A new book, No Stone Without a Name, finds in colonial artwork a visual history of possession and dispossession in Western Australia, as Kennedy Warne discovers.
In a few months, Australians will vote in a referendum on whether to alter the Australian Constitution to grant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders — collectively the First Nations of Australia — recognition and representation in the Australian parliament. In short, the vote is about having a voice in the halls of power. Current polls show public support for and opposition to the proposed change are roughly equal.
Much of the impetus for the Voice Referendum, as it’s called, has come from a 2017 petition by Indigenous leaders known as the Uluru Statement from the Heart. The statement is a call for recognition and truth-telling. It seeks to end what Australia’s Indigenous people describe as “the torment of powerlessness”. It calls for makarrata, an Aboriginal word that encompasses conflict resolution, peacemaking and justice.
Makarrata, I think, is like the tatau pounamu that has become familiar to us on this side of the Tasman: the greenstone door that closes out the injustice of the past and opens to a more equitable future.
The referendum is part of a wider reckoning with Australia’s colonial and Indigenous past. The historical narratives that have shaped Australian identity have been challenged and found wanting. For white Australians, this is a time of “soul-searching enquiry”, as Western Australian artist and writer Philippa O’Brien puts it in the preface to a remarkable new book that explores her state’s history through the lens of colonial art.
The title of the book, No Stone Without a Name, is curious at first glance, wonderful when understood. It comes from an observation of George Grey when he was governor of South Australia in 1841, prior to taking up that role in New Zealand. He was quoting the Roman poet Lucian, who said of the ruins of the ancient city of Troy that there was “no stone without a name, and a story to tell”.
Grey was perceptive enough to see that, for Aboriginal people, the same truth applies. “Country” — the total environment, the world around them — is so brimful of meanings and stories that it is considered to be alive. This is the world Aboriginal people inhabited and possessed for more than 60,000 years.
And then, in the blink of an eye, it was taken away. The land that was so rich in names, history, story, dreaming and law was declared terra nullius — no man’s land. Of all colonial lies, surely this one was the most grievous, the most brazen.
Colonisation works by taking the precious and rendering it profane. Country, in all its sentient glory, became property to be parcelled up by the acre for all-comers.
In recent decades, the veritable explosion of Aboriginal art-making — a movement that rivals anything in the history of art — shows just how false the terra nullius deception is. In the outpouring of contemporary Aboriginal painting, the viewer comes face to face with a land known with incomparable intimacy by its people.
But No Stone Without a Name is not about that stunning modern work. Rather, it considers the landscape art of the period of European colonisation. It further confines its assessment to Western Australia. But there is enough art from that time and place to fill more than 450 sumptuously printed pages. And enough sorrow to fill an ocean.
“We know this is stolen land, and that the minority of the original population who survived the first decades were then subject to racist, discriminatory legislation for much of our shared history,” writes Aboriginal artist Kim Scott in the book’s foreword. “Our colonial art helped allow this.”
That last thought may come as a surprise. Art abetting injustice, even responsible for perpetuating a people’s displacement and relegation? Phillipa O’Brien argues that that is what art can do: normalise the grotesque. Properly viewed, a beautifully painted colonial landscape can be seen from another perspective — that of the brutality of the process that brought it into being. A landscape of darkness as much as light.
The making of landscape art was itself a type of colonisation, O’Brien says. It was not so much about depicting truth as exerting control. “Art blinds us to some things and emphasises others,” writes Scott. “It creates a hierarchy of values, a sense of justice and a way of being. Art informs our sense of identity and belonging in the landscape, and also tends to obfuscate the realities of the colonial enterprise. If we are to be post-colonial, if we are to transform, we need to thoughtfully dismantle some of that which makes us what we are and go on to rebuild and refine.”
That necessary dismantling requires a willingness to confront the challenges of history — never a comfortable task for the descendants of colonisers because, as O’Brien explains: “History is the chief weapon of colonialism, which annihilates what was there before and superimposes its own narrative.
“This collection of pictures provides a counterbalance to that narrative; a resource to help us face the challenges and pitfalls that even the best intentioned descendants and beneficiaries of colonisers will encounter as we try to unravel things long unexamined.”
One of those long unexamined assumptions was the colonial assumption that there was no prior culture in Australia. “They thought culture was somewhere else, that this land was un-cultured, that it had no tradition, no understandable history,” writes O’Brien. “These ideas have echoed into the present, with a continuing failure to value, or even acknowledge the unique history of this place.”
As with colonists everywhere, the possession of land by European settlers required the dispossession of its previous occupants — and this twofold injury is the central theme of the book.
I have come to think of the word “settler” as one of the many lies of colonisation, implying, as it does, that arriving somewhere and putting down roots is a benign and unproblematic act. Not if it involves uprooting people who are already there. In the case of Aboriginal people, with a 60,000-year history not just of occupation but of an emotional and spiritual connection to place that is impossible for a westerner to comprehend, that uprooting was a rupture that continues to wreak untold damage on Aboriginal society.
“For the indigenous people, land was truly everything,” writes O’Brien. “The land owned them, and their relationship with the land on which they were born was central to their identity in every aspect of life. The concept of private ownership of land did not exist and was as foreign to them as the idea of taking someone else’s land. . . . There were no wars about land. Its ‘ownership’ was inviolable and accepted by all.”
Given those realities, the act of dispossession was tantamount to cultural genocide. That erasure is reflected in the art of the time. Aboriginal people, if they appear at all in the landscape, are presented as ornamental figures, framing devices, exotic touches. Only rarely is their humanity expressed. More rarely still are they visually acknowledged as the land’s legitimate occupants. Mostly they are simply absent.
As Phillipa O’Brien notes: “A human presence could raise issues of morality or justice, challenging the simple narrative of ownership.”
Yet the scale of the precolonial human presence in Australia is simply mind-boggling. In Aotearoa, we cast our minds back 700 years to the first arrivals from the islands of eastern Polynesia. In Australia, the earliest evidence of humans keeps getting pushed back in time. The latest archaeological dating indicates a human presence 70,000 years ago — a hundred times longer than the time span of humans in Aotearoa; the most continuously enduring culture on Earth.
Yet it was not until the mid-1960s that anyone imagined there could be a human past to be found in the Australian soil. Now “the mist through which non-indigenous people glimpse the earliest civilisation is clearing,” O’Brien writes.
Part of the work of considering the artistic record of colonisation is a labour of deconstruction — excavating the overlay to find the veiled truth beneath. It is rather like an art expert scraping off layers of added pigment in an oil painting to discover the original scene.
Deconstruction reveals “the neglected voices, the feelings ignored, the hidden secrets, the overlooked duality of so many of the images,” notes O’Brien. “We need to lay bare all assumptions of superiority and search for another picture within the picture. While these artworks are the treasured heritage of one section of the community, we need to clear the space in this archive for the Aboriginal perspective. . . . They may then tell a very different story and awaken very different memories and very different feelings, in the same still, silent visual space.”
If, as a result, we can step outside of patterns of thought we accept without thinking, and find a way to think differently, “there may be space, and time, to find a way forward to see and feel anew.”
Seen in this light, colonial archives are not an irredeemable artefact of cultural erasure, but an opportunity to question long-accepted narratives and to allow an alternative story to unfold. “Colonial archives both disguise and reveal the persistent and continuous presence of the colonised people in their land. We are now in need of a picture of the land before colonisation, before so much was changed, before environmental devastation and before the destruction of the evidence of the past.”
Australia needs this new picture. So do New Zealand and other former colonies. Because the reality, writes O’Brien in a particularly pungent paragraph, is that “there is no such thing as Post-colonialism: we are still bound to this painful framework, this wheel of fire. Some have reaped the profits of dispossession and still defend their privileged position, but many search for redress, for a healing of this injury at the centre of our communal psyche.”
The process of healing involves us all.
“We are all cast in this drama,” O’Brien writes. “Until we think and feel our way through this dark and troubling space, people will remain trapped in the drama of colonisation — including those in their inherited role as the descendants of colonisers. . . . Colonialism is like a Greek tragedy — the original crimes are almost impossible to expiate. It corrupts the colonisers as much as it damages the colonised. Its ramifications echo through the generations, colouring everything for everyone.”
But there is hope, there is a way through, “to a more truthful, generous, liberating and just future.”
The art O’Brien has assembled for this project, drawn from sources all over the world, traverses millennia. It begins, as it must, with an evocation of the ancestral cosmos through photographs of exuberantly drawn rock art and finely crafted artefacts. These images create a context for what is to come — the rendering of that world invisible through the image-making of the colonial era.
That period begins with the European navigators who first began to map the great southern continent, then through the scientific expeditions of the Enlightenment, a period O’Brien describes as “consuming the world through European eyes”.
That metaphorical consumption led inexorably to consumption of land and resources during European settlement, a period marked by an embedded and unshakable sense of entitlement. In despatches from the British Colonial Office during this time, the existence of a pre-existing human population living on the land was sometimes not even mentioned.
Tens of thousands of years of Indigenous occupation were irrelevant to the dreams and prospects of the English arrivals to the newly founded colony of Swan River (now Perth). What mattered to them was not the dismemberment of Indigenous society, but that theirs was to be a free settlement without the stain of convicts to taint their future respectability.
Yet the ancestral presence of the Indigenous people could not be erased then, and can but increase today, regardless of the outcome of the Voice referendum. On recent visits to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Tasmania, I’ve been impressed by the speed with which Australian society is recognising Aboriginal realities and rights.
Bookshops stock a growing array of Aboriginal titles, from scholarly accounts of Indigenous astronomy to a children’s book on the stolen generations. Visitor tours begin with an acknowledgment of country: “I acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land and pay my respects to elders past and present.” The Aboriginal flag flutters from the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge alongside the Australian flag.
These are positive developments, but a reckoning with history is a long journey. A reckoning, for example, with the attitude of Perth’s founder, James Stirling, who declared that the only way to deal with Aboriginal people “was to reduce their tribe to weakness” by inflicting “such acts of decisive severity as will appal them as people.” Stirling subsequently threatened “to destroy every man, woman and child if there was further trouble,” writes O’Brien.
Today it is white Australians who should be appalled, and many are. They are responding to an awakening of conscience that historian Henry Reynolds has memorably called “this whispering in our hearts”.
Books such as No Stone Without A Name amplify those whispers. The very artworks so prolifically displayed in its pages speak to a long-suppressed consciousness of what has transpired on the continent. In the many views from Mt Eliza, with radiant light bathing wildflowers and the foliage of overhanging eucalypts, the presence of a scattering of Noongar people suggests two realities, writes O’Brien: “the (implied) colonial viewer and the colonised, objectified Aboriginal figures . . . vanquished contestants in an evasive, subterranean, ever-present, persistent dialogue about the ownership of the land.”
In reading these pages, I found myself silently cheering for the few Aboriginal people who refused to go quietly into the dark night of dispossession. Individuals such as Fanny Balbuk Yooreel, whose home fire was on Mt Eliza, and who, throughout her life, “raged and stormed at the usurping of her beloved home ground. Through fences and over them, Balbuk took the straight track to the end. When a house was built in the way, she broke its fence palings with her digging stick and charged up the steps and through the rooms. She never let the settlers forget whose land they had taken and would stand at the gates of Government House where her grandmother’s burial ground lay, cursing those who lived inside.”
The few European artists who cared to depict Aboriginal scenes such as corroboree or other ceremonial gatherings have done contemporary Indigenous people a great service. Although the depictions may be crudely drawn or drawn from a Eurocentric perspective, they are, writes O’Brien, “a testament to the continuing commitment, in the face of annihilation, to keep culture alive, to travel across the land, to maintain social bonds and to perform the ceremony that kept their custodianship intact. They make manifest the complexity, the poetry, the completeness of the life that once was lived on this land.”
It is one of these scenes of ceremony that is, for me, the most memorable image in the book. It is a night scene. A full moon is just rising over distant hills. A score of campfires dot a large plain. In the circle of light around each fire, family groups are gathered, their spears and spear throwers laid on the ground beside them. The ordinariness of the gathering is poignant. This is Aboriginal business-as-usual. Yet by the 1840s, when this watercolour was painted by John Blundell, an immigrant bookkeeper in his 20s, this way of life was disappearing.
But it was so much more than a “way of life” that would be obliterated by the colonial onslaught. “Here everything, every hill and river, every plant and animal and every person was embraced in a web of stories of how they came into being,” writes O’Brien. “It is a place where people lived in a country that was itself a living creation narrative.”
Such a loss was, and is, a moral catastrophe. But seeing the scene on the page, and knowing its painter saw it in person, invites the reader to imagine a future in which Indigenous life is restored.
Whether or not the Voice referendum succeeds in achieving constitutional change, white Australia’s reckoning with history will continue. It is a journey, writes Phillipa O’Brien in the book’s epilogue, an exploration of relationships with the land and with its inhabitants. That exploration is likely to “shatter an established, glibly accepted narrative,” she writes, “and replace it with a more complex, layered and truthful version of history.”
It won’t be an easy road, she warns. “Guilt, pain, anger and bitterness may be the first fruit, but they pave the path to understanding, to empathy and compassion, and the ability to change the way things are.”
No Stone Without a Name is published by Ellenbrook Cultural Foundation. RRP $120 from www. ellenbrookarts.com.au
Kennedy Warne is the co-founder and former editor of New Zealand Geographic magazine and the author of Tūhoe: Portrait of a Nation, published in 2013. His new book Soundings: Diving for stories in the beckoning sea was published in June, and is available through Massey University Press for $39.99.
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