From Australia’s biggest cities to the smallest towns, monuments dot the nation in remembrance of lives lost in overseas wars. But what about the First Nations lives lost in the making of Australia? On the eve of our 40th anniversary, the Gallery re-examines The Aboriginal Memorial.
From Australia’s biggest cities to the smallest towns in the most remote parts of the country, monuments dot the nation in remembrance of lives lost in overseas wars over more than a century. By some estimates, more than 4000 memorials around Australia remember the dead, who lost their lives on the foreign battlegrounds of World War I and World War II.
But what about the lives lost in the making of Australia? A young country built on the displacement of the original inhabitants of a land more than 65,000 years old. Australia’s brutal colonial legacy is much less well known than the ANZAC myth, yet tens of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were killed from the late 1700s to the early 20th Century in the Frontier Massacres of First Nations people across this country.
How are they remembered?
This question prompted the idea behind The Aboriginal Memorial nearly 40 years ago. Bandjalung artist and curator Djon Mundine was working with artists in Ramingining in central Arnhem Land when discussions turned to the disconnect between the commemoration of the war dead and the absence of memorials for the First Nations people who died defending their land.
In the lead up to the Australian Bicentenary in 1988, Mundine took his concept of 200 hollow log coffins that would comprise the memorial to Nick Waterlow, director of the Biennale of Sydney, before beginning discussions with James Mollison, the National Gallery’s inaugural director.
“I had this idea as a reaction to the Bicentenary,” Mundine explained in 2018 while in conversation with current National Gallery Director, Nick Mitzevich, as part of a symposium to mark the 30th anniversary of the work.
“I was aware lots of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists were boycotting the Bicentenary because it wasn’t such a boon to Aboriginal people,” he said.
“I thought that absence – boycotting things – would not be noticed internationally. I thought we had to have a presence, but on our terms.”
Mundine’s proposal resonated with Mollison, who was shown photographs of the first 20 painted hollow logs, which he thought “stunning”. He commissioned The Aboriginal Memorial, which would have a permanent home at the National Gallery after making its debut at the Sydney Biennale.
Launching The Aboriginal Memorial at the National Gallery in September 1988, Mollison left no doubt of the importance of the work: “The notion of a work of art of such profound significance and on such a monumental scale as The Aboriginal Memorial appealed very much to the Gallery.”
“The Memorial represents a watershed in Aboriginal Art in that it presents a potent public statement through a major work of art – perhaps the most important work of art ever to be created in this country.”
Bruce Johnson McLean, Wierdi/Birri Gubba people, who heads First Nations Engagement at the National Gallery, says The Aboriginal Memorial remains as critical to Australian culture today as when it was conceived in the 1980s.
“It was a defining exhibition for Australian visual culture – it compelled many to view the world through the eyes of First Nations people for the first time,” he said.
On 1 June 2022, after three years of consultation, the National Gallery will unveil the first phase of a major revitalisation project for The Aboriginal Memorial – its relocation to Gallery 9 on Level 2. Positioned in the literal ‘heart’ of the Gallery, the Memorial will become central to every visitor’s art experience.
Mitzevich said the National Gallery’s 40th anniversary was the right moment to revisit The Aboriginal Memorial and ensure Gallery audiences could engage and understand the most important work in the national collection.
“This project has enabled the National Gallery, with the help of conceptual curator Djon Mundine, to reconnect with the community in Ramingining and we are honoured to be able to work with them to reimagine ways all Australians can connect with The Aboriginal Memorial.”
In 2023, a major publication about The Aboriginal Memorial will be released, and, over coming months, there will be a program of public and educational activity to engage audiences.
A major motivation for the project and the move, according to Johnson McLean, is the notion of life.
“Here in Canberra, we are used to seeing many monuments – they are often large and cold and huge. They symbolise death,” he said. “Memorials are alive.”
“As custodians of The Aboriginal Memorial, we are charged with keeping the spirit of this work alive, of keeping the memories and legacies of those who have gone before alive. We are committed to keeping this an active memorial space long into the future.”