Done, however, says we should not look upon Australia Day as a “day of shame”. Rather, there should be a second national holiday to honour Aboriginal history.
“We do, as Australians, always need to pay respect to England, and I don’t see it as a day of shame, I see it as an important day for Australian history,” Done says.
“I don’t think it should be moved but I think there should be another day set aside to celebrate Aboriginal history.”
Done says Aboriginal history should be taught better in schools because most Australians are “quite ignorant” about it.
He describes himself as a great admirer of Aboriginal art, as well as being heavily influenced by European artists such as Matisse and the Fauvism movement. “Every Australian painter has to pay respect to Aboriginal painters,” he says.
Done says he doesn’t “give a f—” about the culture wars that surround Australia Day and his own opinion did not matter. “I don’t know what I’m talking about,” he says. “What artists say is not very important. What they paint is very important – that’s their conversation.”
Done’s paintings are about “his love for this country”, exploring the Australian identity through familiar themes of Sydney Harbour, the beaches, the outback, native wildlife and the Great Barrier Reef.
He shot to prominence in the 1980s with commercial designs that popularised Australiana on the world stage. Ken Done prints were everywhere – on T-shirts, bags, swimsuits and sarongs. They were worn by Princess Diana, sold by Dame Olivia Newton-John’s Koala Blue label in the United States and Done became a bonafide celebrity in Japan. Then came over-exposure and rip-offs. The trend peaked and Done’s designs were consigned to kitsch.
In recent decades, Done has concentrated on painting “purely to please himself”, working from his home studio at Chinaman’s Beach near Mosman or from the Ken Done Art Gallery in The Rocks. His wife and children, who work in the family business, translate some paintings into a limited range of products for the gift shop.
Done was born in Belmore, near Canterbury. “In those days it had paddocks and dairy farms, now it has mosques. The people that have moved into the western suburbs make the whole place very dynamic.”
Done says Sydney is one of the greatest cities in the world and one of the best things is that the beach remains free for everyone.
“It’s not like the south of France, it’s not like you can’t go there,” he says. “You can go and sit in on the beach in front of Scott Farquhar’s $100 million house [in Point Piper] … you can sit in front of my house.”
Done is pleased the lockout laws will be rolled back on January 14 and says if he could change anything else about the city, he would make public transport free and build the cruise ship terminal at Garden Island rather than Botany Bay.
Done made millions through his commercial work – some of which he says should “properly be thought of as design” rather than art – but struggled for a long time to gain respect from the art world for his painting. He says the rise of the younger generation is helping shift perceptions because there is a greater respect for design and people are realising “it’s possible to do two things”.
In November, Done told ABC 7.30 interviewer Tim Ross he hoped to one day paint something good enough to be in the permanent collection at the Art Gallery of NSW. Ross labelled it “a disgrace” he was not there already.
Maud Page, AGNSW deputy director and director of collections, told The Sun-Herald that Done was a “much-loved and admired Sydney artist whose career is hugely successful”.
Ms Page said Done’s work has featured at the gallery several times in the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes and this year he was a finalist in both the Wynne and the Sulman Prizes and it was possible a Done work might join the permanent collection in future. “In the arts, we never say never,” she said.
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer for The Sun-Herald, focusing on social affairs.