When Broadsheet sits down to speak with Daniel Boyd, one of Australia’s leading contemporary painters, it’s on a couch beneath a portrait of his grandmother. She has an uncompromising expression on her face, and it’s one of the most penetrating pieces in Boyd’s new exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW – his first major Australian solo exhibition.

“She passed when I was about 10,” he says. “I spent a lot of time with her prior to that. Growing up in Cairns, the family stuck close to each other. Weekends were with extended family. We spent a lot of time at this beach,” he points to an enormous painting he completed in 2020 showing a large family on a beach. It’s a depiction of his brother’s birthday party – both a fond childhood memory and a reminder of the significance of such moments.

Boyd is a Kudjala, Ghungalu, Wangerriburra, Wakka Wakka, Gubbi Gubbi, Kuku Yalanji, Yuggera and Bundjalung man with ni-Vanuatu heritage from his father’s side.

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The exhibition, Daniel Boyd: Treasure Island, showcases more than 80 works from two decades of Boyd’s career, and is named after one of his earliest pieces, completed when he was a 23-year-old student. The work was part of his No Beard series, a satire-heavy reimagining of Australia’s “discovery”, in which Boyd painted eye patches on traditional portraits of colonial “heroes”. By naming his exhibition after the 1883 Robert Louis Stevenson adventure novel, Boyd challenges colonial narratives of Australian history and divests the figures of their power by reframing the colonialists as looting pirates.

“When I think of the idea of power, I think about those paintings of King George III, Sir Joseph Banks and Cook. The word power has many associations,” he says. “What drew me to those images was the power [the men] had in society, and that comes from a particular lens. What I do is try to dismantle that representation through that ethnographic lens and to create a space where they can exist beyond the initial representation of who they were as human beings. That’s how I can add to the conversation about dismantling these stereotypes.”

The works, spread across three rooms, become more granular and personal as the exhibition progresses, exploring the themes of legacy, family, cultural inheritance and survival. Paintings from the No Beards series sit alongside later works, including some inspired by 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement. Since 2009, he’s used an unusual technique, covering his canvases with dots of archival glue before painting them over in black, leaving only the dots as a lens to the forms beneath. (“My use of dots references the idea of the cultural lens and the fact that we all have different points of view,” says Boyd in a statement.)

The final room is by far the most personal, as Boyd works through his sense of identity via family portraits – including the aforementioned image of his grandmother. The final portrait in the exhibition shows a young Boyd with his mother.

“We had a place where many connections could be made,” he says of the painting of his childhood at the beach. “My mother was one of 12. It’s nice to go back there and take my kids from Sydney to Cairns. When they go up to Cairns, there are 50 kids running around. It is a very important thing to have.”

Daniel Boyd: Treasure Island is on at the Art Gallery of NSW until January 29, 2023. Entry is free.