Paradoxical purchase: War Memorial acquires APY ‘defence of Country’ painting Kulatangku angakanyini manta munu Tjukurpa

The Australian War Memorial has unveiled a large painting by artists from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands in South Australia. The painting, Kulatangku angakanyini manta munu Tjukurpa (‘Country and Culture will be protected by spears’) hangs in a conspicuous position in the entrance area of the Memorial. (As well as the Memorial’s media release, there were stories in the Canberra Times and on the ABC TV News.)

The painting was commissioned by Memorial Director, Brendan Nelson, late last year. He wanted ‘a work depicting the importance of defence of country to Aboriginal Australians’. APY Executive Board Chairman, Frank Young, spoke of protecting Country being ‘as important today as it was hundreds of years ago’. Update 12 April 2019: a sister artwork unveiled at Defence also alludes to Indigenous defence of country.

The ambivalence evident in the Memorial’s exhibition For Country, for Nation (now travelling through Australia), and its acquisition of massacre paintings by Rover Thomas and Queenie McKenzie, shows again in the Memorial’s media release yesterday. Having quoted Chairman Young about the importance of defending country ‘hundreds of years ago’ the release then has him saying words that echo those of official spokesmen in recent years: ‘Since the Boer War Aboriginal soldiers have fought alongside so many non-Indigenous soldiers, together with one goal: to protect this land’ (emphasis added).

The sentence reflects what seems to be official Memorial wariness about too explicitly equating Indigenous service in uniform (since the Boer War) with Indigenous service ‘not in uniform’, protecting Country between 1788 and 1901. The Memorial’s media release shows how this delicate dance can lead to problems: ‘ “Only four or five generations after the arrival of the First Fleet and all the devastation it would mean for Aboriginal Australia, they denied their Aboriginality to fight and die for the young nation”, said Dr Nelson’ (emphasis added). Suggesting that Indigenous soldiers abandoned their heritage to fight for the Crown seems to cut across the whole idea of ‘defending Country’.

AWM2017_912_1--3-Kulatangku angakanyini manta munu Tjukurpa (Country and Culture will be protected by spears) (artists from the APY Art Centre Collective; acrylic on linen; painted in Nyapari, Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, South Australia, 2017)

The attempts at careful phrasing carry through to the captions next to the painting. Dr Nelson restricts the tally: ‘102,800 Australians are listed on the Roll of Honour [at the Memorial], including First Australians’. Taking account of Indigenous dead from the Frontier Wars would add somewhere between 20 000 (a figure accepted by the Memorial in the caption to the Rover Thomas painting) and perhaps 80 000 (based on the Evans and Ørsted-Jensen estimate of 65 000 in Queensland alone). Then, the captions quote Chairman Young: ‘We want to remember all those people because we know that in other places they went to war, they came back or they got killed fighting for country’ (emphasis added). In other places, not in Australia, not in the APY lands.

To change the metaphor, the Memorial – and Director Nelson – are wrestling with a difficult paradox: despite the outrages committed by settler Australians against Indigenous Australians, Indigenous Australians still donned the King’s uniform and fought for Australia against its external enemies. We might well ask, however, whether this paradox brings out the magnanimity of Indigenous soldiers or, on the other hand, diminishes the original outrages: they were not so bad as to stop Indigenous Australians fighting for the Crown. And, if Indigenous Australians were OK to that extent with what happened, some people might say, doesn’t it let settler Australians off the hook of feeling guilty for all those massacres and poisoned waterholes?

The Memorial’s acquisition of this striking painting is welcome, as is the work’s eye-catching placement. Yet, the Memorial still seems caught between, on the one hand, commemorating and depicting uniformed service and, secondly, recognising the wrongs done to Indigenous Australians. It sidles up to the second by making much of the Indigenous contribution to uniformed service, while hinting that there is an earlier, darker story. (It seems to have backtracked a little from the version presented in For Country, for Nation, where there was a reference to ‘more than 2000 generations’ of warriors, which takes us back well past the Boer War and well past 1788.)

The three questions provoked by For Country, for Nation are still relevant:

  • Can defending Country at home from 1788 only be recognised to the extent that it can be presented as a precursor to uniformed service after 1901?
  • Why should the massacre stories passed down through Indigenous families not be told to the Memorial’s largely white Anglo-Celtic visitors?
  • If the desire to serve, to defend Country, is the same now in 2017 (and since 1901) as it was in colonial times, and is recognised as such, it could reasonably be asked: Why is Indigenous defence of Country in colonial times not commemorated in the same way as Indigenous defence of Country now?

David Stephens

17 November 2017 updated

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