The City of Melbourne respectfully acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the land, the Boon Wurrung and Woiwurrung (Wurundjeri) peoples of the Kulin Nation and pays respect to their Elders, past and present.
My exploration of the Melbourne arts scene focused on the colonial history of Australia and its legacy. I was interested in how institutions and artists tackle the extremely painful subject of biological and cultural genocide, land and resource grabbing and the still unresolved marginalisation of the First Nations people. The two complementary exhibitions, curated by a team of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal curators: “Colony: Australia 1770–1861” and “Colony: Frontier Wars” at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Ian Potter Centre offered a brilliant, extensive, and exhaustive look into the history of colonisation of Australia and various responses by contemporary artists.
Exhibits in the historical part consisted mostly of artworks and other artefacts, produced both by the colonised and the colonisers, including the first European image of a kangaroo, the first oil painting produced in the colonies, Captain Cook’s personal maps and notes, and the earliest surviving photographs produced in Australia.
It was deeply ironic that some of the period’s most celebrated artists were in fact convicted forgers, such as Thomas Watling or Joseph Lycett. The very skill that led to their forced journey to Australia, which at the time pretty much equalled being sent to the moon in terms of physical and mental distance, was then their way out of incarceration and towards acclaim and sometimes even wealth, which probably wouldn’t have been possible back home. Items depicting the personal suffering of involuntary convicts further complicated the image of a coloniser along class and power lines.
Some of the most heartbreaking points of the historical exhibition were the cultural artefacts of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, who were systematically murdered and driven to near complete extinction in the XIX century. Also very poignant were the gaps in the display and knowledge, such as the missing information about the origin, the authors and the previous owners of the shields and spears in the first room of the exhibition (as I found out from the exhibition guide, specially arranged spears were often placed at the entrance to colonial courts). The ‘unknown’ plaques set the tone for the rest of the display, as it made one think about what else was missing and whose voices and side of the history was ultimately represented.
Whilst the historical part of the exhibition focused on how colonisation was perceived at the time, but from the colonisers’ perspective, Colony: Frontier Wars was an attempt at balance and showing its impact on the indigenous inhabitants in the works of contemporary artists. Gathering works by indigenous and non-indigenous artists along with anonymous photographic portraits (this time deliberately labelled as ‘once known’ instead of ‘unknown’) and historical cultural objects it was as emotive as the historical part was factual. As I fought back tears myself, I spotted several visitors discreetly drying their eyes whilst looking at conceptually and aesthetically complex works depicting genocide, snatching of children, poverty and other acts of violence, also those committed against the land itself.
Another great work on the subject of history wars I saw was Terror Nullius by art collective Soda_Jerk at ACMI – Australian Centre for the Moving Image. The nearly 1-hour mashup video uses samples of Australian films to re-interpret its history in a radically political and unabashedly feminist and queer way. The result is hypnotic, funny and talks about issues such as LGBT rights, land ownership and Australia’s current draconian immigration system – it definitely undoes the Australian national mythology although many Aussie jokes and references were lost on me, a total stranger. Typically, the artwork’s funder, the Ian Potter Cultural Trust, withdrew its name as a supporter the day before the premiere.
I also checked out exhibitions of Aboriginal artists at Koorie Heritage Trust and ACMI’s permanent exhibition about the history of Australian cinema, which featured the film Ten Canoes – an interesting experiment in collaborative filmmaking.
In terms of local artists – the practice of Megan Evans seemed particularly interesting as it grapples with the impact of colonial history on the descendant of the settlers/colonial family. We connected over shared interests and belief in the political power of art. When we spoke she was showing her work as part of “Squatters and Savages”, a duo show at Benalla Art Gallery, with Ngarigo artist Peter Waples-Crowe, whose work reflects on the representation of Aboriginal people in popular culture. On her website Megan has published an expanded, personal version of acknowledgment of the traditional owners of the land:
To quote a fragment:
That in my adult years
I have arrogantly thought
I knew better,
blind to my white privilege
spoke over my black brothers and sisters.
that my success
is built on the struggle
of dispossessed others.”
These words should be spoken by many towards many, not only in Australia.