A major exhibition exploring the phenomenon of Ned Kelly, the outlaw, is to open in Australia, where the 19th-century bush ranger is celebrated as a national hero.
But Kelly was no angel and the gap between myth and reality is one of the principal themes of Outlawed!, which opens at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra next week. It examines the role of popular culture in glorifying men and women who, despite their romantic image, were often violent.
While the bush rangers who roamed the Outback in the first century of white settlement exert a strong hold on the Australian imagination, the fascination with people living on the fringes of society is universal. England has Robin Hood, the archetypal outlaw; the US has Jesse James and Billy the Kid; and India has Phoolan Devi, the so-called Bandit Queen.
Outlawed! is the first exhibition that unites such disparate figures from history and legend, together with lesser known ones such as Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary, Salvatore Giuliano, a 20th-century Sicilian separatist, and Hone Heke, a Maori warrior chief who led several uprisings against the British.
All achieved mythical status and, despite their different eras and cultures, shared important characteristics. They were all charismatic but what transformed them from criminals into folk icons was the perception that they were fighting injustice; "the Robin Hood factor", as Graham Seal, the exhibition's academic consultant, calls it. Dr Seal, deputy director of the Australian Folklore Research Unit at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, said: "The folk tradition of the outlaw hero is very strong in most cultures. Once people get outlawed, they know how to behave. You don't harm women, you're gentlemanly, you help the poor. The smarter outlaws have consciously lived up to that tradition."
In some cases, the image of the noble robber is unfounded. While Billy the Kid was idolised by Mexican Americans, there is no historical records to suggest he defended their interests. "He was a Wild West thug who went around killing people as a paid gun," said Dr Seal. "As for your Dick Turpin, he was a rapist."
Even those with a genuine social conscience were ambiguous figures. Kelly, who espoused the cause of poor Irish settlers, also murder- ed policemen.
Popular culture has been crucial to the myth-making process. More than 100 films have been made about Billy the Kid, and Kelly has been immortalised in books, poems and songs, in the paintings of Sidney Nolan, and in films, including this year's Ned Kelly by Gregor Jordan.
The outlaw's ambiguity - his "ability to operate on the boundary between the legal and the illegal, the moral and the immoral" - is part of his appeal, according to Dr Seal.
The exhibition illustrates the similarities between its 26 subjects. These include a talent for self-promotion and untimely deaths. Ishikawa Goemon, a 16th-century Japanese outlaw, was killed in a bath of boiling oil. He subsequently gave his name to a modern Japanese bath, the goemonburo.Reuse content