Barry Humphries (1934 – 2023) & Australianess

It is interesting in the commentary on Barry Humphries as a great Australian and a reflection of Australia. I believe this to be true. I also think though that we need to consider his comedic caricatures as reflecting an Australia of the past and that perhaps his legacy is the comedy and artists, performing and otherwise, that have come since. Humphries parodied a predominantly white, conservative Australia based on growing up through the 1940s and 1950s.

The image above was in Barry Humphries – A life in pictures, in the Sydney Morning Herald. Rick Stevens photographers Sir Roden Cutler, Peter Sculthorpe, Margaret Alley, Thomas Keneally and Barry Humphries in front of their Archibald portraits in 1992. The Archibald Prize is a literal exposition of the role Australian artists play in identifying and defining the Australian identity – both who Australians think they are, what is Australian identity and what the rest of the world thinks of Australia and what Australians are like.

Some artists like Sculthorpe and the recently ceased painter John Olsen reflected Australia as its’ landscapes and vistas. Others presented more of the people and culture. Identity was built on history: ex-convict larrikins, bronzed Anzacs and post-war suburbia.

Australia is no longer the place that it was in the 1940s and 1950s. A great diaspora of migrants and refugees have landed on the fatal shores in unstoppable boats and planes. Successively from the homeland Great Britain and Ireland, the Mediterranean, Vietnam and Southeast Asia, the Balkans, the Middle East, China and now Africa and South America. Australia also no longer suffers the tyranny of distance but is part of the global community and even cosmopolitan – removing a great chip on its’ shoulder.

So what has happened to the Australian identity? Well, look at the new-Australian comics that followed Humphries. We’ve had all of these groups impact Australian performing arts and reflect the new identity of Australians in addition to the skips- the Greek fruiterers, wogs out of work, the fat pizzerias, Vietnamese stand-ups, and so on.

And what is common to their Australian identity? Well maybe they are just taking the piss, right mate?

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