Vivid and arresting paintings of Australian wildlife are the hallmark of an artist known mononymously as Turbo. Born Trevor Brown (1967–2017) in Mildura, he took up painting in his mid‑thirties after he had relocated to Melbourne. He rapidly gained critical and commercial attention for works using a quick and direct application of pure colour, bursting with raw energy, and featuring a varied cast of native fauna. So exclusive—obsessive, even—was his portrayal of animals that there arose a kind of origin story explaining his single‑mindedness: “Uncle Herb [P]atten, the man he loves as a father, once asked Brown why he only painted animals. He replied that when he was fifteen and living on the Mildura streets and the Murray River bank, the animals were his only friends.” Other explanations Turbo gave for his choice of subject matter included, “Animals are my friends. They come to me in my dreams” and “When I paint, I feel like I’m in the Dreamtime and can see all the animals that live there.”
A point of entry to analysing Turbo’s work is suggested by Barnett Newman’s famous one‑liner from a paper at an art conference in 1952, “Aesthetics is for me like ornithology must be for birds.” Newman’s joke didn’t only circumscribe his concerns as an artist; it also reinforced two millennia of Western understanding about the limited capabilities of animals. From Aristotle to Descartes, Eurocentric systems of knowledge deny animals language, thought and consciousness and deprive them of subjectivity. Newman knew his listeners would smirk at the thought of birds pondering ornithology because they, like he, would be certain of animals’ incapacity for self‑reflection.
Given the two opposing camps of humans and animals, Newman placed artists on the same side as the animals. This is where Turbo also firmly located himself, attributing his animals subjectivity, language and thought—deriving this approach from his Aboriginal heritage. In contrast with Western philosophy, Indigenous ways of knowing emphasise that consciousness permeates the animate and inanimate world. By ascribing human characteristics to elements of nature, the art and storytelling of hunter‑gatherer cultures embodies a different ethical relationship to animals from the Western one. The “animal turn” recently taken in Western thought is a logical—if belated—response to the crisis evolutionary theory has posed for humanism. By contrast, Aboriginal wisdom has always understood that humans descend from animal ancestors.
Ornithology is as good a starting place as any to uncover the meanings of Turbo’s singular art practice. Birds were a favoured subject matter: pelicans, cockatoos, wedge‑tailed eagles, kookaburras, blue wrens, black swans, galahs, cassowaries and lyrebirds. In 2012 Turbo undertook a behind‑the‑scenes tour of taxidermied bird specimens at the Melbourne Museum and arranged for them to be photographed for his future reference. He also studied the John Gould catalogues given to him by Uncle Herb Patten and reproduced some of the bird poses he found there.
Two factors that shore up the discipline of ornithology also underpin Turbo’s works. First, ornithology enshrines amateur practice; more than any other scientific field an enormous bulk of its knowledge and expertise comes from enthusiasts with no technical training or academic standing. Second, ornithology emerged as a discipline in Victorian Britain as a by‑product of European colonisation of lands and peoples. Its first concerns were with geographical distribution, and local variation—the way species appeared in different parts of the empire. For example, a treatise on the birds of Australia lists 1636 as being the date of the first report of a black swan and 1696 the first capture of black swans. The only entry that intervenes chronologically between the two is the discovery of Tasmania.
So it’s from ornithology that we can draw out these two threads that run through Turbo’s work: an “amateurism” attributed to his raw painting style—what the art world calls naïve art—and its unfolding in response to colonisation, centring on Turbo’s removal from family and dispossession of ancestral lands in early childhood. An art‑historical descriptor, the label “naïve” is reserved for untrained artists and Turbo did in fact undertake formal study. Still, his work may be considered alongside that of Robert Campbell Junior, Elaine Russell, Harry Wedge and Ian Abdulla. For despite his training, Turbo had little use for the conventions of academic art practice: rules of perspective, principles of composition, three‑dimensional modelling using highlights and shadow, or colour theory. Turbo had even less concern with aesthetics than Barnett Newman would own up to.
Turbo’s paintings are often dynamic, to the degree of startling. He is inventive in expressing spatial relationships, and his work shares with naïve painting: flatness, unmixed colour, compositions that are occasionally awkward, boldness, directness, expressiveness, and idiosyncratic subject matter with strong private significance. In the documentary film White Kangaroo (2012) Turbo may be seen painting rapidly and with great self‑assurance: outlining and blocking‑in the silhouette of his animal subjects directly on the canvas without preliminary drawing, applying paint straight from the jar, wet‑in‑wet, with a single brush, then filling in the details on the bodies of the animals and finally, the background. His painting is urgent and energetic; he usually completed a work in a single session, sometimes in under an hour. There is a fluid and automatic quality to the execution of the paintings, giving them an uncanny sense that Turbo executed an image of what already pre‑existed in his mind or was otherwise pre‑determined.
Like Turbo, naïve artists also typically come from the regions, take up painting later in life, and draw most heavily on memories from childhood or adolescence. They also tend to disregard artistic precursors. While Turbo employed several of John Gould’s compositions and subjects (notably his Tasmanian tiger—an animal Turbo can’t have seen on the banks of the Murray, nor in the northern Melbourne suburbs), he cheerfully ignored Gould’s painting techniques. But in other ways, Turbo was anything but naïve and his art instruction proved to be crucial: it gave him the cultural and political frameworks that guided his practice. It was while studying that he first identified his culture as Latje Latje, and he began uncovering aspects of his heritage that had been stolen from him along with his removal to a boys’ home in the west of Sydney at age five. He used his painting to explore themes around his Aboriginal identity.
Of the many animals that populated his works, there were two that he referred to more than others as his totems or spirit animals: the dingo and the wedge‑tailed eagle. The latter, known as Bundjil, is one of the moiety ancestors for people of the Kulin nation. Turbo foregrounded this mythic animal’s progenitor function when he painted Eagle Spirits of my Mum and Dad (2012). In some of his depictions of Bundjil, Turbo used only the colours of the Aboriginal flag (black, yellow and red) as if to doubly inscribe the bird’s Aboriginality. A totem serves to locate an individual within space and within culture and it is via his animals that Turbo locates and claimed his place in the world.
Another theme that is central to Indigenous culture and runs throughout Turbo’s work is that of kinship. Genealogy in Aboriginal Australia extends beyond the way it is conceived in the West to describe links not only between individuals but also between human beings, land and animals. Many of Turbo’s animals are depicted in nuclear family groupings and his titles make their relationships explicit: Sea Eagle Parents with Chick (2007), White Cockatoo Family (2010), Mother Kingfisher (2008) and Pink Galah Brothers (2010). The animals, whether kin or not, all have busy social lives, often participating in pairs or groups and variously occupied with obtaining food, play, surveillance, communication and in a few cases, conflict.
Turbo’s animals return the viewer’s gaze and talk back too. According to Turbo, “They picture me and I picture them.” In some paintings, like Two Kingfishers Chatting (2010), the animals are engaged in discussion. Sometimes, the dialogue takes the form of border disputes, as in Crocodile Telling Snake—That’s My Turf (2012). But Turbo also referred to his own private conversations with birds. While painting outdoors, for example, Turbo would gesture to birds in the trees and comment to one of his gallerists, “They are talking to me,” or “They are watching me paint and liking my painting.” Elsewhere, it’s reported, “The owl represented in Owl Dreaming is from Turbo’s country around Mildura. When asked about the owl Turbo explains he has had many conversations with the owl over a cup of tea.”
Turbo’s subjects aren’t generic exemplars of their species, but individuals with powerful personalities. He attributed his animals not only voice and speech but also animated faces—often smiling, sometimes with a penetrating gaze, usually with mouths crammed full of gleaming teeth—as well as mobile and expressive claws, individually delineated. Faces and hands are, of course, considered to be the two most revealing features of the portrait genre. Demonstrating his equal rank with animals, Turbo depicted himself in the same terms as them. Last Man Standing, his self‑portrait from 2012, reveals the artist’s mouth opened dramatically to reveal a precisely articulated circle of teeth, while his hands and feet end in very prominent, lovingly drawn and strictly enumerated fingers and toes.
Mouths, teeth, claws and paws are animals’ main tools for obtaining food. One of Turbo’s principal narrative themes, the subject of feeding appears in works like Wombats Looking for Breakfast (2008) and Tasmanian Tiger in Bushland Searching for Food (2015). His Sugar Gliders (2006) are shown greedily stuffing their paws in their mouths and his Playing Koalas (2008) are passing gum leaves to one another as if they are distributing nature’s spoils. In part, this may be a reference to the chronic hunger Turbo experienced during his many years of homelessness. He remarked to his art teacher Sharon West that while sleeping rough he discovered an affinity with the animals whose habitat he shared; he observed that like him, they spent all their time searching for food.
More than anything, it is through their mouths that his animals gain purchase on their world. In one of his paintings of Playful Dingo Pups from 2010 (several works bear this same title) the two dogs’ jaws are so tightly interlocked that it is impossible to see where one animal’s teeth end and the other’s begin. But while mouths refer to hunger, there is also another biographical inference that should not be discounted. Turbo was born with a cleft palate, and due to institutional neglect, he did not receive corrective surgery until he was a young adult. He may have painted animals with highly expressive mouths as symbolic restitution for the personal challenges he had with speech throughout his life.
There is a depth of emotional feeling for and between Turbo’s animals. This is sometimes expressed through maternal care for the young, or through familial relations and in other instances through affection and companionship. In one extraordinary painting from 2010, Sleeping Wombat and Kangaroo, the wombat layers its body atop the kangaroo, slightly squashing it in an intimate image of mutuality and symbiosis between the two animals and their environment. But the painting needn’t only be viewed in sentimental terms. It is especially common in regional and remote Indigenous communities to refer to two- or three‑dog nights and Turbo was known to have relied on his pet dingoes for warmth when sleeping outdoors.
Survival as a theme underscores Turbo’s practice, not only in the sense of subsistence but also cultural and ecological endurance. With painting titles that include Last Man Standing and Every Dog Have Their Day he declares himself and his animals proudly resilient—triumphant, even. This is despite the devastation caused by Turbo’s removal and institutionalisation, and despite the displacement from lands and habitats visited on Turbo and the animals. But the victory was mitigated by constant fear. Referring to his 2005 painting The Birds and Animals of the Dreamtime Turbo explained the animal assembly thus: “The spirits of my ancestors have called them all together for safety before all their land is cleared away.”
Turbo’s animals enjoy equality and mutual respect with one another and with human beings. It is not accidental that most of his paintings have the orientation described as landscape. This format is a levelling device, which aligns everything in relation to the plane of the earth. By contrast, the portrait format emphasises verticality and privileges human dominance; in Western painting conventions, strong verticals refer to an erect figure exerting mastery over the environment. This is seen, for example, in Barnett Newman’s painting Onement 1 (1948) in which the vertical painted device known as the zip stands in for a human subject. Those rare paintings by Turbo that are portrait in spatial orientation tend to be of birds, especially wedge‑tailed eagles. The meanings of dominance, majesty or authority that are harnessed by the portrait format are an exception Turbo made for Bundjil as a powerful and ascendant creator–being.
Birds have unrivalled status in Turbo’s work and occupy dominant roles in the mythology of Aboriginal Australia. For example, anthropological study finds that birds, more than any other class of animal, they are likely to be held responsible for the origin of fire. Their eminence is attributed to their mastery of all the same skills required by humans to obtain food: hunting (eagles, owls, hawks), gathering (parrots and cockatoos) and foraging (crows and emus). And it’s worth noting here that the second moiety of the Kulin Nation alongside Bundjil is Waa, the crow. Far from Newman’s ornithology joke dismissing birds’ capacities relative to humans, Aboriginal art and mythology reveals that in their subsistence skills, birds are the equals of humans. By comparison, Australian mammals are mostly foragers with scavengers being rare, as are predators—the prominent of these being the dingo. Interestingly, the dingo appears in numerous cautionary Aboriginal myths about cannibalism because it preys on other animals and its morphology is perceived to most closely resemble humans. It’s possible to speculate that some of Turbo’s paintings of dingoes, notably the ones that feature picaresque narratives about the animal’s adventures in suburban Melbourne, are self‑portraits in disguise. All Turbo’s animals are like humans but none more so than dingoes since they introduce themes of social conflict into his work—they appear fighting in some of the paintings.
Horizontal lines abound in Turbo’s paintings but few verticals exist anywhere—further evidence that his world is anchored firmly to the plane of the earth. He does not often incorporate a horizon line but tree branches and fence lines appear from time to time as strong horizontal demarcations within the flat pictorial space. In his later work, Turbo started filling in his backgrounds with dynamic marks, such as horizontal dashes or short stripes. These migrated into the backgrounds of his paintings from the body surfaces of the animals where they first appeared. For Turbo doesn’t only paint his animals in the sense of depicting them. He also paints them up—for ceremony. Many of his animal’s bodily markings resemble those used in human ritual. Simultaneously the animals stand in for human beings and for themselves, bridging the shamanic shift of those ancestor figures from the Dreaming that humans become through ceremonies. As a stolen generation survivor, Turbo did not go through the law (traditional initiation) but he has seen photographic documentation of corroborees and depicted one such ritual in an untitled painting from 2004.
Turbo’s animals are not observed from the physical world. Although some subjects and compositions are adapted from wildlife catalogues, books of John Gould’s bird paintings and photographs of taxidermy specimens, the creatures that come to life in his images exist elsewhere, in the realm of myth and storytelling. They fulfill several roles simultaneously: performing the observed behaviours of animals in nature (perching, burrowing etc.) and thereby representing themselves; acting as dramatis personae in place of humans; and serving as conduits to the realm of the Dreaming.
Turbo passed away in 2017 at the relatively young age of 49. It’s worth consulting his expressed belief in what happens after death: “I’ll still be around with these animals in one to two hundred years' time,” he told a journalist. It’s not that he believed he would “rejoin” them in the afterlife, but rather that they were never apart in the past, nor would they separate in future; Turbo’s animals would stick by him for eternity, keeping him warm and keeping him company.
- ^ Numerous sources, including Carolyn Webb, “Turbo‑charged look at animal world” in The Age, Saturday 21 May 2005 (review section), p. 7.
- ^ Numerous sources including Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Last Man Standing: Turbo Brown. Melbourne: Melbourne Museum, 2012.
- ^ Hubert Massey Whittell, The Literature of Australian Birds: A History and a Bibliography of Australian Ornithology, Perth: Paterson Brockensha, 1954, pp. 5–6.
- ^ He completed a Certificate and then a Diploma of Arts at RMIT University between 2001 and 2005.
- ^ Helen Kaptein, Raw and Compelling: Australian Naïve Art—The Continuing Tradition, a Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery travelling exhibition supported by NETS Victoria. Swan Hill: Swan Hill Regional Art Gallery, 2014, pp. 4–6.
- ^ White Kangaroo was directed and produced by Jeff Daniels, Common Room Productions, 2012.
- ^ Gallerist Nick Kreisler in conversation with the author, 21 December 2017.
- ^ Kaptein, op. cit..
- ^ Variant spellings exist, including Latji Latji.
- ^ Rex Livingston Art Dealer, Trevor “Turbo” Brown: New Works, 2011, Sydney: Rex Livingston.
- ^ Gallerist Mike Sill in conversation with the author, 31 December 2017.
- ^ Victorian Indigenous Art Awards (2012) Melbourne: Arts Victoria, p. 8.
- ^ RMIT Lecturer Sharon West in conversation with the author, 31 December 2017.
- ^ Turbo’s foster father Herb Patten in conversation with the author on 12 January 2017.
- ^ Deborah Bird Rose, Dingo Makes us Human: Life and Land in an Aboriginal Australian Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
- ^ Julie Gough, “Being There, Then and Now: Aspects of South‑East Aboriginal Art” in Landmarks (Judith Ryan et. al.) Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2006, p. 131.
- ^ Geofano Dharmaputra, Dreaming Animals With Human Faces (unpublished thesis) Canberra: Department of Prehistory and Anthropology, Australian National University, 1990.
- ^ Ibid., p. 69.
- ^ Victorian Indigenous Art Awards, op. cit., p. 22.
- ^ Varia Karipoff, “Pelicans—Trevor “Turbo” Brown” in Essentials Magazine, Winter 2010, p. 47.
Christine Morrow is an Australian artist, writer and curator.
Card image: Trevor "Turbo" Brown, Koalas and Babies, 2005, synthetic polymer paint on canvas. Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. © Trevor "Turbo" Brown