The Aboriginal Memorial
The Aboriginal Memorial is an installation of 200 hollow log coffins from Central Arnhem Land. It commemorates all the indigenous people who, since 1788, have lost their lives defending their land. The artists who created this installation intended that it be located in a public place where it could be preserved for future generations.
1988 marked the Bicentenary of Australia, a celebration of 200 years of European settlement, yet many indigenous Australians felt that there was little to celebrate. The Bicentenary elicited varied responses from both white and black Australia. Whilst it provoked widespread boycott and protest, the stage was set for indigenous people to demonstrate the resilience and vitality of their culture, and to invite the public to share in the celebration of that culture's endurance. The Aboriginal Memorial was inspired by this political climate.
At the time, Djon Mundine was Art Adviser in Ramingining in Central Arnhem Land. The idea for the project was triggered when Mundine saw a video of John Pilger's documentary 'The Secret Country', in which Pilger talks of the decimation of a tribal group who owned land on the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, and who died 'to the last man, woman and child defending their country'. Pilger later says,'lndeed, in a land strewn with cenotaphs which honour the memory of Australian servicemen who have died in almost every corner of the earth, not one stands for those [first Australians] who fought and fell in defence of their own country.'
'In the course of my work at Ramingining, the major role was to make the world more aware and appreciative of Aboriginal art and culture,' Djon Mundine has said. He initiated The Aboriginal Memorial project with its 200 hollow log coffins, one for each year of European settlement, representing a forest of souls, a war cemetery and the final rites for all indigenous Australians who have been denied a proper burial.
Mundine approached a small group of senior artists including Paddy Dhathangu, George Malibirr, Jimmy Wululu and Dr. David Daymirringu . The project grew to include 43 artists, both male and female, from Ramingining and its surrounds in Central Arnhem Land.
In 1987 the Memorial was offered to the National Gallery of Australia, but at that stage the project was in its infancy. The National Gallery therefore agreed to commission the installation to enable the artists, most of whom are professional bark painters, sculptors and weavers, to complete the project. The Memorial was initially shown at the Biennale of Sydney in 1988, then brought to Canberra where it is now permanently housed in the National Gallery of Australia.