Australian War Memorial frames its own view of Indigenous Australians’ fighting past

Why did the Australian War Memorial spend $366 000 on a painting depicting a massacre of Indigenous Australians by white settlers (when it refuses to commemorate the Frontier Wars)?

The Australian War Memorial has acquired and unveiled the 1985 painting Ruby Plains Massacre 1, by renowned Kukatja/Wangkajunga artist Rover Thomas (Joolama) who died in 1998. The painting is one of a series done by Rover Thomas depicting the Ruby Plains massacre (or massacres) in the early twentieth century near Halls Creek in the Kimberley area of Western Australia, where Indigenous Australians were killed in reprisal for the loss of cattle.

Discussing the painting, War Memorial Director, Brendan Nelson, says it should cause us to ask why Indigenous Australians wanted to fight for a country which had done such things to them. Gundungurra man, RAAF Squadron Leader Gary Oakley, responded that Indigenous Australians fought to protect country. ‘If we can get people thinking about why they were fighting for a nation that didn’t treat them as human beings, one that would kill them out of hand … and that all comes back to love of country.’ See also the Memorial’s media release.

The explanatory panel next to the painting takes the same line:

The Ruby Plains Station massacre and many similar violent, tragic confrontations in the course of Indigenous dispossession are estimated to have resulted in the deaths of 20,000 Indigenous people through the 19th and early 20th centuries. That Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders volunteered to fight for the young nation which had taken so much from them speaks to their extraordinary resilience and urge to serve Australia.

The painting is hanging in the Memorial’s For Country, for Nation exhibition, which celebrates Indigenous service in uniform since the Boer War. The exhibition will go on tour in September. Dr Nelson said ‘it was important for all Australians to have an understanding of the place the Indigenous people had in Australia’s military history’. Honest History will post a review of the exhibition shortly; the review will look further at how we frame Indigenous Australians who fight. (Now posted.)

Ruby Plains Massacre 1 had been sold at auction on 19 October 2016 on behalf of the Luczo family of the United States and went for $366 000. (Story of the auction.) It was once owned by the Holmes à Court family. The auctioneer has confirmed that the Memorial was the successful bidder. The painting’s previous sale in 2007 was for $360 000.

3 March 2017 updated

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