Melbourne based artist Richard Lewer was born in New Zealand in 1970. His practice includes a wide range of media including painting, drawing, animation, sculpture and performance. Lewer describes himself as a social realist, motivated by a desire to tell challenging stories about the times in which we live. These stories often deal with human suffering, pain, desperation and bring uncomfortable truths about Australian history to the fore.

The History of Australia, 2018 is a nine-panel work of art, painted on steel, copper and brass. It explores a national narrative. Travelling through time this work references moments in Australian history including pre- colonisation, the First Fleet, war, the Great Depression, the gold rushes, bush rangers, Black Friday bush fires, the Stolen Generation, asylum seekers and the Cronulla riots.

While each panel depicts imagery suggestive of specific moments that have shaped Australia, collectively the work explores broader concepts of encounters, conflict and unrest. Lewer sees this work as an educational tool, encouraging viewers to question the history of Australia and explore who we are as a nation.

Australian Curriculum Connections - Year 4 History

  • Stories of the First Fleet, including reasons for the journey, who travelled to Australia, and their experiences following arrival (ACHASSK085)
  • The nature of contact between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and others, for example, the Macassans and the Europeans, and the effects of these interactions on, for example, people and environments (ACHASSK086)

Australian Curriculum Connections - Year 5 History

  • The nature of convict or colonial presence, including the factors that influenced patterns of development, aspects of the daily life of the inhabitants (including Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islander Peoples) and how the environment changed (ACHASSK107)

Australian Curriculum Connections - Year 6 History

  • Stories of groups of people who migrated to Australia since Federation (including from ONE country of the Asia region) and reasons they migrated Elaboration - Comparing push and pull factors that have contributed to people migrating to Australia (for example, economic migrants and political refugees) from a range of places. (ACHASSK136).
  • Brainstorm what it means to be Australian. Make a list of things which are iconic to Australia. What features in Lewer’s painting are typically Australian?
  • Label each panel with a different word you think best summarises what you see. Write your nine words in a single line. Share your words with the class.
  • Identify the major events in each of Lewer’s panels. Research one of these significant events. What changes occurred during this time? How did these changes impact people, including Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people and the natural environment?
  • ‘Australia’ is just over 200 years old but scientific evidence tells us that Aboriginal people have been here for at least 50,000 years. Why do you think the majority of events depicted in The History of Australia are from the last 200 years?
  • While Lewer has considered Australia’s history, politics, culture and people, Australia’s story is ongoing. Create a tenth panel to
    The History of Australia. What event would you include next that you think has shaped Australia? Informed by a specific event, what broad issues will you represent?

Create your own visual history of Australia. What significant moments will you choose to include, which will you leave out and why? After hearing from other members of your class, reconsider your choice.

Lewer was born in New Zealand but migrated to Australia, so he sees Australia as a great place for people to make a new life. Lewer’s painting suggests how diverse Australia is. Investigate a person you know who is from another place. Create a visual story about this person’s life in a chronological order.

More work by Richard Lewer

In 2016, Richard Lewer's work The rotting bodies of men drowning in mud, the sweet stench of our death, my life is given, was featured in Sappers & Shrapnel. This was a contemporary art project inspired by the little-known and undervalued art form known as trench art. This term describes the objects made from the waste of warfare – objects crafted by soldiers, civilians and prisoners of war. Whether intended as trophies of war, souvenirs for those at home, or talismans for the battle ahead, trench art is an expression of our ineffable need to make art.

Although this work of art is not in AGSA's collection, you can listen to an artist talk with Lewer below. The exhibition Sappers & Shrapnel and the artists featured in the show may also provide you with other sources to discuss Australian History with your students.

installation view: Sappers and Shrapnel: Contemporary art and the art of the treches featuring The rotting bodies of men drowning in mud, the sweet stench of our death, my life is given by Richard Lewer, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; photo: Saul Steed.