“The constructed nature of history and of identification is arbitrary, not fixed, but open to new possibilities of meaning and identification.”1
Repatriate brings together four artists who met and study together at the Queensland College of Art’s (QCA) Contemporary Australian Indigenous Art (CAIA) program, Griffith University, Brisbane alongside collective members Dion Beasley and Cairns (Gimuy) based artist Bernard Singleton Jr.
The title of the exhibition is usually associated with the return of objects or people, back to where they came from. An expanded definition includes to restore: to restore origins, allegiance, or citizenship2—adapted here as the duty and social responsibility to restore foundations. Specifically in this exhibition, a call to restore Australia’s true foundational historical accounts and memories.
Curated together the artworks are simultaneously loud and deeply poetic, informing us in a clear voice how histories are recorded, often skewed, and owned. The artists generously give us understandings why there must be honest considerations and fluidity for growth to restore our nation’s genuine narrative.
Darren Blackman’s (Gureng Gureng, Gangulu Nations), body of work speaks to the notion that there are two versions of the colonisation of Australia. In this process, Blackman proclaims his clan’s sovereignty through questioning the integrity of Eurocentric narratives that cling to “settlement,” and the purpose of that single ideology.
Blackman’s research uncovers how former Federal Education and Youth Minister Alan Tudge in 2021 argued that the problem with the draft changes to the national history curriculum “it [the impact of colonisation] gave the impression nothing bad happened before 1788
and almost nothing good has happened since.” Tudge emphasised how the planned updates downplayed Australia’s Western heritage and how we need to recognise that “…our democracy is based on our Christian and western origin with a reference to the importance of the values of patriotism and freedom”. 3
Australia’s shared history is one true history and there is fundamental responsibility for truth telling and to right wrongs—including in our education system.
As we witness the successive failures of the 2007 Close the Gap campaign 14 years on, and an Aboriginal Deaths in Custody rate of 1 death every 14 days since the Royal Commission Inquiry released its findings in 1991, with resemblances of protest banners, Blackmans complex text puzzles directly address failings in the dominant Eurocentric narrative.
Blackman states “the agenda is clear, Imperialism rebranded became capitalism, the Commonwealth Government of Australia continues to oppress First Nations people to continue the wilful destruction of their homelands to access resources. As a nation matures, questions are asked, conversations have started, the oppressors are nervous and the oppressed empowered. The truth hurts.”
Kyra Mancktelow (Quandamooka with links to the Mardigan people of Cunnamulla) in Gubba Up Mancktelow explores early encounters between the First Fleet and First Nations people and where culture was systematically damaged by the introduction of colonial garments—particularly the cast-off government and military jackets gifted to Aboriginal men as a way of assimilation and to cover up blak skin. As Mancktelow states her Ancestors “were named savages by the nakedness of their skin.”
‘Gubba Man’ or ‘Gubbamen’ were originally mispronunciations of “government” and subsequently ‘Gubba’ referred to all white people. Today ‘Gubba Up’, loosely translates to ‘whiten up’ – a phrase used by First Nations peoples to describe the need to change your way of life to suit your environment. To gubba up is to whiten up; to whiten up is to cover up. Gubba up and lose your Aboriginal identity. 4
In research led practice Mancktelow references colonial paintings from 1810-20 where Aboriginal men were depicted in ill-fitting jackets and coats.5 Mancktelow carefully recreates these garments in tarleton cloth. Tarleton was chosen purposely as it is a material used in the print making industry to remove ink from the etching plate. Mancktelow uses tarleton as a metaphor for the attempt to rub away the identity of cultural ways and knowledges.
The garments are uniquely relief printed and these all most transparent forms, are strongly overprinted with traditional weapons. By placing cultural artefacts on the garments Mancktelow directly signifies the continuum of culture and the untold history of resistance to assimilate and to gubba up.
Mancktelow’s artistic response is to the misconception recorded in colonial archives that cultural ways did not survive ‘successful’ assimilation and that beliefs, values and cultural practices were displaced by the governing Western society.
In his studies Dylan Mooney (Yuwi, Torres Strait/South Sea Islander) considers his Ancestor’s Yuwi shields housed in national and international institutional collections. Mooney seeks out spending time with these artefacts and reflects on them being so far away from Country, from their makers and the makers families.
Returning to the studio and after creating life size lithograph prints of the shields, Mooney hand colours the images, unequivocally reconnecting himself with the objects.
As part of his research process Mooney often visits Yuwi Country around Mackay and the areas the shields were made. Subsequently Mooney has worked with Elders hand carving his own shields from similar trees—understanding the process and connection these artefacts have to their creators and the land it came from.
Mooney takes this understanding and draws from his photographs on the back of the prints, the landscape and Country—restoring in a defined way the shields to their origins.
Dylan Sarra (Taribelang/Gooreng Gooreng) has been investigating the Burral Burral (Burnett River) Petroglyphs, on his Ancestors Country close to Bundaberg. Burral Burral flows from the Great Dividing Range and was the lifeblood of the Taribelang people. In a unique artistic tradition, the petroglyphs or rock-engravings were situated on an isolated outcrop of the river’s sandstone with an area of 3348 square kilometres and were considered the largest Aboriginal rock-engraving site on the east coast of Queensland at the time.
Between 1971 and 1972 a selection of 92 stone blocks from Burral Burral containing Aboriginal engravings and weighing up to 5 tonnes, were cut out of their original and traditional site and distributed to multiple locations across Queensland.
This was carried out by the State Government under the provisions of the then Aboriginal Relics Preservation Act 1967. The site was subsequently flooded during a dam construction and the removed blocks are still scattered across Queensland.
In his studio-based-practice research Sarra creates his own petroglyphs to understand how the stone feels to carve—the effort and skill needed in a similar way his Ancestors carved the Burral Burral stones. Sarra plans to create 92 individual carvings to represent the shattering and displacement of his Ancestors petroglyphs.
Each of his carvings is then replicated as prints with detailed lithography processes.
Sarra’s final body of work explores the stories surrounding the stones and will ultimately include bringing all 92 prints together symbolically restoring the Burral Burral Petroglyphs and “lighting of the embers to continue the conversation of repatriation.” 6
The invitation to local Yirrganydji Traditional Owner, Bernard Singleton Jr to contribute and respond to the ideas contained within Repatriate provides a powerful presence and further contemplation.
“Cultural extraction is still happening. The taking away bits of history without providing any context for it. The dark pasts that are hidden or forgotten and the emotional consequences that are ongoing. This representation of extraction practices that signifies our old people were in unison with Country and solutions
were at hand.”7
Darren Blackman, Kyra Mancktelow, Dylan Mooney, Dylan Sarra, Bernard Singleton Jr and Dion Beasley are First Nations artists that deeply investigate Australia’s histories from a true perspective, and as knowledge holders offer visual form and skilled poetic ways of informing us. Their research and artworks are conduits for truth telling and as such how we move forward as a nation.
Essay by Carol McGregor
1 Gordon Bennett, “The Manifest Toe” in Ian McLean & Gordon Bennett, The Art of Gordon Bennett, Craftsman House, Australia, p 42
5 As they did not wear the jackets or garments ‘correctly’ Aboriginal people were often ridiculed such as in the 1819 watercolour ‘Sauvages de la Nouvelle Galles du Sud’ attributed to Alphonse Pellion.
6 Dylan Sarra 2022
7 Bernard Singleton Jr 2022