World of Dreamings
Traditional and modern art of Australia
An exhibition held at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg | 2 February - 9 April 2000
- Dr Brian Kennedy, Director, National Gallery of Australia
- An introduction to Aboriginal art by Susan Jenkins and Carly Lane
- The Aboriginal Memorial We have survived, by Djon Mundine
- The Aboriginal Memorial 1987-88 A description
- John Mawurndjul The resonating land by Luke Taylor
- All the world The paintings of Nym Bandak by Kim Barber
- 'Who's that bugger who paints like me?' Rover Thomas by Wally Caruana
- The enigma of Emily Kngwarray by Jenny Green
- High art and religious intensity. A brief history of Wik sculpture by Peter Sutton
- Laced flour and tin boxes The art of Fiona Foley by Avril Quaill
- The memory theatre of Tracey Moffat by Gael Newton
The Aboriginal Memorial: We Have Survived
White Australia has a black history.
For the Biennale of Sydney in 1988 - the year in which many Australians celebrated 200 years of European settlement - a group of leading Aboriginal artists from Ramingining in Arnhem Land created a unique work of art; an installation of 200 painted hollow log bone coffins, as a memorial to the Aboriginals who had died defending their country over the previous two centuries. This was not an act of reconciliation, a celebration of an achievement of justice, nor a righting of the wrongs done to us. It was a message that Aboriginal people are not merely surviving but thriving and have come to reclaim and bury their dead.
Since 1788 hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million, Aboriginal people have died at the hands of the British invaders. A war raged along the ever expanding colonial frontier across the continent from 1788 until the early 1900s. In these brutal encounters little distinction appears to have been made between warriors or women, children and the aged, they were all killed; and in many cases their bodies were simply dumped in piles. They were never 'sung over' [ritually mourned] or had other funeral rites performed to put their souls to rest. The surviving populations were then placed on reserves and Christian missions to be 'educated', dispersed, and eventually assimilated into the general Australian population in a form of genocide.
In 1986 while I was living and working at Ramingining, an elder artist, Paddy Dhathangu, brought me several videotapes which had belonged to his recently deceased son. The son and the artist were very close to me. One of the videos was 'The Secret Country' by the Australian documentary journalist John Pilger.
In the introduction to the program, Pilger talked of the decimation of a tribal group who owned land on the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, and who died 'to the last man, woman and child defending their country'. Throughout the land, in every country town, there was an obelisk to those who had died in wars fought by Australians in foreign lands; but nowhere was there a memorial to those first Australians who had died defending their own country. This is when I decided to make an artistic statement that would be a memorial to all my Aboriginal forebears.
All over the Australian continent Aboriginal people have left memorials to their dead. In New South Wales, graves shaped as semi-spherical mounds have been recorded adjacent to trees, the trunks of which are carved with designs similar to the paintings on people's bodies. These represent the identity of the deceased. In the Pukumani burial ceremonies of the Tiwi people, from Bathurst and Melville Islands to the north of Darwin, solid ironwood poles are carved and painted with designs identifying the deceased and his or her clan. The grave is surrounded by several of these poles. Burials in South Australia had the body placed on a platform supported by forked sticks.
In Central and Eastern Arnhem Land one of the many age-old rituals is the Hollow Log or Bone Coffin ceremony. When a person dies, the body is washed, painted with relevant totemic designs, sung over and buried. After a period, which may be years, the Hollow Log or second burial ceremony takes place. This ceremony marks the transition of the soul from this world to the next. In this ceremony, unknown to most Australians, a tree trunk hollowed out naturally by termites, is cleaned and painted like a body with relevant clan designs amidst singing and dancing in a special camp. The bones of the deceased are exhumed, painted with red ochre, and placed in the log. After a series of songs and dances has been completed, the log is carried and danced into the main public camp and stood upright. It is then left to the elements.
Aboriginal people have a special connection with nature and for us the forest is seen as a place of pilgrimage as holy as any temple. The forest is a metaphor for creation. Trees provide food, materials for housing, tools, weapons, and fuel. The English word 'forest' means a cluster of trees, but the root of the term is the Latin foris, meaning outside. That is, the place outside the house and protective fence, full of bears, wolves, and other dangers. The Djambarrpuyngu language of Central Arnhem Land uses the word diltji to describe a cluster of trees - the open eucalyptus bushland. Diltji also means back bone or, more specifically, the back bone of the kangaroo. This is an entirely different interpretation of the forest which Aboriginal people see as the frame that supports all other life.
The Aboriginal Memorial itself represents a forest where each tree symbolically contains the spirit or soul of a deceased person. In essence the forest forms a large cemetery of dead Aboriginal people - a war cemetery - a war memorial to all those Aboriginal people who have died defending their lands, their country since 1788. Two hundred years of white contact and black agony.
Aboriginal art is personal, yet connected to communal events such as initiation, mortuary or exchange ceremonies, where people come together in prescribed collaboration to perform song, dance and make art, through which they reaffirm their relationships to each other. The Australian Bicentenary celebrations of 1988 provided such an occasion. At crucial times all societies reassess their attributes and cherished values. What do we appreciate and what do we celebrate? To many, the coming of the British settlers to Australia in 1788, was seen as a crowning colonial achievement. This official history of Australia was celebrated 150 years later, in 1938, and again in 1988; a view, however, certainly not shared by all Australians. For Aboriginal people this event was hardly something to celebrate, bringing dispossession, deprivation, disempowerment and death.
In 1937, a group of Kooris (Aboriginal people) in Sydney formed the Aborigines' Progressive Association (APA) to fight against discriminatory laws and an official regime of racism. The APA declared a 'Day of Mourning' for the white Australian sesquicentenary celebrations on Australia Day, 26 January 1938. Protests were held on this day and the APA issued a manifesto entitled Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights. The manifesto implored an end to discriminatory legislation in respect of indigenous Australians and the attempted extinction of the Aboriginal race through a series of government policies which were deemed as successful in 'degrading and humiliating and exterminating Old Australia's Aborigines' as were more direct methods employed by some pioneer settlers, such as the provision of poisoned damper (bread) and 'shooting us like dingoes!'
Although the APA did not use visual art in its protest, the manifesto itself recognised the political power of art. It concluded with a section entitled 'Comic Cartoons and Misrepresentation' which condemned the use of cartoons and illustrations in the popular press to promulgate racist, negative and humiliating stereotypes of indigenous peoples.
The Aboriginal Memorial was something rare and beautiful. In 1988 artists David Daymirringu, his son Johnny Dhurrikayu, Paddy Dhathangu and Paddy Fordham Wainburranga travelled to Sydney to consecrate the Memorial in its new setting. The director of the Biennale of Sydney, Nick Waterlow, described the work as 'the single most important piece in the exhibition'.
The Memorial is important to Aboriginal people too. The contributing Ramingining artists received the Aboriginal Artists of the Year award from the National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee. After the Biennale, the Memorial was erected in its permanent home in the National Gallery of Australia in the nation's capital city, Canberra. Daymirringu, and artists George Malibirr and Roy Burrnyila, went to Canberra to consecrate the work again in its new home. In his opening speech, the National Gallery director James Mollison described the Memorial as 'one of the greatest works of art ever to have been made in this country'.
Acknowledgements: Susan Jenkins, Wally Caruana.
'Aborigines Claim Citizen Rights', in J. Miller, Koori: A will to win, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1985.
Biennale of Sydney, From the Southern Cross: A view of world art 1940-1988 (exhibition catalogue), Sydney: ABC Enterprises and the Biennale of Sydney, 1988.
Giles, J.W., 'Native tombs and modes of diposing of their dead', in G.F. Angas, South Australia Illustrated, London: Thomas McLean, 1847.
The Secret Country: The first Australians fight back (video) 1985, produced by John Pilger for Central Independent Television, United Kingdom.