Fish… finishing this weekend

Has the Australian National Maritime Museum fetishised fish? and is fetishised even a word?

This weekend is your last chance to find out, and to view what I think is one of our most inventive readings of Australian art from a maritime perspective.

Entering the ‘Fish in Australian art’ exhibition guided by Deborah Halpern’s ‘Fish’, neon lighting and perspex, 2010

Fish in Australian art  is an exhibition of watercolours, prints, publications, drawings, paintings, multimedia, artefacts, and artifice… all of which feature Australian stories of fish or fishing. Through artist’s eyes you see the wonders of fish,  fish as characters in dreaming or creation stories, as objects of European curiosity, science, charm, fantasy, nature, and the sublime. You see fish as decorative or design elements, and you see fishing as a way to while away the hours, for musing, sport or industry, and above all for cooking, eating, or serving at the table.

The exhibition includes works from important Indigenous artists like Yvonne Koolmatrie, Arthur Koo’ekka Pambegan, Micky of Ulladulla and Roy Wiggan, and many household names of European Australian art like Arthur Boyd, William Buelow Gould, Conrad Martens, John Olsen,  Margaret Preston and Anne Zahalka, in an exhibition which is both thematic and broadly chronological. I especially like the luminous drawings from the natural history painters who worked with pencil and brush to document all they saw around them – here, the fish and the fishing techniques of Indigenous Australians, and their watercraft.

Richard Browne watercolours

There are a number of works by the Port Jackson painter, Ferdinand Bauer and Thomas Watling on loan from the British Museum of Natural History which are truely sensational and here in Australia just for this exhibition.

These works show Indigenous people fishing from their nawi and cooking their catch.  They are beautifully drawn. There are so many nuanced details, like the moon rays floating to the water in the ink and watercolour sketch A N. South Wales native strikg fish by moonlight while his wife paddles him along with a fire in the Canoe ready to broil the fish as caught attributed to the Port Jackson Painter, 1788-97. These details remind you that these painters were not just about picturing science and are worth a really good look.

Artists of Port Jackson works in ‘Fish in Australian art’

The exhibition blends media and artefacts, and in this early colonial section you see a canoe of bark with tied ends, made by Albert Woodlands from the west Kempsey region, built before 1938, and on loan from the Australian Museum. This Indigenous canoe is used to interpret the fishing drawings and to add texture and meaning – together they become a delicious viewing experience for those interested in Aboriginal watercraft. The canoe – similar in style to the nawi used by Sydney Aboriginal people – forms such a refined shape that it is almost sculptural.

There is much to see in this exhibition and I can only suggest you make it to the museum this weekend to catch it before it goes…

Canoe and watercolours from Fish in Australian Art

The lone fisherman

The Beach Fisherman by Kenneth Macqueen 1934
Lent by New England Regional Art Museum, Armidale

There’s something ambient about Kenneth Macqueen’s The Beach Fisherman, 1934. A man stands barefoot on a beach, fishing line in tow, with the shore stretching out further than the eye can see and the clouds threatening rain in a decidedly gloomy way. This is one of the many artworks on display at the museum’s Fish in Australian art exhibition.
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Eighteen months on a leaky boat

 ‘Southern Pygmy Leatherjacket, Brachaluteres jacksonianus’

‘Southern Pygmy Leatherjacket, Brachaluteres jacksonianus’, by Ferdinand Bauer, lent by Natural History Museum, London

There is something intriguing about natural history illustrations. The plants look as though they are sprouting from the page but the animals appear slightly on the edge of reality, with blankly staring eyes and stiffly posed limbs. Perhaps this is because the immobility of plants permit them to be drawn from life whereas animals do not generally allow the painter that luxury unless they are in a more, well, deceased state.

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Art in the dark

Longhead dreamer, yellowhead hulafish, horseface unicornfish,eyebrow wedgefish, scribbled pufferfish, longhorn cowfish, zebra hornshark, toothbrush leatherjacket, piano fangblenny, pacific jellynose, abyssal ghostshark, curious wormfish, splendid snaggletooth, glowbelly seabass….

Believe it or not, these are real fish …. and there’s even stranger ones where they came from.

Deborah halpern

Deborah Halpern- Neon Fish, 2010, perspex and fluorescent tubes

I’m standing inside Fish in Australian Art and staring at the fish names installation as they light up one by one, flickering lights shimmering like a school of silver scaled barracuda. I’m imagining what we can play here for our Art in the dark family tour this saturday. We’ve been busily crafting luminescent art games- glowstick connector sculptures, exquisite fish corpses painted with glow in the dark pigments, taping together experimental drawing tools, and choreographing some fish inspired dance moves.

french fish

French meets Fish in Art- the theme of our fun filled torchlight tour!

I’m also talking with our indefatigable character actor, who shall be known only as Monsieur Le Poisson. A chameleon and master of disguise this torchlight tour guide also wears the hats of Johnny Grog-Nose, our resident Pirate and Spanker Boom, the museum’s night keeper.

This Saturday he will be a somewhat more refined creature in French inspired attire, moustache, beret and accent to boot. Monsieur Le Poisson( Mr Fish) is not a fish, but he knows all about them, he is not an artist, but he could be, and he is taking time out of his busy Bastille day celebrations to take us through the inspiring exhibition Fish in Australian Art– sans lumiere.

torchlight tour 2

Torches at the ready we will uncover a world of stories, strange materials, peculiar fascinations, artistic wonders. Following a line from rock art to contemporary as we seek to answer  the timeless question “What is art?”… “Why did they make that?”…. “What does it mean?” …

fluro paints

Get painted up like a glowbelly sea-bass with glow in the dark face paints

After dark tours are a special affair, giving visitors a chance to see the exhibitions when the lights are out and no one else is around! They’re also an occasion for fun and interactive games, art making activities and delicious food. This Saturday we are being inspired by the chance occasion that it is also Bastille day, and of course what is more French than good art, and good food. So we are planning delights like crepes avec nutella and pommes frites, to be enjoyed after our tour alongside some creative capers with fluorescent face paint and a blacklight torch!

Needless to say, we’ll be painted up like a glowbelly seabass by the time the night is done.

Art in the dark- Torchlight family tour– Saturday 14 July – Bookings Essential

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Object of the Week : Kunmatj (small dilly bag)

Object of the Week: Kunmatjs

Kunmatjs are dilly bags from the Northern Territory used for carrying small fish such as catfish. They are a common item across many Indigenous groups in the Northern Territory and known by a number of different names depending on their region of origin. This bag is painted with red ochre and decorated with painted images of catfish in white clay. Traditionally dilly bags were left unadorned but artist Lena Yarinkura has decorated this kunmatji to express her local Aboriginal culture. Lena Yarinkura is an artist from south central Arnhem Land who works with fibres, barks, bronze and aluminium. Her works cover ceremonial regalia, baskets, bark paintings and sculptures. She has exhibited locally, nationally and internationally since 1987.


Kunmatjs, ANMM Collection

Dilly bags are traditional bags used for gathering food and could be hung around the neck in order to leave the hands free. They are typically woven out of natural fibres including grasses, animal tendons and reeds. Depending on the region of their origin, these bags have a variety of names and are produced from different materials. They are typically left undecorated without paint when used for their traditional purpose of gathering food. Today they also serve an artistic purpose and are often painted with images such as catfish.

Pandanus is a common material used in Arnhem Land for making baskets, bags and traps. The plant grows in Queensland, the Northern Territory and northern Western Australia in damp environments near creeks and waterways. The top leaves of the plant are collected, stripped and dried in preparation to be woven into traditional objects such as baskets, mats, fishing nets and sculptures.

This kunmatj is representative of Indigenous weaving techniques and functional carrying equipment used in the Northern Territory. It is a common utilitarian object used by men and women when hunting and gathering food. Today these functional items are also produced for artistic purposes.

Getting Sketchy with Swainston and Snapper

Today’s question: How much does a 40cm whole pink snapper cost?

I like fish. I occasionally buy fish. But I have no idea.

How does one find out the answer besides actually wandering down to the fish markets to see?

No one I ask seems to know off the cuff.

Even the indefatigable wisdom of google is failing me.

Roger Swainston, fish illustration, image courtesy the artist

Roger Swainston, fish illustration, image courtesy the artist

I’m emailing back and forth with Roger Swainston as we make a list of art materials to buy for his upcoming workshop…

A3 double matte drafting film,

HB and 2B pencils,


4 Pink Snapper on ice in Styrofoam boxes…


Yes, Snapper.

Not for some kind of experimental drawing technique whereby the fish body becomes expressive mark-making medium (although that would be fun too). It’s for scientific illustration of a specimen. Roger is an illustrator extraordinaire and a zoologist as well. His vivid drawings of fish, seahorses and all manner of marine species are featured in our current exhibition Fish in Australian Art. His acclaimed natural history book Fishes of Australia contains more than 1500 of these illustrations and took two years of up to 100 hours work a week to produce. Like many artists (and scientists for that matter), Roger is rigorous and dedicated to his practice, passionate about his subject matter, and furiously hardworking.

swainston lobster

Roger Swainston, illustration, Clipperton Rocklobster -Panulirus penicillatus, image courtesy the artist

He also has a most unique way of working en plein air so to speak, his fieldwork drawing technique involves a scuba tank, a graphite crayon and a kind of plastic film (he won’t say exactly what, it’s a trade secret). Yes he literally draws underwater….. Often for four or five hours a day…. and up to two weeks to capture one scene! Breaking the area into a grid with nylon cords, Roger maps the scene and its life-forms in exquisite detail. The drawings are  2-3m wide, 1-2m high and completely captivating.

Roger Swainston- the artist at work. Photo copyright Xavier Desmier

Roger Swainston, underwater sketch, image courtesy the artist

But back to the Snapper. I wonder why having a live fish is so important. Surely there are other, less involved, (and odour-free) ways to illustrate a specimen.

A photograph perhaps?

No a photo won’t do, Roger insists, we must grapple with the species in all of its three dimensional beauty.

And it’s not nearly as good for the post-art making dinner!

Roger Swainston’s talk and drawing workshop is on Sunday 27 May 1.30pm – 5pm at the museum, bookings are essential .

Fish in Australian art opens tomorrow

Tomorrow, our new exhibition Fish in Australian art opens to the public and runs until 1 October. As a keen lover of visual arts, I’m particulary excited about this exhibition. I can’t wait to spend some time exploring the show! The exhibition features over 100 works of art and design, including pieces by celebrated artists such as William Buelow Gould, Conrad Martens, Rupert Bunny, Margaret Olley, William Dobell, Arthur Boyd, Yvonne Koolmatrie, John Olsen, John Brack, Michael Leunig, Craig Walsh and many more.

Over the past week I dropped by the exhibition space to see how the installtion was going. Here are a few snaps, with more available for viewing on Flickr.

Preparator installing fish sculpture

Above: Trevally dance machine, 1993, Ken Thaiday Sr, born c 1950.

Four small fish sculptures

Preparator installing small fish sculptures into cabinet

Neon Fish, 2010, Deborah Halpern. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.

Above: Neon Fish, 2010, Deborah Halpern. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.

Costume dramas: Fishes, foam and fabrics

It’s just over three weeks till April school holidays and I’m on the phone with a costume-maker discussing the merits of various types of foam and fabrics being used to make fins. Can foam be painted onto? Should the fabrics be sparkly or matte? Stuffed or wired? Blue fish or red fish?  Decisions, decisions! The costumes are being custom made for our Autumn Kids on Deck program Fish Fantastic. Inspired by a selection of works in the upcoming exhibition FISH in Australian Art, they will allow children participating in Kids on Deck to dress up and recreate these famous artworks as tableau vivante or living pictures.

fish costume sketch based on Outhwaite's Elves and Fairies

Back before the wireless, the talkies and tv, a live pose to recreate a famous historical moment or classic work of art was the height of popular entertainment. Often part of a royal court ceremony, a special religious service or a theatre production, tableau vivante recreated images in painstaking detail, the participants often painted head to toe as well as costumed to reflect the particular qualities of a painting. While we may not be going to so much detail this time around we will have four special costumes inspired by Deborah Halpern’s Neon Fish, Kenneth Macqueen’s The Beach Fisherman, Anne Zahalka’s The Cook, and Ida Rentoule Outhwaite’s illustrations from Elves and Fairies to spark some imaginative pretend play.

Fisherman costume sketch based on Macqueen's The Beach Fisherman

Bringing paintings and sculptures to life will be just one of the fun and fantastic activities in this program being designed and produced by some creative friends and volunteers. Aside from our museum design team who often create spectacular paper craft for our children’s activity space, there are many minds and hands that contribute to the making of a Kids Deck program. We also have our faithful and very talented volunteers Jon and Terri producing handmade lino-cut prints of fish scales for printing onto calico bags. Jon and Terri have made all sorts of wonderful custom made designs for us over the years- shark rubbing templates, plastic stencils for Batik inspired by Indonesian folktales, prints inspired by the travels of Sindbad the Sailor and a suite of beautiful wooden toys.

neon fish costume sketch based on Halpern's Neon Fish

But back to the question of foam and fins…..we’ve decided to experiment and hope for the best. And yes to sparkles! I can’t wait to see how it all turns out.

Sustainable seafood – do you have a recipe?

Tom Kime Fish & Co

Tom Kime, Fish & Co Chef

On 19 October the museum is holding a sustainable seafood event on the helideck of HMAS Vampire as part of the Crave Sydney International Food Festival. It’s sure to be a taste sensation, with chef Tom Kime from Fish & Co creating the menu for the night. But, we hear you asking…

What is sustainable seafood?

According to the Australian Marine Conservation Society, ‘three quarters of the world’s oceans are already officially over-exploited or fished right up to their limit’. Sustainable fishing aims to lessen this impact on our oceans and fish species by using more sustainable methods of fishing. The Marine Stewardship Council is a not for profit organisation that is currently setting standards in regards to these methods and sustainable best practice through which fisheries can be certified sustainable.

Make informed choices

The Australian Marine Conservation Society recently launched a sustainable seafood guide to help us make wiser decisions when it comes to consuming seafood. There is also a mobile app, which is handy when you’re out and about.

Sustainable seafood recipes

With these resources we can get creative in the kitchen with more informed seafood choices. There are a lot of tasty recipes on the Marine Stewardship Council website that you might like to check out, but here’s a super easy salmon pattie recipe that I like to make.

Do you have a sustainable seafood recipe? Share your recipe in the comments section to this post.

Salmon Patties
–   1 can Pink Salmon (The Sustainable Seafood Guide suggests that imported canned salmon from Canada and Alaska are generally from well managed fisheries)
–   1 large potato, boiled and slightly mashed
–   Juice from half a lemon
–   Small handful flat leaf parsley, chopped
–   1 egg
–   Cracked black pepper
–   Breadcrumbs
–   Olive oil for pan frying

1.  Remove salmon from tin and remove any bones.
2.  Place salmon in mixing bowl and break into chunks.
3.  Add potato, lemon juice, parsley, pepper, and mix to combine.
4.  Add egg to mixture and combine. Add some breadcrumbs if mixture has become too wet.
5.  Make round balls from the mix and roll in breadcrumbs. About six cm in diameter.
6.  Place patties on a plate and refrigerate for about 20 mins to help the patties stay in shape.
7.  In a frypan, heat some oil over a medium to high heat to shallow fry the patties.
8.  Add the patties to the pan and rotate until all sides are golden brown. You can either keep the round ball shape or flatten with a spatula to make a flat pattie.
9.  Serve with some salad and tartare sauce. Delicious!

Sustainable seafood at sunset onboard HMAS Vampire
Date: 6.30-9.30pm Wednesday 19 October
Location: Australian National Maritime Museum, Darling Harbour, Sydney
Cost: $75 or members $65.
Bookings essential: Phone +61 2 9298 3655, email or book online.