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Birth Place
Blackwood, SA, Australia
Joel Birnie is a descendant of the Tasmanian Fanny Cochrane Smith (1834-1905). In 1899 and 1903 Cochrane Smith recorded songs on wax cylinders. These cylinders are held in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and were “the only recordings ever made of Tasmanian Aboriginal song and speech” (Clark, J., 'Fanny Cochrane Smith’ in Australian Dictionary of Biography Online). Birnie was born in the Adelaide Hills in 1980 and from a young age was surrounded by art and art practice, as both his parents were art teachers. Birnie states that he was “taught art by his parents” (pers. comm., March 2009) rather than having any formal art training. With the exception of working as a caretaker for a local Adelaide Hills bed and breakfast, Birnie worked in the arts in a variety of roles including working as an artist liaison officer and co-curator for the event 'Blak Nite', which was held during the 2003 and 2005 'Come Out Youth Festival’ and as a gallery attendant, collections assistant and photographer (among other jobs) at Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide from 2004 to 2007.Birnie was awarded the Encouragement Award in the 2001 'Tandanya/Arts SA Aboriginal Artists’ Fellowship Award’. He honoured this award by presenting his first solo exhibition, 'Going Home’, curated by Rosie Potter, at Tandanya in 2001. The information sheet of the exhibition stated that the title “refers to Joel’s 'going home’ as he searches his past [and] explores his identity” (Potter, 2001). The works in 'Going Home’ were a series of sandstone, acrylic and house paint on canvas that depicted designs based on the petroglyph designs of Tasmania.In 2002 Birnie was curated into the national touring exhibition 'Native Title Business’ with his work Fanny, Mary and the Cross (2001). This work of acrylic on board is a portrait of Fanny Cochrane Smith and her daughter Mary. Hanging as an earring from Mary’s right ear is the Christian crucifix. This crucifix and the board the painting is painted on are symbols of “Fanny Cochrane Smith’s beloved wooden church. She had it built on the land she donated to the Methodists of Hobart” (Birnie, 2002, pg. 42).In 2003 Birnie staged his second solo show, 'No’onga/The Spirit Centre’ at Tandanya. This body of work represented a departure in medium for Birnie as it was his first exhibition of photographic works. These works were large digital film stills, the images of which were “traditional Tasmanian petroglyphs but were reworked into abstract designs so as to resemble spirits”(pers. comm., 2009). In 2007 he participated in the group show 'Our Metro Mob’, curated by Fulvia Mantelli alongside Troy-Anthony Baylis, Sharon Sansbury, Alucius Turner, Peter Sharrock and Yhonnie Scarce. This exhibition was also staged at Tandanya. Birnie was commissioned to develop a sand painting, Untitled Petroglyph, for the performance of Petroglyphs: Signs of Life, a dance collaboration between Leigh Warren, Gina Rings and Tandanya in 2005. In 2006 he installed Untitled Petroglyph for the Signs of Life performance at the 'Festival of the Dreaming’ in Woodford, Queensland.Birnie’s choice of media developed from working with mixed media and ground sandstone on canvas to working primarily with photographic media. In 2008 he exhibited his work Maleetye; blossom in the group show 'The Haunted and the Bad’, curated by Julie Gough at the Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts in St Kilda, Victoria. The other artists who participated in this exhibition were Tony Albert, Nici Cumpston, Andrea Fisher and Yhonnie Scarce. Birnie states that Maleetye; blossom was a “digital video and installation series based upon the aspects of my Indigenous heritage being passed on to me through women. The images and installation are inspired by the photographs of Fanny Cochrane Smith…” (Birnie, Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts website).Birnie’s fascination with his ancestor is brought to the fore when he asks, “What would I be as an Indigenous artist without Fanny Cochrane Smith? Due to the fairness of skin, an urban existence on the mainland and destruction of traditional Indigenous Tasmanian culture such as language, art and religion etc, I find myself asking 'what is it for me to be recognised as an 'Indigenous’ artist and is it relevant? Would my work still be recognised by institutions and galleries if the same works were to be labelled as 'non-Indigenous’, if they were not historic in theme and visual style?” (Birnie, Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts website). Birnie was a finalist in the 18th 'Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award’ in 2001 with his work Trugati Bona, Men with Wounds, a mixed media on canvas work that discussed the death of William Laney (known as the last 'full blood’ Tasmanian male Aborigine). Laney died circa 1868, aged 34, and his body was dissected and studied in the name of science.Birnie’s work is held in the collections of the Museum and Art Gallery of Tasmania in Hobart and the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.In 2009 Birnie was living and working in Melbourne, Victoria. Writers: Allas, TessNote: Date written: 2009 Last updated: 2011 Status: peer-reviewed
b. 1980
Tasmanian Indigenous mixed media and photo media artist was a finalist in the 18th Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards.
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Age at death
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