A memorial for the dead: Commemorating 200 years of loss

In 1998 the artists of Ramingining, a remote Central Arnhem Land community, were responsible for perhaps the most-moving political statement made during Australia’s bicentenary year. Djon Mundine tells UK-based anthropologist Howard Morphy, how this extraordinary monument came to be made.

Howard Morphy   For the last few years you have been working on a major project with members of Ramingining and other communities. Can you tell us something about the origins of the Aboriginal Memorial?

Djon Mundine   I try to put together exhibitions that are hung together around some idea or artform that people work on, and in that process try to show people art pieces that aren’t generally seen or appreciated. They may be art pieces in their own right, but they may not be paintings on the wall like people generally expect art pieces to be. Now Aboriginal art has many other forms, and these bone coffins that people produce are among those. This thought has been in my head for quite some time, and approaches were made to me to get some works for the Biennale of Sydney in 1988.

I really pondered on what I could put in that would be a real statement for all Aborigines, because it doesn’t matter what the people here thought – by putting anything in that show, they would be something for all Aboriginals. Just by taking part, people would say “Oh! All Aboriginals aren’t against 1998.” So, we wanted to make a statement that would be a real statement, rather than just some sort of token inclusion, which is what happened in past centennial or whatever celebrations.

So then what happened was that I happened to be watching the John Pilger programme that was made in about 1986 about what white Australians were going to celebrate in 1988, and whether Aboriginals were going to have anything to celebrate.  One of the things he said was that, in Australia, a land in which there were many, many memorials to people who had fought in this war or that war, there were no memorials to any of the Aborigines who had died since 1788.

And, it stuck in my mind, and I thought about it, and I realised that there weren’t any anywhere. I had never heard of one in Australia. And so, that’s what I tried to put together in this memorial. I thought about it a lot. In this programme he talked about people who died, and in actual fact this occurred to many of the Aboriginal groups that don’t exist anymore – they were wiped out to the last man, woman and child, and so they had no-one to perform any funeral rites for their dead.

And the white people certainly didn’t perform any funeral rites for them, but just chucked their bodies into an open grave somewhere. And spiritually, I thought that would be a great statement to make for 1988, that we were putting these souls to rest for the first time. It wasn’t saying that we were all dead, but that we had survived this onslaught, that there were enough people left after the initial onslaught to come back and rebury the dead and then take the fight from there. You only rebury your dead when you are in a comfortable position, when you are on a winning run.

HM   And did people at Ramingining appreciate the idea in particular – did they see the possibility of using their ceremony for Aboriginal people elsewhere in Australia?

DM   Yes, in the original framing up of the exhibition we wanted it to coincide with something that was happening in Queensland. In Queensland there was a set of bones, skeletons that had been dug up some time ago, and they were going to be reburied by that particular tribal group in Surfers Paradise called the Kumbumirri people. I had been in contact with them through the Anthropology Museum at Queensland University. Through my contacts there we had a meeting. We thought that it would be a nice gesture that the memorial should be in that place.

So the original idea was to assist with the burial of these skeletons from the Kumbumirri people. I thought that this would be a great gesture – to have a memorial that would then re-establish an Aboriginal presence in one of the most anti-Aboriginal places you could possibly think of. You wouldn’t normally dream of land rights connected to Surfers Paradise, the real estate agent’s Dreamtime. So that’s how it started, and the 200 poles would go to the Biennale of Sydney, before being permanently installed in this place in Queensland. When I approached people at Ramingining about it they thought the idea was good – they could assist these other people who didn’t have their traditional religion anymore. They thought that it was an incredible idea. They thought that it was a bit curious to start with, and then the major artists – there were about eight major artists that I originally approached – thought that they would do it, that they would go down and perform these rites.

HM   And when did the National Gallery show an interest in this?

DM   Well, the National Gallery of Australia has of course always shown an interest. Their staff knew quite early on about the project, and that it was going to Surfers Paradise. But a number of things happened with the Kumbumirri people, and they couldn’t reach agreement on some aspects. That wasn’t our problem – they had to settle that themselves – so we bought out of that.

The other thing was that we had problems raising the money to actually complete the project. The Australian National Gallery was always a possibility to come up with funds to assist us complete the project. I knew that they would want it, and at the eleventh hour I had to make a very critical decision as to whether it would go ahead or wouldn’t. And so we approached the National Gallery and they bought it without too much consideration.

HM  They understood the strength of the political statement being made?

DM   The political statement was one of the biggest things about the art piece as an art piece. That’s why it’s called the Memorial, that’s the strength of it really.  

HM   And do you think the message of the Memorial will get across to white Australians? How do you expect it to echo, and to enter into people’s understanding?

DM  Well it’s another aspect of trying to make people understand, to give them a cross-cultural reference so that they can relate to Aboriginals as people, and think that their aspirations as people aren’t necessarily out of order. I think the idea of a Memorial is something that white Australians can certainly relate to. That’s what the idea behind it really is: to say, OK there is a Memorial. Then it becomes a local point for discussion. You don’t want to have died in vain. But what can be done as restitution?

HM  If the Memorial, or some sort of representation of it becomes, say, a symbol of Canberra – as opposed to the great flag which now seems to be in danger of becoming a symbol of Canberra – do you think it would be white Australians appropriating the meaning of that, or do you think it would be something that showed that the Memorial had its effect, and the consciousness of Australians of the prior ownership of Australia by Aborigines would be recognised?

DM   Yes, I think that it was used as a symbol by white Australians that doesn’t mean that it has been appropriated. They will try to use it as a symbol of an equal society, and so on, and that we are reasonable people – there will be people who will try and use it that way certainly. But it’s up to Aboriginal people to put it in its proper perspective, to keep it alive. I think that, if it became a symbol instead of the flag, this would be the centre of the Australian universe. I think that it gives them, as Australians, an aesthetic that they didn’t realise that they had before. I think that it will change white Australian thoughts about Aboriginal people and Aboriginal art.  

Djon Mundine is the art advisor at Bulábula Arts, Ramingining.

The interview was made during a visit to Ramingining, with assistance from Luke Taylor of the Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra.

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