Forgiveness is a deeply personal act. It is one of humankind’s most powerful tools, and one of the most difficult to wield. Bindi Cole, a Melbourne-based artist of Wathaurung heritage, began working with the idea of forgiveness in the video work Seventy Times Seven (2011) in which members of the Aboriginal community stare directly into the camera chanting, “I forgive you”. As they repeat these words, their focus turns inwards: they find within themselves the sources of their hurt and the reasons for its forgiveness. The camera stays with them until there is a shift – frowns turn to smiles, then to tears – as they begin to free themselves of their internalised pain.
The title of the work, Seventy Times Seven is a biblical reference, taken from Matthew 18: it is the number of times Jesus tells us that one should forgive our brothers and sisters for their sins. For Cole, forgiveness is “the key to re-empowerment in life. It has been a huge tool for me in coming to a place of wholeness and the antidote to the resentment I had been feeling.” She has continued to explore forgiveness in her latest work, I Forgive You (2012) which sees the words spelled out in large-scale bold lettering. The statement reflects on the role of forgiveness in Australian and Aboriginal society today, and can be interpreted in many ways.
I Forgive You is also about Cole’s personal trials. Due to her mixed heritage and lighter skin, she is often questioned over her Aboriginal identity. The most notable case of this made national news when conservative commentator Andrew Bolt penned a series of articles for Herald Sun publications, for which he was later found guilty of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act. In them, he criticised Cole and other “light-skinned Aborigines” for “choosing to” identify themselves as Aborigines, saying that they did so only for political reasons or personal gain in the arts and Aboriginal industries. Bolt singled out Cole, asserting that she had a “distressingly white face”. He argued that she, and others, could not be Aboriginal, for they were neither dark-skinned, nor “victims”.
Through her powerful statement, Cole declares that Aboriginal people need not feel like victims; for her, forgiveness was key to overcoming the hurt caused by the ignorant misgivings of those Australians with little understanding of the legacy of colonisation on Aboriginal peoples. Forgiveness for Cole is driven by exploring and reconciling incidents from her youth. At home, she encountered neglect and abuse; according to the artist, her mother was a heroin addict, a stripper and a prostitute, leaving in her wake a crushing legacy of self-destructive behaviour.
But Cole learnt that forgiveness was necessary to personal fulfillment: “I’d found myself in a place where I was a really broken and damaged person – that was manifesting itself in all these self-destructive ways. I had to go through a process of healing and a huge part of that healing was around forgiveness ... As I forgave I was able to take my power back. I feel like there’s a real power in this that’s … unseen but it’s there.”
In an Aboriginal context, the idea of forgiveness can be connected to the reconciliation movement, particularly in the wake of the Australian Government’s Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples, with specific reference to the Stolen Generations, in 2008. Cole’s grandmother was a member of the Stolen Generations and I forgive You also appears as a personal response to the apology for past policies that directly affected her family and consequently Bindi herself.
This statement can be viewed as Cole’s solution to the pain and suffering that is felt throughout her Aboriginal community. She observed that “some pain is generational” and “as people we can take on the traumas of our parents, our grandparents …". “Here then, the forgiveness to which she refers is made with the broader Aboriginal community in mind. Australia’s colonisation left a debilitating mark on many of this continent’s Indigenous people. But Cole’s work is a call for forgiveness by communities who, she observes, “have been dealing with and trying to heal the damage in a number of ways. I think the path is through forgiveness and allowing ourselves to be healed.”
- ^ Quotes from Bindi Cole in this text are from a telephone interview with the author, 10 February 2012.
- ^ Andrew Bolt, “It’s so hip to be black”, Herald Sun, 15 April 2009; Andrew Bolt. “White is the new black”, Herald and Weekly Times, 15 April 2009; Andrew Bolt, “White fellas in the black”, Herald Sun, 21 August 2009.
- ^ Kylie Northover, “Black rage, white guilt: Cole has had a skinful”, The Age, 14 September 2011.
- ^ “Bindi Cole’s verdict on Andrew Bolt”, National Indigenous Times, 12 October 2011.
This is an edited version of an essay originally published in Contemporary Australia: Women (exhibition catalogue), Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, 2012.
Bruce McLean, Curator of Indigenous Art at the Queensland Art Gallery/ Gallery of Modern Art, writes about Bindi Cole's work and how it links personal and historical notions of forgiveness.