Like many creatives, Damien Shen spent most of his adult life focused on building a career instead of a formal art practice.
But in 2013, the South Australia native and current Kluge-Ruhe artist-in-residence realized he had a calling. He just needed to work out what it was.
“I did this journey down the east coast of Australia and went to pretty much every gallery in our contemporary space I could find in a two-week period,” Shen says. “I just needed to try and work out what it all meant to be an artist.”
A descendant of Ngarrindjeri and Chinese bloodlines, Shen was inspired by fellow Australian aboriginal artists Tony Albert and Vernon Ah Kee.
“When I saw [Ah Kee’s charcoal portraits], I was quite overwhelmed,” says Shen. “I just sat there in front of it and thought, ‘Man, this is amazing.’ I wondered if I could still draw, and if maybe I could draw like that. And I thought, ‘Maybe one day I can have my own exhibition.’”
Shen enrolled in a three-day charcoal portraiture workshop. On the third day, he received word that his aboriginal grandmother, Charlotte, passed away.
“That really was the catalyst to begin drawing a lot,” he says.
Shen focused intensely on developing his technique. Through drawings, paintings and lithographs, he committed to mastering a level of technical excellence that would allow him to break the rules. His first project focused on family genealogy, sourcing his maternal uncle’s and aunts’ memories as the last generation to experience growing up on Raukkan, a Ngarrindjeri mission south of Adelaide. Much like the American Indians, Australian aboriginal men and women suffered intergenerational trauma and cultural disenfranchisement under the colonial regime, including genocide, segregation, dispossession, marginalization and assimilation.
During his research, Shen discovered that the remains of more than 500 Ngarrindjeri people had been stolen by William Ramsay Smith, an Australian coroner, and sent to a scientist in Scotland for comparative anatomy.
“[Smith] used to go out and actually look for remains down near the Coorong,” says Shen. “There’s a lot of sand dunes and stuff out there, so the wind would expose parts of the grounds and sometimes expose remains. Other times he would dig them up. When he died in 1937, he had 182 skulls in his house. That was his own personal collection.”
Shen’s current exhibition at Kluge-Ruhe includes portraits of the perpetrators of these crimes, as well as a portrait of Boorborrowie, a Ngarrindjeri man whose remains were later repatriated to Australia.
“I remember as a younger lad there was this event at Camp Coorong,” Shen says. “There was a ceremony and all these white crates. …Huge amounts of remains were being released by the museum in Edinburgh and brought back to South Australia.”
In addition to showcasing precise and fluid portraiture styles, Shen’s exhibit “On the Fabric of the Ngarrindjeri Body” references 19th century scientific anatomical renderings of the human form. The show’s titular work echoes an illustration from Andreas Vesalius’ medical book, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body). The text is an apt reference point for Shen’s themes, as its clinical accuracy objectifies the physical body much like colonials, coroners and scientists dehumanized Australian aboriginal men, women and their remains.
Shen’s etching reclaims this spirit by inserting Vesalius’ version of the male form into a natural landscape and superimposing iconic Ngarrindjeri body designs, ritualistic paraphernalia and the face, hair and beard of Major Sumner (a Ngarrindjeri elder and Shen’s Uncle Moogy) in ceremonial dress.
In his series, “On the Fabric of the Ngarrindjeri Body—Volume II,” inspired by Irving Penn’s ethnographic photography, Shen sought to create a studio scene that combined hero shots with behind-the-scenes candids of himself and his uncle painting in the traditional Ngarrindjeri way. “These are images that could have been shot back in the 1800s but they were done a couple of years ago,” says Shen.
He wanted, he says, to highlight the tension between gazing in and observing a culture, “this part of Australian culture that is lost and I believe struggling to stay alive,” and the contemporary reality of cultural preservation and revivification.
“It’s very difficult to understand unless you’re from those areas that have been able to hold a cultural practice through time,” he says. “All we really have are old photos and illustrations by guys who were traveling through in the 1800s.”
Shen says the experience of actually painting his skin for the first time was surreal—and very intimate.
“It’s not an initiation,” he says. “I’m not going to pretend it’s anything like that. For me, it meant a lot to be able to do it with Uncle Moogy.”
Shen sounds surprised that The National Gallery of Australia asked to acquire these intimate moments. But these photos, in addition to his first volume of work, earned him an avalanche of critical acclaim. In just two and a half years, the artist has been featured in 30 exhibitions around Australia, and he’s won multiple accolades, including the 2014 South Australian NAIDOC Artist of the Year Award, the 2015 Prospect Portrait Prize and the 64th Blake Prize for Emerging Artists in 2016.
Shen’s current residency at the Kluge-Ruhe is also his first.
“So many times in the last three years I’ve been pinching myself,” says Shen. “You win an award or you get accepted into a residency or this and that. Like, ‘Wow, this is the artist’s life.’ It doesn’t always go your way, but today I have this incredible view [of Charlottesville]. I have an atrium I can call my studio for the month. I’m incredibly blessed.”
Contact Elizabeth Derby at email@example.com.