Undermining the foundations of terra nullius
A couple of years ago I quipped to my friend Alec Coles, who had recently taken up the position of CEO at the West Australian Museum, that the spirit of terra nullius lurks beneath the floorboards of every museum and art gallery in Australia. Apparently, he has dined out on this slightly parsimonious comment once or twice since. Alec likes to raise the stakes in discussions with his colleagues about the responsibilities that history demands of them as leaders of major collecting institutions—each with its own problematic legacy in terms of respecting and representing Indigenous culture.
Nowhere in Australia are these expectations more acute, and the cultural setting more concentrated, than in Tasmania. Violent invasion and ad hoc massacre of Indigenous people in the process of “peaceful settlement” occurred across the Australian continent. But only in Tasmania, with its bounded, island geography did the Governor, the press and the popular colonial imagination aspire to cleanse the jurisdiction completely of its most irritating ethnic problem. The putative success of this process was such that we Tasmanian Aborigines have the dubious distinction of being best known for our absence. I have lost count of the number of times someone has awkwardly jibed, “Really? I thought we’d shot you all out!” Only in Tasmania are you expected to join in a joke about the genocidal treatment of your own family.
Throughout the twentieth century, commencing with captioned postcards declaring our famous diplomat and guerrilla fighter Trucanini as “the last of her race,”’ to Raphael Lemkin’s acknowledgement of Tasmania as an archetypal case of his newly coined concept of genocide, representation of the Aboriginal experience in Tasmania languished in the “too hard basket.” For most Tasmanians, growing up during this time meant that the only public exposure of Indigenous culture to be witnessed here was the spectre of Trucanini’s skeleton, articulated for display at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 1904, and later a naïve diorama of a strangely nuclear family gazing wistfully at their hearth fire—a picture of prehistory.
Neither of these representations threatened the tenets upon which the idea of terra nullius was based. Trucanini’s small, fragile skeleton, brutally stripped of its physiognomy and surrounded in its glass case by a few coarse baskets, simple shell necklaces, spears and stone tools, served instead to perpetuate the sentiment expressed by the very first Englishman to arrive on Australian shores. The influence of William Dampier, whose views were published in his widely‑read A New Voyage around the World (1697), can also be seen in the journals of Cook, DuFresne and many other European explorers who followed. Dampier wrote that “the Inhabitants of this Country are the miserablest People in the World … setting aside their Humane Shape, they differ but little from Brutes”. The diorama served similar ends. The small family group camped on a lonely beach played squarely to the notion of the wandering savage, offering a visual rhetoric confirming Emerich de Vattel’s principal that “nations incapable by the smallness of their numbers to people the whole, cannot exclusively appropriate to themselves more land than they had occasion for.” Nor did the scene offer any sign of agricultural practice, which John Locke had inextricably linked with the right to property or recognition of injury upon their removal.
The TMAG diorama persisted as an obligatory part of every Hobart schoolchild’s museum experience until the mid 1990s, when work commenced on development of a new gallery informed by the input of an Aboriginal Advisory Council and managed by the institution’s first Aboriginal curator, Tony Brown. Ningina tunapri, with its strong focus on family, community survival and cultural continuity, established a progressive benchmark for Indigenous cultural representation in Tasmania. Refreshed in 2012 as part of the TMAG’s redevelopment, a full‑sized replica of a Tasmanian bark canoe became its proud centrepiece.
Painstakingly researched with reference to models built by traditional knowledge holders while in detention at Wybalenna on Flinders Island in the 1840s, as well as delicate drawings made by French artists travelling with the D’Entrecasteaux and Baudin expeditions half a century before, this object remains a high‑point in the representation of cultural strength, beauty and resilience. Its creation has since prompted commissions of similar work by many other institutions, including the National Museum of Australia and National Maritime Museum.
The TMAG gallery offered, for the first time, a comprehensive account of Tasmanian Aboriginal history, with a vast sweep of cultural expression ranging from Pleistocene stone tools made before the last Ice Age, through to a series of late twentieth‑century protest t‑shirts. The extent of Aboriginal occupation of the island and use of its unique resources, such as the Phasianotrochus shells for manufacture of beautiful maireener necklaces, now make it clear to visitors that occupation and relationships to land are complex, extensive and continuing. Most importantly, the gallery now serves as a platform for a school education program involving contemporary Aboriginal community members, and the generation of series of satellite exhibitions. These have included tayenebe, celebrating women’s basket making, and kanalaritja, a landmark showcase of the maireener necklace tradition. Both of these shows have enjoyed critical acclaim as national touring exhibitions, liberating obscure and unappreciated objects that had been previously confined to an ethnographic past in Trucanini’s glass display case. They have also enabled today’s practitioners to celebrate the beauty and deep significance of intricately woven baskets and unique opalescent necklaces as symbols of cultural beauty, continuity and innovation.
In 2013 a new gallery, Parrawa, Parrawa! Go Away!, was opened at TMAG to tell the story of the defence of clan Country by Tasmanian Aboriginal nations against British invasion. Produced with an exceedingly small budget, this examination of frontier conflict in Van Diemen’s Land was the first major project by a major Tasmanian public institution to acknowledge the Black War of Aboriginal extermination that occurred on the island between 1824 and 1832. Despite cost constraints, the gallery achieves a sombre impact that would be perhaps less easily accomplished with a denser, more complex approach. Central to the gallery is a permanent installation by contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginal artist Julie Gough. The Consequence of Chance (2011) uses motifs from the so‑called “Proclamation Boards” designed by colonial surveyor George Franklin in 1829 to refer to the empty gesture of equal justice offered to Tasmanian Aboriginal people in the hope of ending frontier hostilities.
Parrawa, Parrawa! Go Away! has also served as a catalyst for a number of more far‑reaching initiatives. In 2018, the National Gallery of Australia hosts The National Picture: art of Tasmania’s Black War, an exhibition co‑curated by the author and Tim Bonyhady, examining the work of Benjamin Duterrau and other colonial artists who documented the lives and events associated with frontier conflict in Van Diemen’s Land. This project embodies doctoral research I have carried out in recent years, and over thirty years of publication by Bonyhady, and extends the exploration, pioneered by TMAG, of how national remembrance and memorial of the impact of colonial violence on Australia’s Indigenous population can drive state collecting institutions to document these aspects of our visual history that remain contested or ignored.
The TMAG gallery also played a significant part in influencing my work in forming a proposal by the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Art Park as part of the Tasmanian Government’s major urban redevelopment project for a disused rail terminal facility in docklands adjacent to the city of Hobart. In 2016, I worked with Mona’s Dark Lab to reset the masterplan for Macquarie Point after the original vision was poorly received. While realisation will be some years off, with the state government now in accord with the Mona vision, a new trajectory has been established to acknowledge the Black War as part of the built landscape. It is anticipated that the Art Park will avoid an approach involving monument as edifice; instead creating a civic space that can be activated, culturally and socially as a dynamic approach to remembrance.
Mona has been instrumental since its establishment in transforming aspirations relating to festivals, art-based tourism and cultural innovation in Tasmania. While this privately-owned museum does not take the strategic approach typical of state institutions with respect to engagement with Indigenous cultures, it has nevertheless been successful with a number of projects engaging Tasmanian Aboriginal artists in festivals, cultural markets and protocols associated with the loan of sacred objects from interstate and overseas. Owner, David Walsh, has consistently responded to examples I have raised of successful Indigenous representation initiatives at other institutions by questioning himself. “I’m not sure why I should do this,” is his characteristic response.
Our conversations have gone in a different direction. Mona is currently examining the relationship of its Berridale site with Aboriginal heritage places on the River Derwent as a constituent part of larger scale cultural landscapes in the region. Our discussions, if they continue to make sense (as they have so far) could have profound implications for Hobart and other major cities in Australia; significantly shifting our current (post)colonial understandings of placed‑ness, highlighting the complicity of such institutions in reiterating discursive structures that inherently disempower Indigenous people. By looking outside of the built aspect of the museum, it will be possible to forge a novel approach, stepping away from the constraints of our built, colonial past and into a more immersive relationship with landscape and Country; a way of decolonising the idea of a museum.
As Picasso has claimed “Museums are just a lot of lies, and the people who make art their business are mostly impostors ... We have infected the pictures in our museums with all our stupidities, all our mistakes, all our poverty of spirit. We have turned them into petty and ridiculous things.” Picasso’s comments are from another time and place, but their veracity endures. My work with Mona on this project is aimed at breaking with the orthodox progressivism that has constrained museums in Australia through capitalising on Mona’s nascent, unconventional approach to Indigenous engagement and its approach to the business of art in general. It is hoped that a paradigm‑shifting movement might be triggered. Mona’s willingness to take the challenge of intercultural subjectivity outside of the walls of the institution, and into the landscape itself has the capacity to stimulate ideas about how museum and art gallery programs, exhibitions or builds might be able to escape the hegemonic orbits in which they have been trapped in the (post)colonial West.
While TMAG has been able to evolve into a more affirmative conversation about the colonial experience of Aboriginal people, Mona could achieve a kind of quantum leap. Such a shift has the potential to render counter‑hegemonic approaches redundant by revealing possible discursive environments that do not require the anachronistic precepts of coloniality as referents in order to have social value for Indigenous people. After all, it is often difficult to see what benefit Aboriginal sovereign peoples have to show after five hundred years of engagement with collecting institutions. Much is at stake: “A perspective on sovereignty is important for art professionals who control museum spaces. The seamless inclusion of Indigenous art in a first-world museum with no opportunity to contextualise it – to recognise our continued struggle to be a self‑determined people in our homelands, and to understand our distinct cosmologies and world views – will undermine the survival of First Nations communities.”
At issue is the reality that most museums and art galleries are enslaved by the interests of their state sponsors through political and financial controls. The effect is to avoid any serious interrogation of the legitimacy of coloniser states as occupiers of country that was, until relatively recently, an Aboriginal domain; a domain over-run by means that today would be morally unacceptable, according to a principle of terra nullius that has now been recognised as fiction.
Mona, like the TMAG, is physically constructed on middens left by the original occupants of the landscape in which they are located. But unlike TMAG, Mona’s foundations in the structures of state colonialism are less entrenched. State museums are congenitally infected by the disease of colonisation and the hegemonies of empire. This relationship compromises Foucault’s ideal of the archive as a “truth regime,” and instead contorts their role as guardians of ideology, maintaining them as perverse sources of epistemological power. Mona has quietly side-stepped the approach of most other Australian galleries that focus on thematic exhibitions advocating critical engagement with colonial history or Indigenous culture. Instead, it has in a matter-of-fact way incorporated contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginal art into its headline international exhibitions. Theatre of the World (2013), for example, included the printmaking of Alan Mansell, and the even more ambitious On the Origin of Art (2016) featuring shell necklaces by Lola Greeno. These works were not presented as an attempt to argue anything other than their value amongst an international cohort of creative practices. They are full participants in the main game, rather than an enclave presence in a larger, disinterested scheme that offers the presence of Otherness in order to evidence the progressiveness of its (post)colonialism.
I am quite certain that Mona has no desire to strategically influence any shift in the relationship between Australia’s collecting institutions and Indigenous culture. Until recently, Mona was reluctant to even express a strategic interest in its own future. But David Walsh’s dissatisfaction with most current social constructs (or at least the popular blind faith in them) has a strong capacity to affect a sympathetic response from Tasmanian cultural industries if the enthusiastic response to Mona’s whimsical forays into festivals, exhibitions and, most recently, a hotel/casino are anything to go by. Anything viable that emerges from current discussions could see a significant rupture in the representational terrain we have become used to.
There is no doubt of the need for institutions such as TMAG to continue their current, successful process of development and innovation as a response to past injustices and the continuing malignancy of (post)colonialism. My hope is that, just as Mona was able to inspire the populace with the improbable idea of a multi-million dollar urban acknowledgement of frontier misdemeanour at Macquarie Point, we might see something similarly unanticipated that reveals the cultural landscape of Country itself (which underlies and surrounds every city and town in Australia) as a canvas for our cultural future. Tasmanian Aboriginal culture has certainly always seen itself as inseparable from Country. This could be a long overdue opportunity for the rest of contemporary Australia to begin to realise and respect that same sense of place.
- ^ See Ann Curthoys, Raphael Lemkin’s Tasmania: An Introduction,” Patterns of Prejudice (39:2), 2006.
- ^ Her skeleton was removed from public display in 1947 and finally cremated in 1976.
- ^ Cited in William Lawrence Eisler, The Furthest Shore: Images of Terra Australis, from the Middle Ages to Captain Cook, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 132.
- ^ Emerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law, London: J. Newbury, 1760, p. 91.
- ^ John Locke, The Treatises of Government, (ed. P. Laslett) New York: New American Library, 1965, pp. 321, 341.
- ^ Alfred H. Barr Jr., Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art, New York: Museum of Modem Art, 1946, p. 274.
- ^ Jolene Rickard, “After essay—Indigenous is the Local,” in Lydia Jessup and Shannon Bagg (eds), On Aboriginal Representation in the Gallery, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilisation, p. 121.
- ^ The concept of terra nullius was overturned by the Australian High Court when it recognised the existence of Native Title in the case Mabo v The State of Queensland, 1992.
- ^ See Darren Jorgensen and Ian McLean, Indigenous Archives: The Making and Unmaking of Aboriginal Art, Crawley, WA: University of Western Australia Publishing, pp. vii–viii.
Greg Lehman is an Aboriginal Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Tasmania’s School of Geography and Spatial Sciences. His recent work includes lead curation of the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery’s first permanent Indigenous gallery, and the libretto for A Tasmanian Requiem, an oratorio exploring the moral dimensions of Tasmania’s Black War.
Card: Julie Gogh
The Crossing (Consequence of Chance)3, 2011, canvas tent with shadow cut-outs. Installation view, TMAG, Bond Store. Collection: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Photo: Simon Cuthbert