while his right hand supports him on the horse’s back, his left loosely grips the reigns. It is a scene familiar to Australian art, mimicking Sidney Nolan’s 1947 painting Steve Hart dressed as a girl, part of the Ned Kelly series.
Although the subject matter of Self-portrait as Steve Hart appears simple, the visual language is potent. Its contemporary photographic quality – the definition, focus and light levels – removes the temporal distance between present-day Australians and the original story of Steve Hart. This distance, combined with the layering of conventionally male and female clothing, thrusts the subject from an old world of larrikin dress-ups and places it firmly down into a current queer discourse. By inserting himself, a gay artist, into the legend, Roberts jerks the comfortable certainty of heteronormative heroes from beneath Australia’s feet. What if Hart didn’t dress in women’s clothes merely to show contempt for the authorities; what if he just preferred wearing a dress?
The self-portrait’s setting is the small Queensland town of Alpha, where Roberts experienced a strict Catholic upbringing and a personal struggle to accept his own sexuality. It somehow seems unfamiliar to link queer identities to this rural backdrop that evokes the country’s colonial, pastoral histories. Perhaps we can attribute this to the lack of national narratives that include gay, transgender, or even unconventionally masculine characters.
By blurring the lines of national history, personal biography, and staged fiction, Roberts undermines the highly constructed icons our culture uses to define itself, and which are exclusive and non-representative for many within that culture.
To counter this exclusion, Roberts inserts himself into the narrative, essentially rewriting it to include queer voices. But other voices remain unrepresented in the continual retellings, including Roberts’, of the Kelly Gang legend. Women, for example, remain something only alluded to, with no ownership over even their attire. The narrative also remains Anglo-centric, as the rural landscape is imagined as an empty one, a symbol of the frontier to be conquered only by the bravest of white outlaws. It now falls to other artists, writers, historians and filmmakers to give voice to the lingering silences in this national legend.
Miranda Hine, Winner, SoFA & UQ Art Museum Emerging Arts Writers’ Award 2016
1 Australian Government (1987), Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Regulations, <https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/F2004C00105>
Read an interview with Miranda Hine here
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