Drawing from the Bethesda series (Pool) by Trevor Nickolls

Trevor Nickolls

Drawing from the Bethesda series (Pool), 1987, Drawings, drawing in colour pencil and black fibre-tipped pen, 35.1 x 33.3 cm, The National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; Purchased 1988, NGA 88.384, © Copyright Agency; Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2019; Photo: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra / Bridgeman Images

Close Close
Zoom in Zoom in
Zoom out Zoom out

Dreamtime Healing

Commentary by

Trevor Nickolls (1949–2012) created his Bethesda series after suffering a car accident that damaged an eye, his arms, legs, and face. The artist produced a number of works in response to the accident, which were a form of catharsis, and meditation on the vulnerability of the body.

Nickolls was an Aboriginal Australian who grew up in Adelaide. His work reflects a variety of influences, including Aboriginal spirituality, the urban environment, and the Bible, as is the case in the Bethesda series. While Nickolls was not working from a Christian perspective, the story of the pool of Bethesda as a place of healing inspired the name of this group of drawings.

The five Bethesda drawings in the National Gallery of Australia depict a variety of subjects: landscape, trees, seated man, landscape with man playing didgeridoo, and pool. Pool has the most explicit connection to the biblical narrative.

A major theme in Nickolls’s oeuvre is ‘Dreamtime to Machinetime’. This is the artist’s phrase, devised to express the cultural transition that Aboriginal people have made from indigenous ways of life to urban environments. The Bethesda series seem to epitomize a Dreamtime of Nickolls’s own creation, depicting a land without urbanization.

In Aboriginal spirituality, every thing in the world is interconnected. People, animals, plants, land, and sky are all part of a larger reality, created by the Ancestors in Dreamtime. In the face of his brutal encounter with a machine, Nickolls seems to have sought healing in creating his own Dreamtime.

As a source of hydration and cleansing, as well as a place of tranquillity, a pool can be a symbol of healing that transcends individual religious traditions. The biblical Bethesda was a place where the unnamed man was ‘made whole’ through an encounter with Jesus (vv.11, 14, 15). Nickolls’s Bethesda is a Dreamtime place where he too sought to be made whole. As viewers, we can also seek wholeness through contemplating Nickolls’s Bethesda.

 

References

O’Ferrall, Michael (ed.). 1990. 1990 Venice Biennale, Australia: Rover ThomasTrevor Nickolls (Perth: Art Gallery of Western Australia)