'History is messy': twin art shows that could aid Australia's reconciliation

Duelling exhibitions at the National Gallery of Victoria present art that erases Australia’s ugly history, with Indigenous art that speaks to it

John Glover can’t paint eucalypts. Their branches twist elegantly into the sky, bearing none of the scars, broken branches and sharp angles that mark the trees in real life.

I’m looking at the trees in the artwork to avoid looking below them. There, black figures, depicting Palawa people as Glover imagined they would have lived in Tasmania before the decade-long Black War, are etched out with primitive crudeness. Like many other depictions of Aboriginal people by European artists from this era, they are caricatures more than people.

Glover imagined the scene. The River Nile, Van Diemen’s Land, from Mr Glover’s Farm is dated 1837, five years after the majority of Palawa people had been either killed or driven off their traditional lands in an increasingly bloody conflict that culminated in Lieutenant Governor George Arthur declaring martial law and effectively providing legal immunity for killing Aboriginal people.

It was the deadliest episode in Australia’s often violent and always contested colonial history. There were many others.

John Glover’s The River Nile, Van Diemen’s Land, from Mr Glover’s farm”, 1837.
John Glover’s The River Nile, Van Diemen’s Land, from Mr Glover’s Farm, 1837. Photograph: John Glover/National Gallery of Victoria

The ugly reality of colonial history is habitually erased in reflections on Australian history produced by and for a majority non-Indigenous audience. It’s a habit the National Gallery of Victoria has committed to break.

On Thursday, the largest collection of colonial artworks will go on display on the ground floor of the gallery’s Ian Potter Centre, featuring 640 works from Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. That exhibition, Colony: Australia 1770-1861, is paired with Colony: Frontier Wars, a collection of more than 200 contemporary works largely produced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Frontier Wars is a direct response to colonial structures and history. Three floors above where Glover’s works sit in a room dedicated to the art movement of 19th century Van Diemen’s Land, a huge plywood gramophone by Sydney artist Brook Andrew amplifies a collection of Tasmanian Aboriginal skulls, which were collected and traded as trophies of a people believed to be facing extinction in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The physical distance between the two exhibitions is unfortunate, and can’t help but give the colonial works prominence over their contemporary Aboriginal response. But the NGV makes an admirable and genuine attempt to unite the two – a difficult endeavour that Australia has never mastered.

Julie Dowling, Badimaya woman. “Goodbye white fella religion,” 1992. Held by the NGV, image supplied by the NGV, copyright Julie Dowling and licensed by Viscopy.
Julie Dowling, Badimaya woman. Goodbye white fella religion, 1992. Photograph: National Gallery of Victoria

The swift dismissal of the Indigenous community-led model for constitutional recognition; the absolute refusal of governments to consider changing the date of Australia Day; and the persecution in the rightwing press of Aboriginal woman Tarneen Onus-Williams for telling an Invasion Day rally in Melbourne that she hopes Australia “burns to the ground” speak to Australia’s refusal to reconcile with its own history.

The Australia 1770-1861 section is presented on the back of those debates. As the Uluru Statement calls for a process of truth-telling and prime minister Malcolm Turnbull says Australia should debate its history, not deny it, we could do worse than start with art.

Wurundjeri elder Joy Murphy Wandin, descendant of the celebrated Koorie artist William Barak, whose works feature in Frontier Wars, says the exhibitions are an exercise in truth-telling.

“I think one of the things that has started to heal my heart is the fact that we would be able to see this magnificent exhibition of works from many years ago and to present day, and that it was including both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people,” Murphy Wandin says. “Far too often, in the past, we have been forgotten or we have just been left out.”

Installation view of Colony : Frontier Wars at the National Gallery of Victoria
Installation view of Colony: Frontier Wars at the National Gallery of Victoria Photograph: Eugene Hyland

Victorian arts minister Martin Foley, whose government is in the process of preparing to negotiate a treaty with Aboriginal peoples and has committed to self-determination as a fundamental principle for policies concerning Indigenous Victorians, says he hopes the exhibitions will help inform the cultural and political debate.

The exhibitions, he says, make the case for “reconciliation and for settlement on just terms with Aboriginal Australians”.

“This is an opportunity to learn from our past and to perhaps recast our future,” Foley says.

Murphy Wandin and other elders approved the selection and display of each of the examples of colonial art and Aboriginal cultural materials shown in the exhibition.

Objectively racist works were excluded from consideration, says Indigenous art curator, Myles Russell-Cook.

“There are works out there that I don’t think we would ever want to show again, that I don’t think you would ever need to show again,” he says.

34 pre-contact shields that mark the entrance to the exhibition.
‘An antidote to terra nullius’: 34 pre-contact shields mark the entrance to the exhibition. Photograph: Tom Ross

Australia 1770-1861 begins with a line of 34 pre-contact shields from southeastern Victoria, which Russell-Cook says are “an antidote to terra nullius,” the legal fiction that Australia was not owned and occupied when the Union Jack was planted.

Another fiction, for which art galleries and museums bear responsibility, concerns the provenance of cultural materials produced by and collected or stolen from Aboriginal people, which are usually attributed not to the individual but to “artist unknown.”

In Frontier Wars, a collection of such objects are placed in a midden with the attribution changed from “unknown” to “once known”.

“Collecting institutions played a part in erasing that information,” says Russell-Cook, an Indigenous man from western Victoria. “So it’s a bit about taking ownership over ugly history of these decisions.”

The gesture would be more powerful if it extended to artefacts displayed in Australia 1770-1861, many of which are still labelled “unknown”.

The exhibitions were not intended as a political statement, says Russell-Cook, but they make one anyway.

“All we are doing in Frontier Wars is making a space for Aboriginal people to tell their history their way,” he says. “I think this is quite groundbreaking to be able to have an exhibition that places these two histories together, and that talks about the histories as one. Just acknowledging that it’s not ‘our’ history and ‘their’ history — history is more complicated than that. It’s messy, and sometimes we have to look at the past through contemporary art as the only way that we can make sense of the legacy of inherited trauma that’s experienced by Aboriginal people.”

  • Colony: Australia 1770–1861 is on display from 15 March – 15 July 2018 and Colony: Frontier Wars is on display from 15 March – 2 September 2018 at NGV Australia at Federation Square.