Prepare to rethink everything you thought you knew about pirates

What does The Magic Pudding have in common with pirates? Quite a lot, as it turns out. This week The Art Gallery of Ballarat opened their new exhibition Under The Black Flag, which uses art from their existing collection of more than 11,000 works to tell the story of piracy in a comprehensive and unexpected new way.

A work by contemporary artist Sally Smart on display at Under the Black Flag at The Art Gallery of Ballarat.Credit:Ben Cox

“When we think about pirates, we think about the pirates of the 17th and 18th century – things like Pirates of the Caribbean. But piracy is still a very contemporary issue,” says gallery director Louise Tegart, who curated the exhibition.

The spark of the idea came when Tegart was looking through the gallery’s collection of works by Norman and Lionel Lindsay. The brothers – part of the well-known Lindsay family which is filled with artists and writers – grew up in Creswick, not far from Ballarat, and shared an early fascination with pirates – something which was reflected in their artistic pursuits. Norman would go on to have a long career as an artist, critic and writer, perhaps best known for authoring and illustrating The Magic Pudding, while Lionel became a painter and engraver.

Under the Black Flag at The Art Gallery of Ballarat.Credit:Ben Cox

“Norman continued to come back to the subject of pirates throughout his entire career,” Tegart explains. His earlier works “were really about the romance of pirates,” but over his life his perspective slowly shifted. “Later on it became more about morality and about men’s violence towards each other.”

Once Tegart had a theme the exhibition started to come together, spanning different media and perspectives while also challenging assumptions. There are works by contemporary Australian artist Sally Smart that draw on her research into female pirates, and there’s a ceramic called Pirate Cat that gives a kooky nod to the actual cats that lived on pirate ships, keeping the decks free of rats and thus protecting the food.

First Nations artist Tony Albert’s work focuses on Captain Cook. “It poses the question around whether Captain Cook should be regarded as a pirate,” says Tegart. Albert gathered together plates commemorating the 250th anniversary of Cook’s voyage and sandblasted skull and crossbones over the top, renaming them commiseration plates. “He’s really good at commenting on what Cooke represents to a lot of First Nations people – that he’s a pirate and a thief.”

Under the Black Flag at The Art Gallery of Ballarat.Credit:Ben Cox

Tegart also points to a 1984 work by Daylesford artist Maureen Watts, which depicts people fleeing Vietnam by boat. It’s a work that highlights the thousands of refugees who were lost at sea, “either though their ships sinking or they were attacked by pirates.”

The exhibition looks to both the past and the present, pulling at assumptions and asking deeper questions. “We think about [pirates] being as something in the past … and while it’s expanded to include those things like copyright piracy and plane hijacking, piracy on the sea is still a real issue”.

Even the pirates from the 1700s and 1800s – the ones that pop culture has led us to believe we know quite well – offered up a few surprises for Tegart during the research process, particularly how they ran their ships. “It was absolutely a democratic environment where the pirate captain was the same as the rest of the crew. They shared the treasure equally. That was very interesting.”

The gallery will be running a number of events and activities to complement the exhibition, including a workshop for children to create pirate telescopes, and a storytelling event on International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

“It’s a show that has an appeal for children and for adults that just love the romance and skullduggery of pirates, but there’s a more serious contemporary edge to it as well.”

Under the Black Flag is on at the Art Gallery of Ballarat until January 21.

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