Battle of the Wills, 2016
102 x 75 cm
edition of 30
Tom Wills was an all-round sportsman – a talented cricketer and pioneer footballer. Born (1835) into a wealthy family with convict roots, he grew up on pastoralist properties in Victoria, where as a boy he befriended local Aborigines and learned their language and customs. Educated at The Rugby School in England he excelled in the sporting arena, playing later for the Cambridge University Cricket Club and the Marylebone Cricket Club. Returning to Australia in 1856 he continued his sporting success on and off field, becoming a pioneer in the formation of AFL rules. In 1861 while on an eight month trek into Queensland’s outback with his father, the expedition was attacked by local Aborigines and his father was killed. Wills survived the massacre, returned to Victoria and continued his sporting career. Despite his father’s death at the hands of Aborigines, Wills appears to have resisted the prevailing orthodoxy of homogenising them all into one group. Subsequently he coached the first Aboriginal XI drawn from the Western District of Victoria, speaking to them in their native Djab Wurrung language which he’d learned as a boy. This team played the Melbourne Cricket Club to great acclaim at the MCG in 1866 and in 1868, under the captaincy of Charles Lawrence, toured to England where they played 47 matches with even results (14 wins; 14 losses; 19 draws). In addition to performing on the cricket pitch, team members would also often entertain the crowd with exhibitions of spear and boomerang throwing afterwards. Another entertainment popular with the crowds involved hurling cricket balls at a player armed with a Nulla Nulla which he would skilfully use to deflect the balls.
Wills’ later career was marked by controversy as he challenged the establishment over game rules, the amateur/professional divide and other issues. Psychologically scarred by his father’s death, he descended into alcoholism, eventually suiciding by stabbing himself with scissors. For Hanks, Wills’ story is grist to the mill – a complex man who could recognise the humanity and athletic skill of indigenous Australians and was prepared to challenge existing norms in order to play with them.
In The Battle of the Wills, Hanks reconfigures an 1870 heroic cricketing portrait of Wills by William Handcock. Adapting the portrait convention of including objects which allude to the sitter’s attributes, Hanks incorporates clues to Wills’ lifelong efforts to straddle the cultural divide – on the left is Anglo culture with a background image of Wills as a young footballer in Geelong colours; a Merino ram pointing to Wills’ pastoralist background; a bottle of Victorian stout; and one of Wills’ favourite caps; on the right is Aboriginal culture with an image of one of the XI, Dick-a-Dick, who toured England in 1868 and, as the image attests, excelled at the post-game Nulla Nulla exhibition of dodging cricket balls; and in the foreground an indigenous Brushtail Possum, whose presence alludes to the Aboriginal game Marngrook (possum skin football) claimed by some to be a forerunner to the AFL code. In the centre a conflicted Wills, clutching the fatal scissors, is here portrayed as something more complex than a cricketing hero.
Elin Howe, 2016Enquire Berlin