Fernando do Campo
Billy Goat Swamp
Relishing in history - between the archive and the field
Originating in New Zealand in the 19th century, acclimatisation societies were voluntary associations that encouraged the introduction of non-native species to colonised countries around the world.1 In Australia, these societies were the foundations of the collections of animals in zoos. Fernando do Campo’s new series of paintings Billy Goat Swamp articulates his joy and discomfort in Sydney animal and plant histories, imbued with narratives of colonisation, migration and movement, and the co-habitation of humans and animals. The artist embraces these complexities in a variety of visual languages in his highly patterned and decorative paintings, which vibrate with rich and often dissonant colour. Do Campo revels in revealing the beauty of these layered stories as the histories of Sydney: his town.
Do Campo’s practice operates with ‘one foot in the field and one foot in the archive’,2 and his previous projects have included birdwatching, research into the history carried by animals, video and performance, often involving ecological communication. The narrative paintings of Billy Goat Swamp are framed through research undertaken during do Campo’s residency at the Mitchell Library of the State Library of NSW. They are also stories gleaned through conversations with librarians, historians and other community members eager to share their knowledge. Important too in do Campo’s process are the experiential acts of looking and walking around key Sydney sites that Billy Goat Swamp is concerned with.
Acclimatisation societies were predicated upon money-making efforts, rather than care for animals or providing an understanding of species and their scientific categorisation to their patrons. This approach follows the ‘Noah’s Ark’ collecting style of early English zoos.3 These societies appealed to the nostalgia of colonists, who sought familiar species as reminders of home, as they attempted to come to terms with their unfamiliar new country,4 which to them appeared barren and unyielding. This ecological imperialism also extended to leisure and recreation, with the aim to “reshape the landscape for pleasure and sport by stocking it with animals and birds that recalled home or could be hunted”.5 Introduced species have a grim history in Australia: for example, the introduction of cane toads to the sugarcane fields of Queensland, and the redfin perch to the Murray River – both adaptable predatory species that have become rampant across the country – have had disastrous results for local native ecologies and biodiversity.
In his paintings, do Campo traces the history of Sydney’s introduced animals across time from the 19th century to the present. He follows the movement of this expanding menagerie from the Royal Botanical Gardens in the Domain (founded 1816), to the Zoological Gardens Moore Park (1884), and then finally to Taronga Zoo, in Mosman (1916). In its time, the Botanic Garden was Sydney’s main zoo and in 1880, housed a monkey enclosure and aviaries on the site that now houses a succulent garden. Do Campo’s painting Succulent garden with companions (Royal Botanical Gardens) is a highly patterned field, with flora and fauna appearing almost collaged, or sitting on top of the landscape, edged in rich red. The artist enters the pictorial space in this work as a companion, a recurring figure from his previous works. Depicted in a vivid rich red perched on a red brick wall, this artist/companion is a bird-like figure that suggests the human as a companion to birds, through strategies of non-verbal ecological communication and listening. In another work, Prickly Pear (my mirror companion), do Campo figures himself through his depiction of the prickly pear, a species whose introduction from Argentina prefigures the artist’s own arrival from Argentina in 1997.
In 1881, the animals were moved from the Botanic Garden to Moore Park on Anzac Parade, where Sydney Girls High School now sits. Formerly named ‘Billy Goat Swamp’, referring to the swamplands of the area, Moore Park still features the bear pits that remain from Moore Park Zoo. The two figures of do Campo’s painting bear pits at Sydney Girls High School are the red outline of a bear alongside a figure of a girl, hat in hand, a student at Sydney Girls High. It is a dreamlike work, the two figures overlapping and melding at points against the background of the bear pit. The intricate floral patterning in the girl’s dress flows out into the ground, the outlined image of the red bear appearing and receding as the two figures exchange prominence in perception. In a temporal shift, the current and previous inhabitants are mapped in together, in a conversation that takes place across one hundred years of time. The paintings themselves bear the visible marks of their own history, of themselves as an object, with a visible layering and push-pull between the background and the foreground, dynamic and ambivalent all at once.
Delving into the archives at the State Library of NSW, do Campo uncovered the wondrous image of Jessie the elephant. In Jessie crossing the Sydney Harbour 1916, he imagines the journey of this much- loved and lucrative attraction at Moore Park, to her larger home at Taronga Zoo. To arrive there, Jessie was walked through the city streets, across the Domain and then down Macquarie Street to a ferry waiting at Bennelong Point. It is at this point of her journey that do Campo depicts this four-tonne elephant on the ferry, travelling across the water of Sydney Harbour to Mosman. Jessie had been purchased from a zoological society in Calcutta, India in 1883, and resided at Moore Park Zoo for some 30 years before moving to her last home at Taronga. Do Campo paints the elephant in a crosshatch style, in a technique invoking fabric, rendering her semi-transparent against the intricate zig zag pattern of the water and the cross-hatched sky. Pattern upon pattern, in translucent colour, the vibrant layers of this paintings oscillate as we consider the preposterous journey of this elephant’s travel through the city and across the water to her new home, and think too of the many journeys she had already made.
Hung together, the paintings in Fernando do Campo’s new series construct a historical narrative that we can move through. The matter-of-fact titles of the works leave our imagination free to wonder about the fantastical pairings of these animals and plants – the owl and the macadamia, the cacti and prickly pear – indexes of migration, and of our place in the story of colonisation. With a palpable joy in the processes of looking and knowing, do Campo enriches our experience of the urban fabric of Sydney. Having activated his discoveries of Sydney’s buried animal and plant histories, in all their complications and layers, he articulates that ‘there is much more’ to share and discover – and for me, I want to see all of it.
Abigail Moncrieff June 2022
1 Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States are the Anglo part of what Alfred Crosby called the “neo-
Europes” and Geoffrey C. Bolton referred to as the “colonies of settlement.” They are countries where Anglo settlers dispossessed and almost exterminated the first peoples and set about creating a “new England.” In Dunlap, Thomas R., 1997, “Remaking the land: Acclimatisation Movement and Anglo Ideas of Nature.” Journal of World History, Volume 8, Number 2, Fall 1997, Published by University of Hawai'i Press. 303.
2 Conversation with the artist, Sydenham, 30th May, 2022.
3 C. F. H. Jenkins, The Noah’s Ark Syndrome (One Hundred Years of Acclimatisation and Zoo Development in
Australia), 1977, Published by The Zoological Gardens Board of Western Australia, p. 3.
4 Harris John, “ Fishes from elsewhere,“ in Humphries, P. & Walker, K., Ecology of Australian Freshwater Fishes (pp. 260), CSIRO, Melbourne, 2013.
5 Harris, p. 260.