Camping in the shadow of the racist text

Ali Gumillya Baker, racist texts, 2014-17
Ali Gumillya Baker, racist texts, 2014–17, books, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist

How is historical agency enacted in the slenderness of narrative? How do we historicise the event of the dehistoricised? If, as they say, the past is a foreign country, then what does it mean to encounter a past that is your own country reterritorialised, even terrorised by another?[1] 

When I began looking for my maternal great-grandmother Gumillya Boxer (Ka-mil-lya) through records in the colonial archive I hoped to find her memories, traces of life and honouring stories of family and songs of Mirning country. What we can find instead is the opposite of a loving memorial. This anti‑memorial and absence of honouring is profoundly disturbing. What I found when I looked for her was the debris of documents and objects scattered throughout institutions in dark places, documents of abuse and lies.[2] This evidence of abuse by colonial powers is like a pit of sadness. The pit could swallow me up as I walk. I could fall in and never be seen again. My remedy to this was to begin another story. This story is for my children and their children and all children. It is a story for our children of what I found when I looked for our family and Mirning people in the archive. It is our museum of un-natural history.

Part of the work of this “Museum of Unnatural History”[3] in our family was the development of a theoretical and textual picture of research undertaken by white ethnologist Norman Tindale. Tindale had an international reputation as an anthropologist, linguist, ethnographer, and undertook “data collection” throughout Aboriginal Australia while working for the South Australian Museum from the early 1920s through to the mid 1960s.[4] Of particular relevance is Tindale’s data collection that contributed to a larger landscape of objectification and categorisation of racialised ideas about Aboriginal people and was part of a global movement of analysis using the ideologies of eugenics.[5]  The ideas contained within eugenics are concerned with racial purity, blood quantum and hierarchies of race and within this there was a movement of physical anthropology and phrenology. The dominant idea of phrenology was that intelligence could be determined through measurements of a person’s head. These false ideas about our physical, cultural and spiritual inferiority inform the justification of the colonisation of our beautiful countries within this constructed colonial nation state.

These racialised phenomena need focused critique.[6] How these histories continue to inform our present and are represented in present institutional practice is important. Ideas about racial and biological variability and “purity” and the work of Aboriginal artists and scholars in response to these ideas inform a core part of the ongoing academic teaching I continue to engage within the university. It is useful to read the work of Alexander Weheliye in his recent book Habeas Viscus: Racialized Assemblages, Biopolitics and Black Feminist Theories of the Human: “The volatile rapport between race and the human is defined above all by two constellations: first, there exists no portion of the modern human that is not subject to racialisation, which determines the hierarchical ordering of the Homo sapiens species into humans, not-quite-humans, and nonhumans; second as a result, humanity has held a very different status for the traditions of the racially oppressed.”[7] 

Ali Gumillya Baker, Bound/Unbound, Sovereign Acts II, Simone Ulalka Tur, 2015, digital print on archival paper. Collection: National Gallery of Australia
Ali Gumillya Baker, Bound/Unbound, Sovereign Acts II, Simone Ulalka Tur, 2015, digital print on archival paper. Courtesy the artist

This personal and theoretical exploration of the archival holdings of the colonial state provides the background to the process of reclamation of the plaster cast of my great-grandmother’s head undertaken and collected by Tindale in the Royal Adelaide Hospital at the time of her death in 1951 and since held by the South Australian Museum.[8] This head cast is one of many hundreds of plaster casts of Aboriginal heads taken as part of a data collection exercise and kept by the museum in its holdings.[9] The direct imprint of my great grandmother’s head makes this particular object significant to my family, and because of the ideas that generated these kinds of body casts, the process by which the museum will deal with this matter is of concern to us. This act of collection was not known by Gumillya’s family until recently, and it would appear that no authority for Tindale’s research and data collection including permission for the production or long-term archiving of the cast was given by her relatives.

Tindale’s collection therefore represents a knowledge system that has ruptured and violently undermined Indigenous views of knowledge creation as a respectful and ethical endeavour. How these ruptures in ideas about respectful knowledge production and transmission could be claimed as points of transformation and how stories are told and the implications of the stories we leave for future generations are important considerations for representation. These broader questions have particular ethical relevance for all forms of artistic and institutional practice. What becomes clear is that there is never just an historical archive, these objects and ideas are as powerful as their operation and occupation within the contemporary imagination. These archives also have a political and material effect: on Native Title, Heritage Protection, Narratives of Nation and local, state and federal government policy.

Indeed, these archives are guarded, re-made, re-cycled and re-articulated by people who are our contemporaries. There is continual contestation over the representation of these ideas, as González states: “Arguing race is a discursive formation, rather than an essential, biological, or ontological category, entails recognizing that the concept necessarily changes with the shifting currents of culture and language, techniques and methods of representation, and scientific imperatives. Recognizing that race is a social construct rather than a biological fact does not imply, however, that the stakes in the contest over its meaning have decreased. For the most part, the meaning of race has left the realm of science behind (despite recent efforts to revive genetic typologies) but has continued as an intensified struggle, familiar in the arts, over the politics of representation.”[10] 

Ali Gumillya Baker, Sovereign Fleet (black), 2013, digital print on archival paper. Courtesy the artist
Ali Gumillya Baker, Sovereign Fleet (black), 2013, digital print on archival paper. Courtesy the artist

How can we ever escape these ways of viewing us that have become fixed within the archive of goonya knowledge about us?[11] How can these arrogant perceptions become transformed? The repositioning of oppressive ideas through critical-creative practice can provide new perspectives and is one way we can re-configure these racialised realms of discourse, but as Butler points out, these representations are often a movement between what is already there (in the archive), and what is yet to come, how we imagine our Nunga bodies and our children’s subjection into the future. The representational ambivalence referred to by Butler is also identified by Homi Bhahba in talking about the colonial project—a discourse, an ambivalence that “gives voice” to the Indigenous subject but in the same moment discounts, dismisses and silences that voice as abject/primitive/object.[12] Butler says: “Exceeding is not escaping, and the subject exceeds precisely that to which it is bound. In this sense the subject cannot quell the ambivalence by which it is constituted. Painful, dynamic, and promising, this vacillation between the already there and the yet-to-come is a crossroads that rejoins every step by which it is traversed, a reiterated ambivalence at the heart of agency. Power rearticulated is “re”-articulated in the sense of already done and “re”-articulated in the sense of done over, done again, done anew.”[13] 

At the heart of “re-articulation” of colonial representations are many criminal acts, some of these acts are fixed within and upon objects. When Tindale chose to make a cast/ bust of my great grandmother’s head, and place that cast within the museum collection, he objectified and abjectified her within the colonial archive in perpetuity. He used her head to stabilise the colonial identity in this place. Colonial objects like head casts or photographs, are re-articulated acts of violence upon us, of what has already been done to us as Aboriginal people. They contain the evidence of how we have been “done over.” What happens then when these “objects” of study become human? When these objects of study become scholars and artists? We become human—because while our families and elders may have been denied a humanity by the European invaders, our people never stopped being, were never frozen in time, were never plants or animals of a lower rung of a constructed false hierarchy, a hierarchy created precisely to justify the stealing of land while allowing those who benefited from the theft to feel good and righteous about it.

Where is the place to mourn (or even forget) the crimes of re-articulation, where are the memorials, the places of honouring our dead, our lost and heartbroken, how can our public places ever represent what this country is for our people? The beauty and the horror of this violent history remains invisible to most. The ideas captured in the colonial archive and the evidence of these ways of viewing our people must be collectively reckoned with and this analysis must be more than a reversal of signification. This is not a democracy of meaning. A fundamental challenge we have as Aboriginal people is to make visible our resistance and refusal of colonial “knowing” and maintain our ways of speaking of our long and short histories, as told by us. This challenge is pressing because of the ongoing erasure of our collective memory, and appropriation of our children’s memory through colonising objects, ideas and processes of representation and administration.

Ali Gumillya Baker, sovereignGODDESSnotdomestic (1), 2017, digital print light box. Courtesy the artist
Ali Gumillya Baker, sovereignGODDESSnotdomestic (1), 2017, digital print light box. Courtesy the artist

The challenge involves articulating languages of resistance that form something else. These articulations reconstitute the way we consider the past and loss through our rights as Aboriginal people to remember or just as importantly our rights to forget. Denzin and Lincoln provide us with a discussion of scholarly work that challenges the conventional western conceptualisation of research, the possibility of a research practice that is ethical and respects Indigenous ways of being. They argue that research should meet multiple criteria: “It must be ethical, performative, healing, transformative, decolonizing, and participatory. It must be committed to dialogue, community, self-determination, and cultural autonomy. It must meet peoples perceived needs. It must resist efforts to confine inquiry to a single paradigm or interpretive strategy. It must be unruly, disruptive, critical, and dedicated to the goals of justice and equity.”[14] 

This work must seek to undo the “order” of the cruel madness contained in the colonial archive. This decolonising work is also about our miniature worlds, the stories we tell; and the need to identify and include the local and ephemeral, transitory and ungovernable. As Indigenous peoples we are giants of our histories; we are central in our bodies on our countries and in our intergenerational responsibilities, our loving relationality and our knowledges of place. Indigenous artists can seek to minimise the “colonial enclosure” as a peripheral story at the end of long lawful times. We seek to minimise the oppressive ideas and maximise our transformation from them in the present. These transformed stories must also interrogate ideas of “enclosure” and the “internal environment” of home that make it (un)comfortable for colonisers and “easier or more difficult for non-Aborigines to visit.”[15] 

Easier or more difficult: depending on where you are positioned or position yourself within historical narratives and present political landscapes. Our histories are not exclusive, we can all learn from these movements of power, we can all share in these insights. Our consideration of the decolonising opposite to representations of violent white sovereignty and our response to colonial invasion of our land/body is not about a simple reversal/reflection of these acts; our sovereignty is not the opposite to this attempted possession and collection and ownership of everything. While our mimicry of these acts as described by Bhabha may raise awareness and insight into the familiarity and reiteration and normalisation of the colonial violence into the present, it does not heal us who are intergenerationally wounded.[16] 

Ali Gumillya Baker, sovereignGODDESSnotdomestic (2), 2017, digital print light box. Courtesy the artist
Ali Gumillya Baker, sovereignGODDESSnotdomestic (2), 2017, digital print light box. Courtesy the artist

While we need to understand and stand opposed to oppressive acts of colonialism, neo‑colonialism, imperialism and violence and global devastation of our bodies and lands, we cannot live within and endlessly perpetuate this violence of representation, we cannot dwell inside these abject theoretical prisons in order to educate our oppressors. But sometimes we do. We also seek what is outside and beyond, and we respond to the call of our ancestors, as Natalie Harkin states in our collective work, “we are compelled to respond.”[17] “The silence is waiting. The silence is waiting.”[18] Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak in, Who Sings the Nation State, articulate the following: “If the state is what "binds," it is also clearly what can and does unbind. And if the state binds in the name of the nation, conjuring a certain version of the nation forcibly, if not powerfully, then it also unbinds, releases, expels, banishes. If it does the latter, it is not always through emancipatory means, i.e. through ‘letting go’ or ‘setting free’; it expels precisely through an exercise of power that depends upon barriers and prisons and, so, in the mode of certain containment. We are not outside of politics when we are dispossessed in such ways. Rather, we are deposited in a dense situation of military power in which juridical functions become the prerogative of the military. This is not bare life, but a particular formation of power and coercion that is designed to produce and maintain the condition, the state, of the dispossessed. What does it mean to be at once contained and dispossessed by the state?”[19] 

If it is the representations of the colonial state that ultimately “contain and dispossess” us as Indigenous peoples, it is through Indigenous refusal to agree or engage with the unsettled narrative of colonial settlement, as argued by Simpson and Byrd, that makes Indigenous sovereignty, “unconquered and unconquerable,” and that Indigenous demonstrations of sovereignty are found in, “diplomacy and disagreement, through relation, kinship, and intimacy. And in an act of interpretation.”[20] Our relationships to ourselves and each other through our shared embodied knowledge of these hateful representations, these colonial racist texts. These texts form a colonising narrative in our minds as they continue their trajectory as shared presences in our lives, the complex ways in which stereotyped ideas are in turn collectively re-shaped, reflected, loved/hated/raged against and variously recast, resisted and refused to constitute spaces that move around and through us.[21]

Unbound Collective, bus shelter poster
Unbound Collective, Sovereign Love Poems, 2015, bus stop installation as part of TARNANTHI Festival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art. Photo: Denys Finney

Our ideas, our laughter, our tears, when shared lighten the weight of this knowing of the colonisers hatred and help each other imagine critical-creative landscapes and bodies based on relational sovereignty as love.[22] This is our collective archive fever in our thick present.[23] There is a woven consciousness of theoretical presence/absence across time place as articulated by Anne Riley: “my working through what I emotionally labour for—the affect of when I am often left speechless or shocked by what is not being understood—is somatically explored, recorded … It is the kind of conversation I want to have with the institution. Why have I been erased? Why have you forgotten your place and responsibility on this land? What is the place of love here? These questions are examples of the types of dialogue I desire, what I want to be asked without having to prompt the asking: in what way can I be placed in a space where I won’t need to work emotionally, where I won’t have to perform the labour of what is kept invisible—the legacies of dispossession and theft that no one talks about or wants to touch thus far.”[24] 

The way that Riley speaks of her emotional dissatisfaction with the colonised space of “culture” and the type of dialogue she desires is representative of broader ongoing and often unrecognised or invisible work of many Indigenous peoples reeling under the ideological weight of where we find ourselves. As Moten and Harney describe: “In the clear, critical light of day, illusory administrators whisper of our need for institutions, and all institutions are political, and all politics is correctional, so it seems we need correctional institutions in the common, settling it, correcting us. But we won’t stand corrected. Moreover, incorrect as we are there’s nothing wrong with us. We don’t want to be correct and we won’t be corrected. Politics proposes to make us better, but we were good already in the mutual debt that can never be made good. We owe it to each other to falsify the institution, to make politics incorrect, to give the lie to our own determination. We owe each other the indeterminate. We owe each other everything.”[25] 

The way that Moten and Harney speak of the indeterminate that we owe each other, that which is lacking from the neo‑liberal modernist future planning, and administration also relates to Indigenous knowledge production in this cultural landscape/space of intra-action. Our knowledges that resonate through time as truths are not “fixed” and “unchanging” as a museum display with accompanying label, but instead are ephemeral and inherited and changing with the moment of the telling and voice of the teller and the light in the sky and the relationality of the collective. We are outside these walls. These situated knowledges of indeterminacy can also be related to post-structuralist ways of understanding, but for us these philosophies always are inherently of country. These are Indigenous understandings, and were well understood by our research-active ancestors.[26] When speaking of indeterminacy, of the unknowable intra‑action of people and events and place, it is important to clarify that we are not speaking of forgetfulness or arbitrary identity construction that fails to name colonialisms’ dehistoricising as the missing moment in “the dialectic of modernity.”[27] This work seeks to be the antithesis of that forgetfulness. Our sovereign acts continue.

Ali Gumillya Baker, racist texts
Ali Gumillya Baker, racist texts, 2014–17, books, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist


  1. ^ Homi K. Bhabha, “In a spirit of calm violence”, in Gyan Prakesh, After Colonialism: Imperial Histories and Postcolonial Displacements, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, pp. 326–43.
  2. ^ For example, the South Australian Museum, South Australian State Records, Barr Smith Library, University of Adelaide.
  3. ^ Ali Gumillya Baker, ALIAN: Bow Down to the Sovereign Goddess inside the Museum of Unnatural History, Kaurna Gallery, Tandanya Aboriginal Cultural Institute, 2012.
  4. ^ See for example:
  5. ^ Stephen Jay Gould, “American polygeny and craniometry before Darwin. Blacks and Indians as separate, inferior species” in Sandra Harding, The "Racial" Economy of Science: Toward a Democratic Future, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993, pp. 84–115
  6. ^ See for example Ian Hacking, “How should we do the history of statistics” in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller, The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991, pp. 181–95
  7. ^ Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014, p. 8
  8. ^ I have since been told that these casts were regularly used to trade for other “objects”and artefacts.
  9. ^ Herbert M. Hale, “The First Hundred Years of the Museum 1856–1956,” 1956, Records of the South Australian Museum, p. 12
  10. ^ Jennifer A. González, Subject to Display: Reframing Race in Contemporary Installation Art, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2008, p. 3.
  11. ^ Goonya is a Kaurna word for white people.
  12. ^ Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, London: Routledge, 1994.
  13. ^ Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection, Stamford: Stamford University Press, 1997, p. 17
  14. ^ Ibid., p. 2.
  15. ^ Hugh Webb, H. (2007) ‘Say Goodbye To The Colonial Bogeyman: Aboriginal Strategies of Resistance’, 2006 in Altitude6:; Gary Foley, “Cultural Warrior’ in Robert Leonard (ed), Richard Bell: Positivity, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane.
  16. ^ Homi K. Bhabha, “Of mimicry and man: The ambivalence of colonial discourse,” in The Location of Culture, London: Routledge, 1994, pp. 85–92.
  17. ^ Bound Unbound Collective, Floorsheet, Sovereign Acts II, Flinders City Gallery, TARNANTHI Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, 14 October 2015.
  18. ^ Faye Rosas Blanch and Gus Worby (2010). “The silences waiting: Young Nunga males, curriculum and rap,” in The Journal of the Australian Curriculum Studies Association 30 (1): 1–13.
  19. ^ Judith Butler and Gayatri. C. Spivak, “Who Sings The Nation State?” in Language, Politics, Belonging, Calcutta, Seagull Books. 2017, p. 4.
  20. ^ Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism, University of Minnesota, pp. xvi-xvii.
  21. ^ For example, see Bryd’s discussion of native motion as an active presence, ibid. p. xvi.
  22. ^ Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Halifax & Winnipeg, Fernwood Publishing, 2008, p. 80.
  23. ^ See Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016, p.
  24. ^ Anne Riley, Indigeneity and the Work of Emotional Labour: Įladzeeé: Pulse in the Wrist. Mice Magazine:, 2006
  25. ^ Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Brooklyn NY: Minor Compositions, 2013, p. 27.
  26. ^ Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Live Up to Our Talk. He Manawa Whenua Conference 2013. University of Waikato:
  27. ^ Homi K. Bhabha, “In a Spirit of Calm Violence” in (ed) G. Prakash, After Colonialism: Imperial Histories and Postcolonial Displacements, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 327.

Ali Gumillya Baker, is an artist, cultural theorist and senior lecturer at Flinders University, and is a descendant of the Mirning nation from the Nullarbor on the West Coast of South Australia.

Card : Ali Gumullya Baker
Racist texts, 2014-17
Books, dimensions variable
Courtesy the artist