Revealed: We are a sovereign people

Keynote address presented on 17 April 2015 in Perth as part of the annual Revealed program supporting emerging Aboriginal artists from Western Australia. 

Franchesca Cubillo, Revealed Symposium
Franchesca Cubillo, Revealed Symposium. Photo: Tim Acker

As Indigenous people of this nation we are a sovereign people, standing strong in our culture and remaining true to our heritage. We stand strong in our art; we stand strong in our culture and we stand strong on our country. Our ancestors, communities and families have welcomed many non-Indigenous peoples into this country, and today we see the continuity of our shared culture, history and traditions. I see Aboriginal art and culture at the very forefront of Australian identity and celebrated in such a way that previous generations would not have imagined. Despite these remarkable achievements, we as Aboriginal people in this country have been continually bombarded by waves of dispossession, racism, marginalisation and genocide. I am both angered and frustrated that we continue to sustain the impact of colonisation on a daily basis some 226 years after invasion. We are not recognised as a sovereign people, we continue to be governed by a nation that does not recognise us as equals. 

Recently, the Federal and State government of Western Australia have collectively created an unthinkable scenario whereby 150 (out of approximately 274) Aboriginal communities in remote regions of Western Australia are being threatened with forced closure. Families and communities have suffered the immediate impact of having their electricity and water shut off by officials in an attempt to force people from their homes, their country and their heritage. This is taking place without productive engagement and consultation with our people. What will be the short- and long-term effects on our communities, our artists and their families and what does that say about human rights in Australia’s treatment of its Indigenous peoples? What can we do as a sector and how can we strategically respond to this racist government approach. 

Tommy Mcrae drawing
Tommy McRae, Victorian Blacks – Melbourne, tribe holding corroboree after seeingships for the first time, c. 1890s, drawing in pen and iron-gall ink. Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

I believe that we can learn some remarkable lessons regarding the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art within the broader framework of Australia and, in this particular context, the wider Australian Art community. If we look back over the last 226 years we can see that Aboriginal art has been principally viewed, acquired, interpreted and displayed from a Eurocentric perspective. As early as 1788, the invading white forces on the frontier began to source, define and categorise Aboriginal people, their culture and their art.

In 1888, a small collection of Aboriginal drawings from the Palmerston Gaol in Darwin was displayed publicly as part of the Centennial International Exhibition in Melbourne. Known as the “Dawn of Art”, this was the first time that Aboriginal art was exhibited and collected as fine art: not as ethnographic object, not as anthropological evidence of a culture that was dying, it was collected as fine art and shown to the wider public in Melbourne as works of art. This occurred because a senior government official, John George Knight, saw the beauty and value of these works and recognised the artistic capacity of these Aboriginal men. 

Mickey of Ulladulla, drawing
Mickey of Ulladulla, not titled (fishing, native fauna and flora), c. 1888, gouache, watercolour, black ink and brush and pastel over pencil. Collection: National Gallery of Australia

Other non-Indigenous people were also encouraging and promoting the artwork of other Aboriginal men along the south-east coastline of Australia from at least the 1860s. Artists such as Tommy McCrae, Mickey of Ulladulla and William Barack created remarkable illustrations of contact history, despite them and their communities being affected by government policies of displacement, segregation and marginalisation. Museums and art galleries in Australia and overseas have since acquired hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander works of art, adding them to their collections. Anthropologists and ethnographers such as Baldwin Spencer working with Paddy Cahill in Gunbalanya in 1912, Donald Thompson in Central Arnhem Land in 1935–43, Charles Mountford 1946–53, and Ronald and Catherine Berndt 1950s–90s all collectively built Aboriginal collections numbering in the tens of thousands. 

Barack drawing
William Barak, c. 1885, drawing in charcoal and natural earth pigments over black pencil. Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. 

Over the past 27 years I’ve had the privilege of seeing some of these collections that are held in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Germany, France and the United States of America. These significant and informative collections have developed because of mutual respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous custodians. Equally, individuals and various arts advocacy organisations operated informally to support Aboriginal artists and encourage and promote their artwork, be it a missionary trust fund organised to manage Albert Namatjira’s income or a missionary-run art centre established at Ernabella in 1948. These historical collections are rich resources; not of a culture that has died, but of a culture that lives and survives in the very minds, hearts and spirits of the Indigenous peoples of this nation. 

Today, I am very proud. I look at all my Indigenous brothers and sisters who are artists, who are cultural leaders, who are advocates, who are politically assertive, active people, and I say – we stand beside you in unity. We are here because of the work those artists have done in the past. And we are here because they have fought, and they have worked with non-Indigenous people, with the missionaries, with anthropologists, researchers and arts administrators. These artists of the past decided to engage with non-Indigenous people and to teach them about our culture and our heritage. And they created beautiful art! It was political and very powerful, including title deeds to country, statements about who we are and where we’re come from. And there were non-Indigenous people – missionaries, anthropologists, arts administrators, art centre managers – who took these remarkable artworks and associated stories to the rest of the world. And they showed the beauty and richness and complexity of our culture. 

In 1973 the Australian Government formed the Aboriginal Arts Board and again Aboriginal people – artists – were at the forefront. Dick Roughsey and Wandjuk Marika, two Indigenous Arts Board Chairs said: “Australia doesn’t recognise the importance of our art and our culture, so we will take it overseas.” Approximately 40 Aboriginal exhibitions travelled around the world in the first five years of the Aboriginal Arts Board. Once the exhibitions had completed their tour they were donated to select institutions in different countries, so that they could learn and appreciate the remarkable work of art by Australia’s Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous self-determination and self-management became the catchcry of many official government policies from the 1970s onwards and it also signalled the development of the Aboriginal homelands and outstation movement. Indigenous people were being recognised as legitimate citizens, supported and encouraged as active agents in their future. Aboriginal-owned art centres were established throughout some of the major Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. And we started to see a gradual increase in the number of artworks emerging from remote Indigenous communities. 

Wandjuk, portrait
Wanduk Djuakan Marika (1927–1987),leader and artist of the Riratjingu clan of the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land, was a co-founder of the Australia Council’s AboriginalArts Board in 1973 and its first chairman. In 1963 Wanduk Marika helped send the first “bark petition” to the Commonwealth Government protesting decisions to grant mining leases on the Gove Peninsula to the Nabisco Co. and the lack of consultation with Aboriginal communities, leading in 1971 to the first land rights case in Australia. Photo: Buku Larrnggay Mulka

The art industry has changed a lot over this 45-year period. There are thousands of Aboriginal artists across Australia with the majority being based in remote communities. Artists from these remote regions have benefited from the establishment of community-owned and governed art centres within their communities.[1] These organisations fulfil a complex and multifaceted role. Their very presence ensures that cultural maintenance of ceremony, ritual, art and culture and connection to country is reinforced and passed on to the next generation on a daily basis. They also operate as an exciting economic hub for the community bringing in additional income into the community through diverse cultural projects. These centres are also the intermediaries between the wider art sector and the artist. They are the agencies who say to the art market: “Stand back a bit. Let our people do what they need to do.” They are the ones who say: “No, you should be paying more for that, that’s a good painting and that’s a strong dreaming.” They are the ones who help the artists fill out the government forms. They are the ones who provide that safe place to create and do what they do best. And that is to teach their art and culture to the wider world. 

The secondary art market has also shifted in terms of how it engages with Aboriginal art – it is now much larger, more aggressive in its consumptions of artwork (and artists) and within the last twenty years has also allowed and fostered fraudulent behaviour. There have been a lot of people who have made their fortunes on the back of Aboriginal art. Unfortunately, some Aboriginal artists have also been caught up in this economic frenzy. 

What do we do as a sector to respond to this changing landscape? In the first instance, we work together – black and white – through a relationship based on mutual respect and trust. We facilitate Indigenous governance and self-determination at every opportunity. Not as a policy catchcry; but rather, as best-practice methodology to ensure that our artists and our arts boards are making informed decision about the direction they want to head in. And then we stand together, supporting one another despite the odds. We should all be thinking about and developing a united strategy to deal with the forced closures of our 150 communities. Because if you think that the state and federal government will stop at closing 150 then you need to think again. We also need to get sophisticated in the way we engage with government, funding agencies, other arts administrators, curators, institutions, galleries, museums, philanthropic groups and the wider art market. All of these stakeholders have their own unique agenda and we/you/artists/art centre managers/art centre board members need to be savvy enough to ensure our artists and art centres are getting the very best out of the scenario. 

Revealed Symposium, Perth, 2015. Photo: Tim Acker 

You see, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists will continue to create remarkable works of art. Its part of our DNA, and our ancestors will continue to teach and guides us. Those stories are still so strong, and those ancestors are still teaching. Those leaders are still guiding. We need to ensure we continue to provide those safe places on country where culture, art and the rich Indigenous heritage of this nation can be fostered and shared out to the wider community. Our art centres need to respond strategically to the changing market – always ensuring that we have Indigenous governance at the forefront.

The galleries and museums of Australia and the world can only do what we do; that is, show the very best of Indigenous art work generated through healthy Indigenous-owned and-operated art centres. Indigenous artists are committed and standing strong in their art, standing strong in their culture and standing strong in their heritage and standing strong on their land. So we need to ensure our communities are not shut down, we need to become more focused and committed to finding new and exciting ways to beat the system and continually argue the case for the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people as the sovereign people of this nation.

In conclusion, I say to the Aboriginal artists today – keep painting those beautiful works, keep telling all of those stories, the stories about our history, the stories about our country, the stories about our ancestors and the stories about the need for political change in our country. Tell all those stories, because they’re all good stories and they all need to be heard.


  1. ^ Around 80 Indigenous-owned art centres, including several mentioned here, receive government funding through the Federal Government’s Indigenous Visual Arts Industry Support (IVAIS) program. The IVAIS program provides base operational funding to art centres, Indigenous art fairs, regional hubs and industry services organisations nationally, as well as providing support for the employment of around 300 Indigenous arts workers in visual arts organisations. The program delivers approximately $20 million per annum.

This is an edited version of a keynote address presented on 17 April 2015 in Perth as part of the annual Revealed program supporting emerging Aboriginal artists from Western Australia. 

Franchesca Cubillo is a Larrakia, Bardi, Wardaman and Yanuwa woman from the Top End of the Northern Territory. Franchesca has been Senior Curator of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art at the National Gallery of Australia since 2009, and is Chair of the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair.