McLean, Ian: With secrecy and despatch (review of exhibition)

McLean, Ian

With secrecy and despatch‘, Artlink, April 2016

This is a review of an exhibition (With Secrecy and Despatch, 9 April-12 June) at the Campbelltown Arts Centre on Australian and Canadian contemporary Indigenous art. It also touches on When Silence Falls, an exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on related subject matter.

On the Australian side

the repressed object [the subject of necessary remembrance] is a massacre committed 200 years ago in the nearby Appin Gorge. Under orders of Governor Macquarie, British soldiers and their dogs drove a camp of men, women and children over the sandstone cliffs. Of the fourteen victims found, eleven were quickly and secretly buried on the spot and the other three hung in trees on the highest point, their black bodies swinging silently in the breeze as a warning.

The review goes into the exhibition in detail, noting how the works of individual artists (lots of them, in different styles and media) are weaved into a strong collective presentation about massacres and their aftermaths.

But the concern of the curators [Tess Allas and David Garneau] was not the complex frontier micro-histories of black–white and multiple Indigenous clan relations and allegiances in the area around 1816 that culminated in the massacre, but the symbolic resonances of the massacre narrative today. The truths sought here reach beyond empirical facts to an existential aching borne from intense trauma. The massacre narrative is not just about murder and brutality but also the erasure of sovereignty and identity.

The aftermath of massacres lasts far, far longer than the sending of ‘relics’ to museums (in this case, the severed head of the Gandangara leader Cannabayagal to the University of Edinburgh). Massacres and their depiction also link intricately into the Anzac centenary.

The increasing prominence of the Indigenous massacre genre suggests a growing struggle to wrest national identity from the myth of white Australia that first found voice in the ANZAC memorialisation after the First World War. Whose blood will found the Australian nation: the colonisers or the colonised?

Not for the first time – but not often enough – the importance of two invasions in Australian history is juxtaposed. Is commemoration of the 1915 example always destined to drive out our dealing with the one that began in 1788 and still continues? One of the works in the exhibition, The Aboriginal Memorial (1988), includes 200 mortuary poles, one for each year since the first invasion. ‘Its “conceptual producer”, Djon Mundine, meant to subvert the official discourse commemorating those who died in Australia’s numerous wars – a discourse that forgets the first war that founded this nation.’

Honest History has noted Appin previously, particularly in the writing of Paul Daley and Michael Organ. Other Honest History material on Australia’s First Peoples is here.

David Stephens

 

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