Memorialising the Australian Frontier Wars

By Dinesha Perera
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Representation, Remembrance and the Memorial (RRM) is a visual arts research project examining the possibility of a national memorial to honour the Indigenous peoples of Australia, who endure suffering and violence in the colonial and decolonising states of Australia. The study connects local commemorative efforts with international memorials at trauma sites in South Africa, Germany, Mauritius, Cambodia and the United States. An exhibition at Monash Art Design and Architecture (MADA) gallery was one of the several outcomes of this project.

The project is led by Brook Andrew, a Wurundjeri/Celtic multidisciplinary artist who examines dominant narratives primarily relating to colonial histories. His work aims to highlight stories on the margins and to provide alternative interpretations of prevailing historical narratives. On the website outlining this project Andrew invokes the well-known phrases of anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner in constructing his rationale. He notes that the “The Great Australian Silence” and “the cult of forgetfulness” continue to operate around public memory of the Australian frontier wars.

While Andrew acknowledges the importance of local grassroots memorial acts, he argues that these efforts require visibility at an institutional level in order for Australia to participate in an international act of remembering state violence and genocide.

While Andrew acknowledges the importance of local grassroots memorial acts, he argues that these efforts require visibility at an institutional level in order for Australia to participate in an international act of remembering state violence and genocide. He contends that this is a necessary step towards decolonisation and towards addressing the “unfinished business” of colonial invasion.

Walking into the RRM exhibition at MADA feels like entering a work space, or even a mind map; a long table covered with research files, books, magazines and interview transcripts is the first thing the viewer encounters. In the centre of the table is a computer; I can almost imagine Andrew sitting in front of the screen chewing on a pen. It feels like an open studio; in between public and private, in between the genesis of an idea and its realisation. It is a unique space for a viewer to be privy to.

MADA is a small gallery the size of a large living room, there are ten works on display as well as the archive study table mentioned earlier. The exhibition does not feel curated ­- there are no artists’ statements on the wall, only print outs with basic information strewn about the room. Although the show is small, the content is detailed and substantive. Between the audio-visual material and the written content presented, one could spend a week at the exhibit and still fail to engage thoroughly with all that is on offer.

With so much content and so little direction, for those who are not expert in this area, the exhibition is best viewed in conjunction with the website for the research project. The website acts as a guide making the exhibition more accessible. It provides a summary of relevant information about Australian history and memorials as well as information about the boarder research project.

The most arresting work on display is Judy Watson’s artwork, 40 pairs of blackfellows ears, lawn hill station. The work is indeed a constellation of wax cast ears nailed to the wall. There is no explanatory statement accompanying the work but after some rifling through the archive study area, I learned that Watson’s work, also known as Salt in the Wound 2008, memorialised 40 aboriginal people whose ears were nailed to the wall of a station manager’s hut in the 1880s. This same station manager was also known to have punished an aboriginal man, reportedly for stealing, by impaling his hands on a young tree whittled to a point at the top. This artwork exemplifies one of the several local memorialisation acts explored in the research.

A key piece denoting RRM’s engagement with global memorials was the video, Remembering District Six by Robera Rich. District Six in Cape Town South Africa was a vibrant and diverse community comprising labourers, artisans, freed slaves, merchants and immigrants. In 1966 it was declared a ‘white only area’ under the former Apartheid regime. The 60,000 residents were forcibly removed from the area and their homes bulldozed. Rich’s piece is a video presentation of a memorial event organised by the District Six Museum commemorating 50 years since the forced removal.

The video depicted a sea of people spanning across ages and backgrounds, singing, laughing and crying together as they walked through District Six. Placards were raised, songs were sung, and communal arts practices were engaged in. Temporary monuments were erected marking what once stood in District Six and what could have stood there now should the oppressive events of ’66 never have taken place. Rich’s work demonstrates the kind of mourning, witnessing, and public healing that is possible though memorial acts.

The issues of remembrance and memorialisation raised by the project are particularly relevant in the context of recent Australian political events. On 26 October 2017, the anniversary of Uluru being returned to its traditional owners, the federal government unilaterally rejected the key recommendations made in the Uluru Statement. One of these recommendations was a call for a truth commission, a significant form of political memorialisation. Just a few months later the government made a significant financial commitment to memorialising colonial history.

The RRM project highlights Australia’s failure to memorialise its frontier wars in a way that is comparable to other countries where populations have suffered brutal state violence and genocide.

It announced a dedication of 48.7 million dollars to building a monument of the highly contested national figure Captain Cook and a further 25 million dollars to activities memorialising colonisation at Kamay Botany Bay National park. Yet as the RRM website explains, the frontier wars which killed tens of thousands of aboriginal people (some estimate up to 100,000), have not been adequately memorialised, they are not even acknowledged in the national war memorial.

In taking a global view, the RRM project highlights Australia’s failure to memorialise its frontier wars in a way that is comparable to other countries where populations have suffered brutal state violence and genocide. It also highlights the impact memorials can have on public healing and the importance of Australia contextualising its history globally.

The exhibition generates thought about the connections between the Australian frontier wars and acts of state violence and genocide across the globe. It makes it possible to think of Australia’s institutional efforts at public memory in a different way. The exhibit is best viewed in the context of the larger research project to which it belongs. It is a window into an inquiry of great magnitude and it in itself serves as a form of remembrance of the frontier wars and of sites of mass trauma around the world.

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