Born 1973, Melbourne. Lives and works Melbourne
Tom Nicholson is trained in drawing, a tradition that deeply informs his practice as a way of making work out in the world, of thinking about material traces, of imagining forms not-yet-realised. Nicholson often works with historical material, the visual languages of politics and the possibilities of new kinds of monuments. He has made a number of works engaging Australia’s colonial history, articulating these histories in relation to the histories and realities of other places. He is a lecturer at Monash Art, Design & Architecture, Monash University, Melbourne.
by Kevin Murray
One hundred years ago, when Australian troops were fighting against Ottoman troops in Palestine, a group of soldiers uncovered a floor mosaic in one of the Ottoman trenches. The mosaic featured an iconography of animals like a bestiary, and was part of an early Christian church created during the reign of Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century. Struck by its beauty and cultural significance, the soldiers painstakingly removed it, despite German aeroplanes circling above. Eventually the mosaic became a founding item in the collection of the Australian War Memorial, where it was laid into the wall of the Hall of Valour. Above it, in the Hall of Memory, Napier Waller was commissioned to produce a complementary mosaic reaching up to the dome.
Tom Nicholson’s work proposes a repatriation of the Shellal Mosaic to its original hilltop near Gaza. His installation consists of crated segments based on the original design but constituted by tiles using the alternative chromatic range of Waller’s art deco work. The proposition is that the new Shellal Mosaic would be made from the tiles of the actual Waller Mosaic, reciprocating the loss of the original rather than presuming it can be annulled.
This is the third in a series of ‘comparative monuments’ by Nicholson. The series was initiated through an invitation in 2012 from Jack Persekian who was director of the Palestinian Museum during its development. In 2012 Nicholson produced Comparative monument (Palestine) based on the recurrence of the word ‘Palestine’ boldly featured in World War I memorials across Australia. Posters of nine Palestine monuments in Victoria were exhibited in Jerusalem and also posted up around Ramallah. Two years later, Comparative monument (Ma’man Allah) (2014) focused on Australian eucalyptus trees in Israel/Palestine, planted extensively by early Zionists to drain swamps and claim land.
The current third instalment, Comparative monument (Shellal) (2014-17), was made with two artisans, Rafat Al Khatib and Renan Barham, in the Mosaic Centre in Jericho. (1) Aided by his studio partner, Jamie O’Connell, Nicholson developed a numbering system to enable the transposition of Waller’s colours to the original. This transformation produces artefacts and visual knots in the mosaic, and a new iconography of animals starts to emerge, including a lyrebird and thylacine.
Nicholson’s reconstituted mosaic is presented as though it is about to be shipped to its destination. The accompanying videos include acts of personal witness: Nicholson peruses the watercolours made at the time by Sapper Francis McFarlane, which offer a tangible connection to the moment of encounter with the mosaic; while Bedouin activist Nuri el-Okbi shows the local perspective today, offering a view of the modern Israeli city of Beersheba; and then we scan the city to which many of its Palestinian residents were expelled, Gaza.
Comparative monument (Shellal) suggests productive ways of moving forward as a settler colonial society. Rather than presume that reconciliation can be a singular restoration of the past, Nicholson proposes a form of reparation based on a symbolic loss that acknowledges the original deficit.
(1) The centre was founded as a cooperative in 2000, in the wake of the Oslo Accords, by Osama Hamdan upon his return from studying architecture in Turin, Italy. While most of the centre’s work involves restoration funded by Christian churches, it also provides work in women’s prisons.