"Australian art develops not out of religion, (not) out of sacred objects and rituals, but out of science. Those fine botanical, scientific artists like Joseph Banks were documenting this exotic land and its native and curious flora and fauna". Professor Bernard Smith, Australian Art Historian (ABC Radio)
Amok Island 'Six stages of Banksia baxteri' spanning 162m long and 25m high CBH Grain silo's Ravensthorpe W.A. (Detail)
If there is a common thread that links contemporary Dutch Australian artist and muralist Amok Island with the distinguished 18th century naturalist and botanist Sir Joseph Banks it lies within their mutual quest to collect and illustrate native flora and fauna on Australia's shores.
Sir Joseph Banks Botanist by Joshua Reynolds Oil on canvas, 1771-1773 50 in. x 40 in. (1270 mm x 1015 mm) National Portrait Gallery London
Sydney Parkinson Botanical Illustrator (self portrait)1745 - 1771Natural History Museum UK
Sir Joseph Banks circumnavigated the world's oceans to discover and to gather over 7000 living plants, dried specimens, seeds, drawings and notes for King George 111's Kew Gardens and his own herbarium. Banks was well equipped for collecting, studying and preserving natural history specimens. He took all sorts of machines for catching and preserving insects; all kinds of nets, trawls, drags and hooks for coral fishing, and an underwater telescope. He engaged an entourage including botanical draughtsman Sydney Parkinson to accompany him on Cook's HMS Endeavour voyage in 1768. Parkinson worked drawing and painting in difficult and cramped conditions in a small cabin surrounded by hundreds of specimens including at least four specimens of Banksia, including Banksia serrata (pictured) Banksia Integrifolia, Banksia ericofolia. Banksia dentata.
Noted for 'his singular simplicity of conduct, his sincere regard for truth [and] his ardent thirst after knowledge," Parkinson perished on the homeward journey. It wasn't until 1988 that his florilegium was finally published in 35 volumes and has since been digitized by the Natural History Museum, London.
Sydney Parkinson Banksia serrata Watercolour 1768 Natural History Museum UK
By contrast Amok Island travels the world with ease. Nearly 250 years hence he too explores Australia with an eye for endemic species and habitats. He too works closely with scientists to identify and illustrate many species not as 'discovery' but to draw attention to the threat of their extinction. He uses all the technology that he can lay his hands on to research, photograph, digitize and to magnify his subjects. The monumental works are rendered in a geometric digitized form with a limited color palette. Minimalist in style he works on vacant walls and in more formal gallery and public art spaces.
His 'animalia' have an authenticity that comes from scientific observation and detailed preparation, not unlike the work of his18th century forbears.
He also attracts of global interest and recognition for highlighting the plight of threatened species. Such insects and sea creatures are on walls and buildings around the globe e.g. Radiated Tortoise (Astrochelys radiata) of Madagaskar, Mauritius and Reunion Island, the Three Horned Rhinoceros Beetle (Chalcosoma moellenkampi) of Borneo, the skull of the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus skull) and Polkadott Hermit Crab (Phimochirus operculatus) of the Caribbean are just some of the subjects of his global portfolio.
Amok Island (left) examining sea creatures with scientific researcher at Heron Island Research Station Great Barrier Reef Australia
In particular, Amok Island and Sydney Parkinson have been attracted to the unique plant species Banksia first discovered by Joseph Banks at Botany Bay Sydney and later named after him.
The Banksia is an iconic native Australian plant. A genus of around 170 species, it produces a nectar that makes it a vital part of the food chain for birds, bats, rats, possums, bees and a host of invertebrates in the Australian bush. Some species of Banksia are threatened due to disease and excessive burning off.
When Amok Island recently executed one of Australia's largest murals; 'Six stages of Banksia baxteri' spanning 162m long and 25m high on the CBH Grain silo's in Ravensthorpe, WA, I think that Sir Joseph Banks and his young illustrator Parkinson would have been well pleased with his choice of subject, his detailed preparation and professional execution of the monumental commission.
"I felt I should choose one iconic species to make the biggest impact and strongest message."
Amok Island, Six Stages of Banksia baxteri, mural on CBH Group grain silos Ravensthorpe, WA. 2016 Photo: Bewley Shaylor
Amok chose to illustrate one species of Banksia in different stages of bloom creating a narrative across the three enormous grain silos and connecting to the life cycle of the plant, the seasons and the regional farming processes. He added a few animals and birds that pollinate the species to dramatize the composition.
“I ended up sketching, doing computer designs and printing them on A4 paper, bending the paper in circles to create the silo structure, to get a feel for the design when it is round. Tools I used to sketch up were a level, and string for circles, rollers to fill in the shapes and brush for the outlines.”
Amok Island Six Stages of Banksia baxteri CBH Group grain silos Ravensthorpe W.A. 2016. Photo: Bewley Shaylor
In my own region, Gippsland, internationally renowned botanical illustrator Celia Rosser OAM now works from her Fish Creek studio and gallery where she continues in the classical botanical illustrator tradition of Banks and Parkinson.
Celia Rosser Banksia lemmaniana 1974 watercolour and pencil Donated by the Botany Department, Monash University 19891989.55
Her journey has been a different one. She began painting Banksias after seeing a Banksia serrata near her home in Orbost in Far East Gippsland. Her professional work began with the Monash University Banksia Project in the 1970s where she was employed as university botanical artist to illustrate the 170 species in the genus culminating in the production of an unparalleled three-volume florilegium, entitled The Banksias.
She also illustrated the saltmarsh plants and the mosses of Southern Australia.
Rosser has a deep understanding of the fragility of the natural habitats from which her specimens have been drawn over a lifetime of recording. She recently donated her early drawings of saltmarsh plants for a field guide published by the South Gippsland Conservation Society who are gravely concerned by the threat to the saltmarsh habitats that are under threat from global warming, sea level rise, housing developments, industrial and agricultural activities and pest plant invasion.
In 1977 Rosser was awarded the Linnaean Society of London's Jill Smythies Award for botanical illustration and fittingly Monash University awarded her an honorary Master of Science degree in 1981 and an honorary PhD in 1999.
Celia Rosser Banksia menziesii (Menzies' Banksia) 1974watercolour and pencil on Aquarelle Arches Donated by the Botany Department, Monash University.
The Banksia artists demonstrate that until the late18th century this native species flourished in the woodlands on the west and eastern coasts of Southern Australia. Just 250 years on, young artist Amok Island makes a powerful case for communities, government and scientists to heed the threat to our iconic Banksia and examine more closely its vital role in the food chain of the Australian bush.