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Douglas Watkin: Alternative blackfella

Curator of Indigenous Australian art at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art Bruce McLean profiles the work of alternative blackfella Douglas Watkin and his charming 2011 video 'The Queen & I' that tells the story in graphic novel style about when Elizabeth I came to Cairns in 1954 and how it is part of his family's history.

Bruce McLean | Artist Profile

Douglas Watkin The Queen & I 2011, video stills.

Douglas Watkin is a rare creative talent. Working in the medium of documentary filmmaking for over a decade, he has continually delivered documentaries of sensitivity, each time finding a tone that allows the voice of the subject to come through with clarity and compassion. Douglas's role in the documentary making process is much more than that of a suitable conduit - he is a supreme storyteller. As an Indigenous director and storyteller, he understands the importance of the stories he is helping to share. He treats every story with the respect and importance he accords those in his own family and community.

One of the most memorable moments during my decade at Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) was a project whereby the Gallery collaborated with Douglas to produce a documentary for Steven Page’s performance, Kin, for the fifth Asia Pacific Triennial (APT5) in 2006. As part of the project Page worked with the young men in his family – his son and nephews1 – to produce a piece of short theatre that showed the coming of age of these teenage boys. Douglas’s documentary The Kin Story lives on as an enduring memory of this project and period in the lives of the young Aboriginal men. Each young man, in his own way, grapples with both racism and societal pressure as he transitions from a state of carefree boyhood, through adolescence to adulthood. The story of these cousins was both familiar and close to home for everyone working on the project and for the months we worked together, the group felt like one large family.2 It is this feeling that has come to embody much of Douglas’s work and the artist himself – although he works with absolute professionalism, it feels as if you are working with someone close to you, someone in your family. He becomes everybody’s cousin, everyone’s brother.

Recently, Douglas made the transition into the made-for-gallery world of film. In 2010 I approached him to commission a short film and story of his own for the exhibition Land, Sea and Sky: Contemporary Art of the Torres Strait Islands. I still vividly recall his tongue-in-cheek riposte: "You know, I’m not your typical Islander", to which I could only respond: “That’s exactly why we want you to tell your story”.

Douglas’s atypical life-story, in short, is that he is the youngest of four siblings of an Erubum Le family (from Erub/Darnley Island in the Eastern Torres Strait). During World War II Japanese bombing raids and an Allied airfield established on Ngurupai (Horn Island) left a number of Islanders displaced from their homes. Douglas’s grandmother was part of the exodus from the Torres Strait, moving to Cooktown where she married and had two boys, including Douglas’s father Edward. A short time later as a young single mother she moved the family to Cairns in search of employment. It was there that Edward met and married his wife, both of them working double shifts to provide an education for their four children. Douglas talks of being “forced into education” to break the cycle so many Indigenous families are familiar with. His siblings became quite successful in their mainstream careers, however he chose the path of an artist.

Douglas Watkin studied from 1992 starting in drawing and printmaking, moving to sculpture and picking up electives in film. In 1995 he took on a Graduate Diploma in Education, as a fallback option, while shooting short stories and news stories for SBS. While lecturing at Queensland College of Art’s Bachelor of Visual Art in the Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art course, he began shooting more detailed pieces, before he decided to focus solely on his filmmaking, opening his company Doublewire Productions in 2000.

Douglas describes himself as an 'alternative blackfella', equally at home listening to Michael Jackson and KISS. Although connected to his family and community, he was always a bit different. It was at an Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT) camp that he was able to have a truly reaffirming experience with other 'alternative blackfellas' who like Douglas, were culturally connected yet were also different in their approach, thinking and working; this experience reinforced his belief that his contemporary identity as an 'alternative blackfella' was reconcilable with his Torres Strait Islander heritage.

For the QAGOMA commission, Douglas chose to tell the story of his parents, honouring the people whom he acknowledges as giving him the chance to have the opportunities he has today. The resulting video The Queen & I (2011) broke away from Douglas’s dominant documentary style. His use of animation, and the incorporation of his story and his family’s history in animation, was a completely new and groundbreaking approach. The graphic-novel style enabled the reconstruction of historical scenes in accurate detail, creating pictorial retellings of significant events in his life, embodied with reminiscences of a time gone by. Working with resources from the Cairns Historical Society and the National Museum of Australia, Douglas built an atmosphere both inviting and authentic in which his story could be told. To execute the film Douglas employed the assistance of a number of artistic collaborators: Shawn M. Olive (animation), Lucas Thyer (animator), and a cast of family, community and professional actors lent their voices to the film. Through his meticulous attention to detail and direction, Douglas recreated the grandeur of the event and captures the essence of the occasion, as the course of an unassuming young man’s life is changed forever in one fateful day.

The year 1954 was an important year for the growing northern Queensland town of Cairns. It played host to the Royal Tour of the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II – a 'thank-you’ to the Australian people for their efforts in the war and the first, and hitherto only, visit by any reigning monarch to the city. Amidst great fanfare, a parade on 12 March through Cairns attracted an estimated crowd of 40,000 people, double the number of official residents. This was Cairns’s archetypal “Where were you when...” moment as almost every family living in the Cairns region at this time has a special story about the day the Queen visited.

Torres Strait Islanders played a major role in the Queen’s parade and visit. As a unique culture from northern Queensland, many Torres Strait Islanders were included, including a large group of men who performed a special ‘war dance’ for the Queen.3 In addition to the official, visible participation of Torres Strait Islanders in the parade, there were other – more personal, stories and acts of service. One particular story is that of a young Torres Strait man, a national serviceman and mechanic – the son of a single mother. The story starts for him like any ordinary day, getting ready for work, his mother giving him a shopping list for post-work pick-up. Then the soldier receives a special order and is whisked away to a top-secret military base, unable even to tell his friends or family of his whereabouts. Just the day before the Queen’s visit, he has been ordered to replace a driver from the motorcade who has fallen ill.

The day of the motorcade arrives, and without notice to anyone in his life, he takes his place at the wheel of the procession’s thirteenth vehicle – the only local in the motorcade. Edward is soon recognised by the crowd and becomes an instant local celebrity. He keeps an eye on the crowded streets and sees his childhood crush. Suddenly his car stalls and they lock eyes. He quickly re-starts his car, returning as normal to the motorcade. As a postscript to the film, the two go on to marry as a result of this serendipitous moment in an extraordinary chain of events.

Douglas Watkin expertly illustrates that his family’s story, and many other Indigenous stories and histories, are not merely part of Indigenous history, but are crucial and often extraordinary chapters in the book of Australian history. It is this intersection that Douglas is passionate about and is also one of the major reasons that his works are so endearing and accessible to a wide audience. At the media preview for the exhibition, he remarked that:

“Not only is it a personally interesting story to me and all my siblings as it marks the start of my parents’ relationship, but it is uniquely placed in an historic event that gives every viewer a reference point…I also wanted to tell it as it is a positive and empowering story of an Indigenous family in modern Australian culture.”4

Although The Queen & I was originally commissioned to be shown at the Gallery of Modern Art, and the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, it was equally able to adapt to the big screen to be shown in film festivals and other screenings to ensure this story can be seen as widely as possible. As well as being in the collection of QAGOMA, the film is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and the Cairns Regional Gallery.

One important caveat was made by Douglas for the commission of the work. He insisted that, along with the work being installed in the exhibition space for Land, Sea and Sky, it would be played in one of GOMA’s screening theatres for a group of family and friends. Many family members travelled from across the state and country to enjoy the first viewing of Douglas’s artwork and their story. He was typically nervous, hoping that he had done his family story justice, but by the end of the screening the theatre was overflowing with pride. Each and every person connected to the film, found that ‘Dougie’ had committed their story to the historical record with great sensitivity, integrity, humour and skill. It served as a fitting premiere for a film, which will ensure this remarkable family history continues to be told well into the future.

1 Performers included Curtis Walsh-Jarden, Sean Page, Ryan Jarden, Hunter Page-Lochard, Samson Page, Isileli Jarden and Josiah Page.

2 This group also included Tony Albert, who managed much of the project.

3 http://aso.gov.au/titles/documentaries/the-queen-in-australia/notes/, http://www.aiatsis.gov.au/_files/archive/removeprotect/64904.pdf

4 Cairns Indigenous Art Fair newsletter, August 2011 edition. http://www.ciaf.com.au/plugins/Announce/default.asp?articleId=713