From the ‘unknown’ to ‘once-known’: National Gallery of Victoria’s Colony. A Review.
The National Gallery of Victoria’s ambitious two-part exhibition Colony: Australia 1770–1861 and Colony: Frontier Wars and it is accompanying publication – open up space for the ongoing conversations about the contested histories of Australia’s colonial past. It brings home the ‘unfinished business’ of coming to terms with elisions of one kind or another in narrative preference: the space in-between discovery and invasion, loss and restoration, settling and unsettling.
On the first floor, Colony: Australia 1770–1861 presents an impressive survey of over 600 materials – artistic, cultural and ethnographic –charting the period between 1770, when James Cook and his crew reached the east coast of Australia, and 1861, when the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) was founded on the ancestral lands of the Kulin Nation in Narmm/Melbourne. Upon first entering the exhibition space, one is presented with a massed display of shields, shaped by the hands of the Traditional Owners of southeast Australia. The distinctive worn wood, intricately carved markings and earthy pigments serve as a reminder of the resilience of Aboriginal peoples, whom in the face of enduring colonisation and dispossession, continue to shine light on the inscription of white history upon their Country, culture and community. As the leading curatorial team, Cathy Leahy, Judith Ryan, and Susan Van Wyk note: ‘These visible totemic expressions of Aboriginal Culture, both evanescent and lasting and intrinsically connected with song and dance, reference different permutations of inherited visual languages that encode specificities of place, identity, cosmology and law.’[i] The strategic curatorial decision to display the shields before audience members are exposed to impressions and interpretations of the voyaging Europeans sets Australia’s founding myth of Terra Nullius into perspective. This always was, and always will be Aboriginal land.
With the dates and locations imprinted on the walls of Colony: Australia 1770–1861, audience members are chronologically presented with a picture of what happened when Aboriginal songlines encountered white cartography. Offering insight into the European ways of seeing – the collection of topographical sketches, landscape paintings, engravings and etchings – highlight how European ethnographers and artists attempted to cast this unfamiliar and antipodal world into the pictorial conventions of their time. While the visual representations may have, at the time, been interpreted as faithful records of plants, animals, landscapes and encounters with Indigenous peoples, in retrospect it is clear that these visualisations are but self-conscious etchings of the social and natural worlds of Europe onto this invaded land. Iconic native plants and animals stand detached from their geographical-environmental settings and ecological and cultural functions, topographical and picturesque modes of landscape painting reflect romanticized envisioning of new white futures, and Aboriginal bodies are morphed by classicized representation with conventional muscular proportions and Europeanised faces.[ii] What emerges walking around the panorama landscapes and depictions of First Peoples’ cultures and customs is thus a heightened sensitivity to the grave consequences of misrepresentation. A realisation of how visual embellishment and distortions employed by settlers to match philosophical understandings and evolving political commissions, consequently served as strategic tools for colonialism’s project of conquest, extermination, expansion and assimilation.
Due to the sheer quantity of materials displayed in Colony: Australia 1770–1861, it is easy to be overcome with ‘museum fatigue:’ when that initial determination to examine every featured piece with gusto, gives way to a feeling of ocular overload and a desire for caffeine, sugar and natural light. Yet unlike past experiences, this museum fatigue carries a different weight. As a non-Indigenous migrant (un)settler,[iii] aware that they are living on stolen land, it is not just a case of heavy eyelids, but also the carrying of a heavy heart: a critical reminder of the immeasurable loss experienced by Aboriginal peoples and their descendants throughout Australia. Country trampled by the hooves of imported livestock and imposed customs, biocosmic memories disinvested of spirit, the subordination of many traditions and languages to one, ways of being and belonging divided by boundary lines and layered over with bitumen, linear time and perspectival landscapes disrupting haptic connections. What stories and songlines lie underneath the ground on which the NGV stands? This cultural devastation and misrecognition of Aboriginal knowledge systems is a loss for all.
In the stairwell that leads up to the level three Indigenous Gallery space – connecting the transitional space between Colony: Australia 1770–1861 and Colony: Frontier Wars – stands the luminous light boxes of Wiradjuri/ Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones, dedicated to Wurundjeri Nugurungaeta (leader) William Barak (c.1838-1901). As one of the earliest artists to memorialise cultural practices and record the social experience of colonisation, Barak’s cross-cultural drawings – featured in both exhibitions – have left an authoritative record of Wurundjeri ceremony and experience. Barak was artist of renown, a heroic man, a cultural warrior, who became an important informant on Wurundjeri cultural lore and an influential spokesperson for the rights of his people living at Coranderrk Aboriginal Station.[iv] Offering a glowing tribute to Barak’s community-engaged role as cultural ambassador and advocator, devoted father, and insightful and gifted artist, the wall text notes that for Jones, ‘the multiple elements of the installation reflect on the different aspects of Barak’s life… brought together by the use of light.’ Jones highlights that ‘Barak created a new space to live within; a space and an example which we continue to aspire to for future generations.’
Colony: Frontier Wars offers insight into this new space that Jones speaks of: a space where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists are singing songs of survival – connecting the fallen ancestor, the current survivor, and the future descendant in a ceremony of mourning and a celebration of Aboriginal endurance. Painting, weaving, sculpting, photographing, creating beyond the silence meted out by trauma, this creative work represents a decolonial project of ‘unsettling the past’ and disrupting the colonial meta-narrative. For the featured Aboriginal artists like Brook Andrew, Maree Clarke, Julie Gough, Yvonne Koolmatrie, Michael Cook, Christian Thompson and James Tylor (Possum), the sharing of lived experiences and embodied cultural reclamations also stand as a strategy that counters the history of erasure and misrepresentation, foregrounding re-memory and resistance.
Instead of offering a linear timeline in the exhibition space, Colony: Frontier Wars guides audience members viewing experience thematically – with First People’s artistic challenges to accounts of dominant Australian historical narratives – framed by the imprinted titles: ‘Terra Nullius,’ ‘Stolen,’ ‘Lament,’ ‘Absence,’ ‘Presence’ and ‘Desecration.’ Moving through the front rooms, in contrast to deadened energy of Colony: Australia 1770–1861, the spaces of Colony: Frontier Wars are alive, revived by vibrant colour, impressively scaled paintings and photographs and the simultaneously haunting and beautiful sounds emanating from video pieces. The resonances of Wurrong/Gunditjmara descendant Yaraan Bundle, dancing and singing, resound from Worimi filmmaker Genevieve Grieves’ 2015 video piece Lament, powerfully transforming one’s viewing experience, and breathing new life into the photographic works that hang on the walls beside it. Rectifying First Peoples experiences of frontier violence, wilfully forgotten in colonial memorialisation, Lament sees Yaraan Bundle dancing in one of the oldest colonial buildings in the nation – defying historical absence with an inspiring presence. As Grieves attests, ‘it is through the recognition of what has gone before – however difficult this journey may be – that we can mourn, heal and find some peace within and between our selves.’
By setting the extensive survey of colonial art and materials in conversation with the diverse and vibrant historical and contemporary perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists – the complementary exhibitions and their related texts inspire a reconsideration of the myths that make up Australia’s dominant national narratives. It shines new light on how the inscription of white history upon this continent enacted a history of erasure, with once-know artists of shields, woven baskets and emu-feathered skirts becoming the ‘Artist Unknown.’ Thus while bearing witness to the legacy of loss, these exhibitions also celebrate Aboriginal resistance and the resilience of culture and community, with the Artists Unknown becoming re-contextualized and their stories revived. The art practice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is successfully eliding contests over the meaning of the past to transform the meaning of the present and ways of taking the past forward.
[i] Cathy Leahy, Judith Ryan, and Susan van Wyk, ‘Colony,’ in Colony: Australia 1770-1861/ Frontier Wars (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2018), 15.
[ii] David Hansen, ‘”Another Man’s Understanding”: Settler Images of Aboriginal People,’ in Colony: Colony: Australia 1770-1861/ Frontier Wars (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2018), 110.
[iii] The use of term migrant (un)settler refers to, and acknowledges, the complicity of migrants in the ongoing processes of dispossession and eschewal of Indigenous sovereignty. Fleeing war, my family relocated to Australia and made out of stolen Indigenous land their new home and source of capital, thus un-settled Indigenous sovereignty. Yorta Yorta curator and scholar Kimberley Moulton has also called upon the use of (un) ahead of settlement in her writing about the unsettling processes associated with the colonisation of Narmm/Melbourne. See Kimberley Moulton, ‘Robert Downing,’ in Colony: Australia 1770-1861/ Frontier Wars (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2018), 122.
[iv] Judith Ryan, ‘Bearing Witness,’ in Colony: Australia 1770-1861/ Frontier Wars (Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2018), 299.