Tom Nicholson: Public Meeting Exhibition Kit

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The exhibition contains ten artworks that are interconnected and demonstrate Nicholson’s diverse material approach to art practice, using a combination of text, sculpture, audio-visual, photography, installation, performance and social or political activism. A current concern in Nicholson’s work is to question the fixed nature of public monuments, to present ways of reconfiguring histories to give voice to others and their perspectives, and to allow acts of imagination, solidarity and justice.

Tom Nicholson: Public Meeting is the first exhibition to survey the practice of influential Australian artist Tom Nicholson, providing an opportunity to encounter artworks that have emerged from time the artist has spent looking, listening, drawing and researching over the past twenty years. Nicholson draws upon personal experience and understandings gathered from conversations with other artists, thinkers and community leaders to reimagine historical events that have taken place within Australia and in other parts of the world. His practice is concerned with the intersection of national and international, Indigenous and colonial narratives and histories.

About the artist

Tom Nicholson is a Melbourne-based artist whose practice varies materially and conceptually. Initially drawn to the material lightness of drawing, Nicholson trained in this medium at university and continues to regard it as an important creative means for imagining forms not yet realised. When creating his artworks, he spends long periods of time listening to the stories of others, researching and delving into archival materials, visiting places, walking and drawing as a way of connecting his ideas and thoughts to wider stories and histories. A key component of Nicholson’s practice is his iterative and speculative approach to artmaking, meaning artworks evolve and shift over time and present new propositions. His artworks are deeply connected to place, and depending on where the artwork is shown, the artist responds to and engages the people that belong to those places.

Nicholson’s work has been exhibited widely in Australia and internationally. The scope of his practice can be explored on the artist’s website. He is a Senior Lecturer at Monash Art Design and Architecture, Monash University, Melbourne, and is represented by Milani Gallery, Brisbane.

Tom Nicholson standing in the installation Evening shadows 2012. Parallel Collisions, the 2012 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. Image:

Key Artworks

Tom Nicholson, After action for another library 1999–2001/2019 (detail), installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Courtesy the artist and Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Photograph: Christian Capurro

After action for another library


After action for another library is an early artwork by Nicholson. In 1999, when Nicholson was at university, he joined a volunteer group called Students for East Timor. Their mission was to work together to help the East Timorese, who were experiencing violence and repression as a result of their vote for independence from Indonesia. Nicholson was motivated by the empathy he felt for the experiences of the East Timorese and wanted to do something practical to help them. During the conflict, many libraries and private book collections had been burned to ashes. In response, Nicholson and the group organised for donations of books from Australian bookstores, libraries, and individuals to be sent to Dili. A huge variety of books were donated and now form part of the National University Library of East Timor.

This event generated the artist’s idea for After action for another library. Nicholson created this artwork by photographing the title pages of over three thousand of the books, as a visual record of the action. Printed large scale, the viewer can see a selection of title pages paired together like a series of open books. Nicholson often appropriates the work of other writers and artists to incorporate within his own. In this particular artwork he has chosen to use texts which evoke particular ideas about society and how people relate to one another. The selection begins with a title page of Ernest Hemingway’s novel For whom the bell tolls, featuring John Donne’s poem No Man is an Island. In his art practice Nicholson frequently uses written language in place of images. One idea the artist is interested in is ekphrasis, which is an ancient Greek term that describes how language can be used to conjure images in the mind of the reader. By presenting these books this way, with the actual stories hidden, the artist allows the viewer to imagine the characters, stories and experiences for themselves.

Discussion questions

  • Why do you think the artist has chosen to make this artwork using books?
  • Discuss the first line, ‘No man is an island’. What could this mean?
  • How does Donne’s poem enrich the meaning of Nicholson’s artwork, made about sending books to East Timor?
Tom Nicholson, Public Meeting 2019, installation view, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. Photograph: Christian Capurro  

Evening shadows


Nicholson’s ideas are often triggered by chance encounters, events and conversations, which begin the artist’s long lines of inquiry. His artworks are richly layered and connected by different parts, materially and conceptually, bringing events from the past into present day, to pose new questions and to propose actions for the future. Evening shadows 2011–12/2019 is an iterative artwork that was first presented at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2012. It evolved from an encounter Nicholson had with an Australian landscape painting, Evening shadows, backwater of the Murray, South Australia 1880, by H.J. Johnstone – the first work acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia and the most copied painting in Australia. The colonial painting depicts an Aboriginal woman crossing a river at twilight to a camp on the other side and could be read as an allegory for the diminishing presence of Indigenous peoples in Australia.

When Nicholson first encountered this artwork, he reimagined the subject matter in relation to the historic event known as the Cummeragunja Walk Off of 1939, in which 200 Yorta Yorta men and women crossed the Murray River from New South Wales into Victoria in protest against their treatment at the Aboriginal reserve. Nicholson’s installation contains 21 copied paintings collected from a call out to residents in Adelaide who had one in their belongings, the original H.J. Johnstone painting, a drawing by the artist, and series of videos, one of which is filmed by Uncle Wayne Atkinson recording the 1988 ‘Walk On’, a gathering commemorating 100 years since the establishment of Cummeragunja. Marking the event is a stack of 10,000 posters, to be displayed by people, as a call to a future action. The artwork draws attention to this important event, which may not be widely known, and imagines new meanings for the painting to reflect anti-colonial resistance and sovereignty of the Yorta Yorta men and women in 1989.

Discussion questions

  • How are the different parts of this installation connected?
  • Are the copied Evening Shadows paintings all the same? What differences can you notice?
  • Why do you think Nicholson has created an artwork about historical events? What is his intention?

Towards a monument to Batman’s Treaty 2013-19

Buried chimney (Towards a monument to Batman’s Treaty) 2019

Nicholson is interested in challenging how histories are told and inherited, particularly in his hometown of Melbourne. The artist undertakes acts of drawing, listening and walking as a means to understand others’ perspectives. Nicholson’s most recent artistic concerns surround the static nature of public monuments, and their vertical, authoritative presence in our landscape. By interrogating the histories recognised in monuments, the artist presents speculative artworks that seek to present alternative narratives and possibilities.

Over the past decade, Nicholson has been working on an artwork that is not yet fully realised. Towards a monument to Batman’s Treaty 2013-19 is an installation that includes a large mound of 3520 bricks and a series of plaques written by the artist that refer to a strange part of Australia’s history – that Melbourne’s first European chimney was built by convict William Buckley for coloniser John Batman. The texts on the plaques are the artist’s reflections on the contradictory meanings of Batman’s Treaty, that Batman claimed he signed with Wurundjeri people in 1835 to acquire land for a settlement which became the city of Melbourne.  A second element to this artwork involves a public call out to over 3520 people to pick up and carry a brick from ACCA through an area of Melbourne to Batman Park next to the Yarra River. This participatory artwork relies on the involvement of citizens and a collective action to reimagine the future of Melbourne together against a complex and contested backdrop of Treaty in Australia. Carrying a heavy brick in hand might evoke thoughts about place and Australia’s heavy colonial and Indigenous histories. The bricks will form a mound at Batman Park – a collapsed monument – to propose a new public artwork that recognises the voices of others not always present in these histories.

Discussion questions

  • How does a monument assert authority?
  • What is the significance of the brick in this artwork?
  • How do you imagine this artwork fully realised?

For Teachers

Primary activities


This activity can be conducted in the gallery or in the classroom. In pairs students sit back-to-back. One describes an artwork that only they can see, to communicate the artwork as much as possible and to vividly ‘bring it to life’ by describing all of the most significant qualities and details they can find. The listening student makes a drawing to try to capture as an image what is being described. After five minutes students switch roles. This activity can also be adapted to relate to past experiences by asking students to describe a memory, rather than an object or image. This variation is designed as an opportunity for students to learn about and develop empathy for others’ experiences.

Activity 2

This activity is designed to allow students to see how others process and translate information differently or similarly to themselves. One student is to describe an artwork that they and the rest of the class can see. A second student who cannot see the artwork is selected to make a drawing from the description given while the class also watches them. It is intended that the observing group will pick up strategies for description (describing the artwork) and translation (expressing that description in an image) that will complement their own and also ways of translating words into images that might expand their own repertoire.

Australian Curriculum / Visual Arts / Years F-6

Exploring ideas and improvising with ways to represent ideas (ACAVAM106, ACAVAM110ACAVAM114)
Responding to and interpreting artworks (ACAVAR109, ACAVAR113, ACAVAR117)

Victorian Curriculum / Visual Arts / Levels F-6

Explore and Express Ideas (VCAVAE025, VCAVAE021, VCAVAE029)
Respond and Interpret (VCAVAR024, VCAVAR028, VCAVAR032)



Curriculum Interpretation

These activities are inspired by Nicholson’s use of evocative texts in his artwork After action for another library. The activities are intended to build and strengthen students’ ability to translate their experiences into language and to interpret the language and experiences of others to inspire ideas for imaginative artworks.

By undertaking these activities, students:

  • explore language and text as an art element
  • look to others’ experiences as inspiration and reason for making art
  • explore the interconnectedness of all peoples through empathetic thinking, listening and observation
  • develop language and vocabulary to describe artworks and experiences
  • use expressive and descriptive vocabulary to externalise their perception of an artwork or memory of an experience

Secondary activities

Activity 1

This activity can be conducted in the gallery or classroom. As a class on a large piece of paper, share and map out key Australian stories and histories known to individuals in the group. This should generate discussion and sharing about these histories, and maybe even some debate. List specific histories and stories, and then map out how the students found out about these. Was is from school, books, family, media or other? This should generate a discussion about how stories are told, inherited and shared.

Activity 2

This activity is designed to expand students’ understanding of monuments and dominant stories told in Australian society. Reflecting on how Nicholson works at the intersection of Indigenous and colonial narratives, dedicate a lesson to the question: What kind of a monument could reflect Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian society together, today and into the future? In small groups, students could think about the significance of the place where they belong, and generate an idea for an image, object, or combination of both. Their idea for a monument and detail through drawing what it would look like. This could be extended to a unit of work or collaborative public artwork at school.

Australian Curriculum / Visual Arts / Years 7-10

Responding to and interpreting artworks (ACAVAR124, ACAVAR131)
Structuring and organising ideas into form (ACAVAM121, ACAVAM128)

Victorian Curriculum / Visual Arts / Levels 7-10

Respond and Interpret (VCAVAR038, VCAVAR045)
Visual Arts Practices (VCAVAV036, VCAVAV043)



Curriculum Interpretation

These activities are intended to get students thinking critically and creatively about how ideas and concepts are expressed through the artworks of artists and their own. They will explore different forms of expression and representations of ideas.

By undertaking these activities, students:

  • share personal stories and connect to others’ experiences and perspectives
  • analyse various ideas and viewpoints in artworks
  • conceptualise, plan and develop artworks collaboratively
  • present and refine concepts and ideas for artworks

Terms of Use

This education resource has been produced by ACCA Education to provide information and classroom support material for education visits to the exhibition Tom Nicholson: Public Meeting. The reproduction and communication of this resource is permitted for educational purposes only.

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