History Wars

Ryan Presley: Infinite Dollar Note—Dundalli Commemorative, 2017, watercolor on paper, approx. 34 by 50 inches, from “Blood Money” series. Courtesy University of Queensland.


NEARLY EVERY public event in Australia begins with an “Acknowledgement of Country.” This involves some variation on the following statement: “We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognize their continuing connection to land, water, and community. We pay respect to Elders past, present, and emerging.”

Lurking behind this benign-sounding pronouncement is a horrific history of displacement, genocide, and forced assimilation of the country’s Indigenous people. An active Aboriginal rights movement has spawned gestures like this ritual acknowledgment as well as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s famous 2008 “apology speech,” in which he expressed official regret for a decades-long policy of removing Aboriginal children from their homes in order to integrate them into white society. In what has been characterized as Australia’s “history wars,” the rights movement spurred a backlash from white Australians who resent the culpability implied by such token gestures and who prefer to focus on the grit and independence of the settlers in this penal colony turned prosperous country. This has led to a standoff between the so-called “black armband” and “white blindfold” versions of history, as historians, politicians, and writers spar over the facts surrounding colonial treatment of the continent’s native inhabitants.

The contested status of Australian Aborigines has deep roots. It reflects the fact that the nation’s Indigenous people (who include not only Aborigines but also Torres Strait Islanders of Melanesian origins with their own traditions) have long been considered aliens in their own country. Australian Aborigines did not receive the right to vote until 1962 and were first counted in the national census in 1967. Last October, a proposed referendum on giving Indigenous people a dedicated voice in parliament was turned down by the current prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, as not being “desirable or capable of winning acceptance.”1

All of which explains the deliberate irony behind Richard Bell’s Embassy project. An Aboriginal artist and provocateur, Bell first conceived the work in 2013. Since then, he has put up tents for pop-up embassies in Moscow, Amsterdam, Jakarta, Jerusalem, and New York, as well as cities around Australia. His roving Embassy provides a platform for art, films, workshops, and discussions on local and global issues of citizenship, identity, and activism. The piece pays homage to the Tent Embassy erected by Aboriginal activists on the lawn of Australia’s Parliament House in 1972. It continues to travel. Bell plans to situate the embassy on a boat floating in a canal as a guerilla action at the 2019 Venice Biennale.

Why should natives need an embassy? Bell’s project illuminates the continuing repercussions of Australia’s now discredited policy of terra nullius. According to this principle, which held sway until it was legally overturned in 1992, Australia was empty land when the first British colonizers arrived in 1788. The natives were perceived as nomads who didn’t work the land, and thus had no claim to ownership under a British legal system that based land rights on agricultural activity. As a result, in 1827 explorer Edmund Lockyer was able to claim the whole continent for the British Crown. For much of the next two centuries Australian Aborigines were treated as interlopers in their native land without even the false promises of sovereignty held out to Native Americans.

Bell started out as a social worker. He became involved in the Aboriginal rights movement in his twenties and began to make art when he was thirty-four. Over the last three decades, he has produced numerous installations, paintings, performances, and actions that address inequality with keen wit and satire. He has appropriated and adapted paintings by Roy Lichtenstein; in The Peckin’ Order (2007), a grimacing blonde with black dots coloring her face says THANK CHRIST I’M NOT ABORIGINAL, while in Masterpiece (2003), a blond beauty tells an artist suspiciously named Richard that SOON EVEN AUSTRALIANS WILL BE CLAMORING FOR YOUR WORK. Bell has also created sardonic videos. In Uz vs. Them (2006), he engages in a boxing match with an “Angry White Dude” and in Scratch an Aussie (2008), he masquerades as a black Freud who psychoanalyzes racist white Australians.

All of these are visualizations of a set of propositions the artist has dubbed Bell’s Theorem. The first, articulated in 2002, is ABORIGINAL ART / IT’S A WHITE THING. This stems from Bell’s assertion that aboriginality is a projection laid on Indigenous Australians by white colonizers in order to keep them separate and unequal. The corollary to this proposition is AUSTRALIAN ART: IT’S AN ABORIGINAL THING. This reflects the fact that outsiders are attracted to the exoticism of Australian Aboriginal art and pay little attention to the work of non-Aboriginal Australians. Together these axioms address the peculiar international status of Australian Aboriginal art: the commodification of traditional desert bark and sand paintings has created an enormous market for these beautiful abstractions, removing them from their ritual context. At the same time this international focus on tribal art effectively marginalizes and de-authenticates the work and experiences of so-called Urban Aborigines like Bell who employ a postmodern language.

Other dicta, reflecting key aspects of the Aboriginal experience, are phrased as if to address the land’s white usurpers: WE WERE HERE FIRST, PAY ME TO BE AN ABO (a derogatory term for Aborigine), I AM NOT A NOBLE SAVAGE, and PAY THE RENT. Bell presents these statements in colorful paintings as texts scrawled over patchwork grounds that employ patterns from both traditional Aboriginal art and the work of Western abstractionists like Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock, and Frank Stella.

While contemporary Aboriginal art seems to be flourishing throughout Australia, Bell’s current home, Queensland’s capital city of Brisbane, is a particularly rich center for it. Brisbane was at the forefront of the Aboriginal land rights movement in the 1960s and ’70s. This political movement in turn inspired an activist Indigenous art movement spearheaded by artists like Bell, Tracey Moffatt, Fiona Foley, Gordon Bennett, and Judy Watson. Institutions in Brisbane have also been supportive. Griffith University offers the only BFA program in Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art. Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art presented the country’s first comprehensive survey of work by contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in 2013. The nonprofit Institute of Modern Art (IMA) supports an activist agenda and regularly shows Indigenous art. Meanwhile, the city’s commercial enterprises, among them Milani Gallery, Fireworks Gallery, Suzanne O’Connell Gallery, Woolloongabba Art Gallery, and Andrew Baker Art Dealer, have been very active in promoting the work of contemporary Indigenous artists.


LAST SPRING, on a visit to Brisbane, I saw three very different exhibitions by Aboriginal artists who wrestle with the past and its consequences in the present.2 Andrew Baker Art Dealer was presenting “Invasion,” an exhibition of the work of Michael Cook. Though raised by non-Aboriginal adoptive parents, Cook was always aware of his Indigenous ancestry. He began to engage with Aboriginal history in 2009, at age forty-one. Using skills honed from a successful career as a commercial photographer, Cook creates polished photographic tableaux that upend familiar tropes of Australian history. Early works include a photographic narrative that reimagines the arrival of the first colonists, who encounter dark-skinned natives in the same climate-inappropriate eighteenth-century costumes as themselves. In another series, a young Aboriginal woman takes on and then abandons the “civilized” clothing and deportment of nineteenth-century female settlers.

Cook’s increasingly ambitious staged photographs have the look of vintage postcards or daguerreotypes. “Invasion” draws on the Hollywood horror genre to evoke the terror that Indigenous people may have felt at the arrival of the white settlers. Cook has reimagined this trauma by displacing the scene to London in the ’60s, with white Brits beset by rampaging aliens. These include laser-shooting kangaroos and bare-breasted native girls, giant cockatoos, and possums perched on the rims of flying saucers. Cook’s mastery of the horror idiom is pitch perfect as he subjects the colonizers to a cinematic version of the destruction once inflicted on native Australians. 

In contrast to this dark comedy, Archie Moore’s haunting installation at the Griffith University Art Museum offered a memory palace. A labyrinth of rooms spread throughout the gallery suggested both the physical surrounds and the emotional desolation of his impoverished childhood in the 1970s. Moore grew up in Tara, a rural town in southern Queensland 185 miles from Brisbane. With an Aboriginal mother and white father, his was one of two families in the town with direct ties to Indigenous culture. He grew up conscious of his unbridgeable distance from the white population. The installation at Griffith presented viewers with a set of three doors, allowing them to choose their own paths to the sparely but evocatively furnished rooms inside. A room with a dirt floor, a metal cot, and corrugated iron walls was inspired by the hut where Moore’s grandmother lived. He conjured his own childhood home with a cheerless family room that contained such 1970s-era artifacts as an old black-and-white TV showing vintage cartoons, a vinyl-covered couch, a rusty bike frame discarded on the floor, and a kerosene refrigerator. Another room re-created a classroom with scuffed school desks lined up before a screen on which played flickering projections of mid-century educational films with titles like Aborigines of Australia.

The installation served as a reminder of the bleak environment created by a history of frontier warfare and displacement. In the mid-1850s settlers in the area conducted a mass extermination of Aborigines. Tara and its environs remained sparsely populated, and in the early twentieth century the government designated it a dumping ground for soldier-settlers. By the time of Moore’s childhood almost all links to Tara’s Aboriginal history had been lost; he can assume an ancestral connection to the Kamilaroi nation only because his uncles used swear words from that tribal language. Reflecting this rupture with the past, his installation presents both history and memory as fragile, fugitive phenomena. Moore evokes the isolation and alienation that nearly erased a whole people.

At the IMA, Ryan Presley engaged history on a national scale. Like Moore, Presley has a mixed heritage; he is descended from Scandinavian immigrants on his mother’s side and from the Marri Ngarr people on his father’s. His solo exhibition “Prosperity” featured “Blood Money” (2010–), a series of paintings that create new versions of Australia’s colorful currency. Authentic banknotes tell the official history of the country. Denominations are ornamented with images of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles as well as the faces of Australia’s notable white settlers, politicians, writers, scientists, and social reformers. On the actual currency only one Aboriginal figure is depicted. Presley has rectified this with a new cast of characters, among them: Fanny Balbuk, a late nineteenth-century Aboriginal land rights leader; Oodgeroo Noonuccal, an aboriginal poet and political activist of the mid-twentieth century; and Tarenorerer, a leader of the nineteenth-century rebellion against the English in Tasmania known as the Black War. On Presley’s banknotes, motifs like schooners, parliament buildings, and local flora and fauna, which tell the colonizers’ version of history, are replaced with vignettes from an Aboriginal point of view. Presley celebrates Aboriginal warriors, farmers, and ranchers, in the process dispelling some of the myths that surround official history. Depictions of battles and spear-toting warriors challenge the idea, for instance, that the colonial takeover was relatively bloodless because the Aborigines did not put up a fight. Representations of native farmers counter the accepted picture of the country’s original inhabitants as landless roaming nomads, thereby undermining the justification for the land grab embodied in the notion of terra nullius.


WHILE IN BRISBANE, I was also introduced to the work of other artists seeking to remove the “white blindfold” from Australian history. Fiona Foley grew up in rural Queensland and now lives on Fraser Island, a lush tropical atoll that was the site of an Aboriginal internment camp at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 2017 Foley debuted a photo sequence that delved into the ironically named 1897 “Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act.” Her series “Horror Has a Face” focuses on a pair of historical characters intimately involved in the creation and implementation of this legislation that greatly tightened colonial control over all aspects of Indigenous life. In the name of “protection,” the act authorized forced removals onto missions and reserves and codified restrictions on Aboriginal freedom to marry, work, and receive wages. It also influenced Australia’s assimilation policy, which, in contrast to anti-miscegenation laws in the United States, actively encouraged mixed-race couples as a means of diluting Aboriginal blood. The second part of the act, more beneficial in its effects, finally restricted the widespread and hitherto legal sale of opium. Originally introduced into Australia by the British East India Company, opium offered a further pretext for isolating and controlling Aboriginal communities devastated by the drug.

Foley’s two antiheroes are Archibald Meston, Southern Protector of Aborigines (and the founder of the Fraser Island Aboriginal Reserve once located in Foley’s current home) and Ernest Gribble, director of the Anglican missions into which many of the Indigenous people were corralled. Foley’s photographs depict Meston in an opium den, surrounded by scantily clad Aboriginal beauties, and seated outside his tent in a bush camp next to primly dressed Aboriginal servants. In other photographs Gribble gives an Aboriginal mission resident who has died under his care a Christian send-off in the company of tribeswomen outfitted in starchy Victorian dresses and a smartly uniformed Indigenous brass band. Such scenes underscore the social engineering designed to annihilate the Aboriginal population through either attrition or assimilation.

Dale Harding grew up outside his ancestral homelands and reconnected with his history through his grandmother. Like many others in Queensland, Harding’s family was directly impacted by the Aboriginal Protection Act. In the 1920s, his relatives were removed from their lands in the Central Highlands, and their children were separated from the family to be put to work as indentured servants. His grandmother, born a ward of the state and forced to live in a mission dormitory, was contracted out as a domestic at the age of thirteen. She and his mother, who was also placed “in service,” passed down oral histories of their family and their precolonial ways.

Much of Harding’s work revolves around Carnarvon Gorge in the Central Highlands. This is a sacred place to Aboriginal people, with rock formations that were the sites of millennia-old ceremonies and rituals. The walls of the canyon are covered with ancient markings formed by ocher stenciled handprints and outlines of tools. He has evoked the markings in wall works that include the stenciled hands of family members, as well as clubs and shields. He also fashions silicone reproductions of traditional Aboriginal weapons. Some of his wall paintings employ the traditional ocher, but recently he has added a new twist: the stencils are outlined in the bright powder of Reckitt’s Blue. This is a dye once used as laundry whitener to counteract yellowing. Its vivid blue began to appear in concentrated form in the works of Aboriginal artisans in the late nineteenth century. Harding also uses it to allude to his female relations who worked as domestic servants. The feathery ocher and blue powders surround the white negative shapes of the represented objects, giving them a ghostlike quality. As metaphors for the loss of Aboriginal culture, they are defined by absence.


JUDY WATSON was born in a small town in Queensland and grew up in the outer suburbs of Brisbane. She is of mixed heritage: Waanyi on one side and Scottish-English on the other. She first went to her ancestral homeland in the remote Northwest Highlands of Queensland in 1990, when she was already in her early thirties, but in the years since has returned many times. Her grandmother, like Harding’s, was separated from her mother and taken into domestic servitude. Watson often references her great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother in her work, paying homage to a strong matrilineal heritage that survived despite the horrors of history.

For nearly thirty years, Watson has been creating what might be termed spiritual landscapes, paintings that suggest the ocher earth and blue-green water that burbles up from underground in the Australian interior. She creates allover works on canvases laid on the ground, often incorporating local earth and mud in the paint. These horizonless landscapes convey simultaneously the experience of being on the land and viewing it, as Watson often does, from the window of an airplane far above. Frequently they include abstracted shapes that evoke female forms or the fossils, bones, and natural formations found on the land.

Watson has also created canvases littered with dots that map massacre sites across the country. These reflect the fact that her great-great-grandmother was a massacre survivor. They also signal her entry into one of the most contentious debates surrounding Australian colonial history. Forced removals were not the only way that the colonizers undermined Indigenous culture. Even more appalling is the history of massacres carried out regularly—and generally with impunity—by white settlers. This has been a sticking point in Australia’s History Wars. For many years the official narrative described a more or less peaceful acquisition of land by white settlers from passive natives. But increasingly, revisionist historians are challenging that comforting view. Henry Reynolds is the white author of a number of controversial accounts of violent conflicts between Aborigines and colonizers. His 1999 book Why Weren’t We Told? suggests that violence was the essence of white expansion. He estimates that twenty thousand Aborigines and two thousand or more Europeans were killed in frontier battles. Historian Lyndall Ryan has been working on a map detailing the site of every Australian colonial frontier massacre. She estimates that from 1788 to 1872 there were at least five hundred massacres of Indigenous people, and fewer than ten of white settlers.

Watson’s ongoing work the names of places (2015–) is another kind of chart of Aboriginal slaughters. It comprises an interactive database of attacks on Indigenous communities across Australia and includes a map in which sites are linked with copies of supporting historical documents. This work has been shown in numerous exhibitions around the country, accompanied by invitations to the public to contribute additional oral or archival information on historical massacres.

Indigenous artists are helping to reshape the understanding of Australia’s history through a wide range of artistic approaches. Not only do they delve into personal and ancestral histories, marshaling suppressed facts and invented fictions to dramatize the emotional pain of historical horrors, but they also propose alternative national symbols and create arenas for discussion of the country’s darkest secrets. And their numbers and influence are growing. The artists discussed here work alongside many other history-minded Aboriginal artists, including Gordon Hookey, Vernon Ah Kee, Destiny Deacon, Tony Albert, and Karla Dickens.

For an American, the issues raised by Australia’s Indigenous artists have a familiar ring. One hears echoes of our own debates over reparations to the descendants of slaves and land rights owed to Native Americans, our battles over Confederate monuments, the breakup of asylum-seeking families, disproportionately non-white prison populations, abuses of police power, and the ingrained social and economic inequalities that are the legacy of the country’s historical mistreatment of its African American and Native American populations. It’s not surprising that Indigenous activists in Australia identify strongly with the Black Panther movement. While I was in Brisbane, Emory Douglas, the Black Panther Party’s onetime minister of culture, was in residence at the University of Queensland, collaborating, as he has for years, with Bell. Meanwhile, numerous artists spoke about their interest in the very similar struggles of Native American activists seeking control over their ancestral lands.

Australian reformers often speak of the silence that has muffled so much of the country’s history. Aboriginal artists are speaking up to break it, in the service of a much-needed reckoning with a dark and violent past.