make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend


Discovering ‘Rainbow Serpent (Version)’ by contemporary Australian artist Daniel Boyd

Daniel Boyd disentangles colonialism through his latest offering, the most comprehensive exhibition of his artistic practice in Europe, at the Gropius Bau, Berlin.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Jul 12, 2023

Daniel Boyd is a highly prolific Australian artist, with a close focus on his nation’s legacy of colonialism and how it has played out historically for his indigenous ancestors. Many of his pieces reinterpret figures and works associated with Eurocentric perspectives, and the artist’s latest offering takes this to the very heart of his land: the foundational stories of Australia that have been omitted from historical records, or more infuriatingly for the island’s original inhabitants, reframed in such a way as to portray European settlers in an adventurous, pioneering and largely positive light. Rainbow Serpent (Version) is on display at the Gropius Bau in Berlin, Germany and stages 44 of the artist’s pieces, making it the most comprehensive exhibition of his work to date.

Untitled (ASFTAB), 2022, oil and archival glue on canvas | Daniel Boyd | RAINBOW SERPENT (VERSION) | STIRworld
Untitled (ASFTAB), 2022, oil and archival glue on canvas Image: Kukje Gallery; Courtesy of Daniel Boyd and Private Collection (Sook-Jung Choi)

Rainbow Serpent (Version) takes up a strange middle-ground between a contemporary art exhibition and, if one would allow for the term to be stretched, a “performance” of sorts, albeit one that does not require the presence of the artist himself to unfold its magic. Boyd has exhibited his painting work in such a manner as to engulf the building’s architecture in what the Gropius Bau has described as a “second skin,” that illuminates and dims each piece systematically, as sunlight passes around the building within which Rainbow Serpent (Version) is housed. The floor of the exhibition space is also covered in mirrors, which reflect the architecture of the premises in a fragmented manner. It seems the exhibition organisers have identified the theatricality of the presentation, and carry out a public programme on the floor installation.

Untitled (MLBATS), 2021, oil and archival glue on canvas | Daniel Boyd | RAINBOW SERPENT (VERSION) | STIRworld
Untitled (MLBATS), 2021, oil and archival glue on canvas Image: Kukje Gallery; Courtesy of Daniel Boyd and Kukje Gallery

The title of the exhibition may seem a little obtuse to audience members who are not familiar with Boyd’s contemporary art practice, yet its meaning and implications are essential to understanding his perspective on the history and creation myths of his land. In Australia, people who do not hail from First Nation backgrounds, meaning descendants of the original inhabitants of the land, often use the term “Rainbow Serpent" to refer to the many creation stories that First Nation communities hold dear. The contemporary artist feels as though this term skirts an acknowledgement of the sheer diversity that the many cosmologies from the land display, in that they exist together at once. He finds it disrespectful and lacking in nuance, and himself adds “(Version)” to the title of the exhibition, so as to speak to the pluralism of Australian creation myths and legends.

Untitled (CPC), 2015, oil and charcoal and archival glue on polyester | Daniel Boyd | RAINBOW SERPENT (VERSION) | STIRworld
Untitled (CPC), 2015, oil and charcoal and archival glue on polyester Image: Ivan Buljan; Courtesy of Daniel Boyd and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

The artist explores his creative journey, telling STIR, “As a young child, I was fascinated by Leonardo da Vinci; as a visionary, and for his capacity for invention, his creative spirit and his usage of multiple forms of expression. It wasn’t until art school, though, that my own questions led me to understand the power and possibilities of art.” At art school, Boyd gained access to a voice not afforded to many descendants of the hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nations that were colonised, before experiencing subsequent oppression by the British and Australian governments. He has not squandered his creative voice in the slightest; growing to receive great acclaim as a creative who continues to disentangle and challenge Eurocentric rhetoric in Australia. When asked what ideas stand at the very core of his work, he only says “equity;” a simple response that says a great deal about the clarity of the artist’s vision.

Untitled (TDHFTC), 2021, oil, acrylic, charcoal and archival glue on canvas | Daniel Boyd | RAINBOW SERPENT (VERSION) | STIRworld
Untitled (TDHFTC), 2021, oil, acrylic, charcoal and archival glue on canvas, 130 x 189 cm Image: Chunho An, Kukje Gallery; Courtesy of Daniel Boyd and Private Collection (Jean Sook Chae)

Boyd explains that through Rainbow Serpent (Version), he seeks to uncover how we understand multiple associations existing simultaneously, how we place them in both, modern and historical contexts, and what the legacies that come with those connections are. There is an almost academic sense of exploration within the art on display, with the artist’s visual language becoming a scrying lens of sorts. “European imperialism and placemaking have long used the classical arts to promote cultural affiliation. These inherent markers have become tainted through the violence of colonialism. Western architecture and western exceptionalism now have to reconcile the actions of their ancestors and think about that expansion in more relevant, less violent and through less Eurocentric means,” he tells STIR. It is interesting, then, that the artist’s pieces be put up in the building they are currently displayed in, and this is not lost on Boyd. He explains that the classical references in Gropius Bau’s architecture act as a point of entry and departure for conversations about more equitable ways of being in time and space, and that the ways in which audiences move through the built environment play a great role in how the art is engaged with.

Portrait photo of Artist Daniel Boyd, 2022 | STIRworld
Artist Daniel Boyd, 2022 Image: Chunho An, Kukje Gallery; Tobias Rowles; Courtesy of Daniel Boyd

In the grand scale of history, Europe has only just begun to reflect upon its colonial legacy and responsibility in the destruction of communities and natural wealth all over the world. The artist believes that this reflection requires a greater degree of vulnerability, along with “listening to the people and environments that have been affected by the violence of imperialism and capitalism.” He also identifies a pressing need to look back towards the past while simultaneously being present in the here and now, and also looking forward towards the possibilities for healing and restitution that the future might hold. He describes the position one should hold as being “like you are at the centre of a sphere, with no hierarchy, and with equal distance from the edge.” Finally, Boyd feels as though it is essential to recognise that divergent beings understand differently the power and responsibility to change the privilege that is a product of one’s relationship to colonial empires. His work will certainly strike a chord with the German audiences being exposed to it currently, as the German Empire itself has historically been implicit in the crimes of colonialism. Today, however, the nation is highly respected for its continued commitment to upholding democratic values and egalitarianism and has a large non-white population. This creates the perfect environment for the descendants of both, the colonisers and the colonised, to view the artist’s work on equal footing, which will undoubtedly be a valuable experience for all in attendance.

What do you think?

About Author


see more articles

make your fridays matter

This site uses cookies to offer you an improved and personalised experience. If you continue to browse, we will assume your consent for the same.