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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Activating the space

by Sandra Phillips, 20 January 2020

Vincent Brady leading anti Bicentenary Protest, Brisbane, 1987 Michael Aird
Vincent Brady leading anti Bicentenary Protest, Brisbane, 1987 Michael Aird

Indigenous people are routinely described by mainstream media as ‘activists’. For some of us that resonates – for example, who hasn’t heard an Indigenous person say, ‘just breathing is political’? Indeed, with only one in twenty of us reaching the age of sixty-five (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016), ‘just breathing’ does indeed seem a radical act.

I wonder though, if we are all activists, what does that say about those people whose choices and risks more readily fit the dictionary definition of activism, which is ‘the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change’. Is just being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ‘vigorous campaigning’? Are we each inherently seeking to ‘bring about political or social change’?

What is the change we seek? And what are the ‘vigorous campaigning’ tactics? The ‘activism’ in Cairns Art Gallery’s 2019 exhibition Queen’s Land Blak Portraiture gave us much grist for the mill in such considerations.

1Blood Money – Infinite Dollar Note – Aunty Rose Colless oam Commemorative, 2019. 2Blood Money – Infinite Dollar Note – Dundalli Commemorative, 2017. Both Ryan Presley.

Visitors to Queen’s Land Blak Portraiture were greeted with representations of activism through a range of mediums. These included paintings, such as Aboriginality victorious by Gordon Hookey, and Ryan Presley’s Blood Money series; photography, such as the striking photography of protest action by Juno Gemes, Michael Aird, and Penny Tweedie, Ricky Maynard’s iconic Returning To Places That Name Us series, and Fiona Foley’s remarkable HHH series; performance in video, with Richard Bell’s Uz vs Them; poetry by Oodgeroo Noonuccal; and select posters and cartoons. The array was instructive; it is apparent that – for the invaded – the dominant history, events of commemoration, and even perhaps the everyday become strategic opportunities to demonstrate not only a counter-narrative but a counter-existence. ‘Vigorous campaigning’?

1Adrian Jones and Julie Zurvas in anti Bicentenary Protest, Brisbane, 1987. 2Protestors at gates of Parliament House, Brisbane, 1991. Both Michael Aird.

This exhibition’s images of activism reveal Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders in situ at real life moments of activist demonstration. The still images captured by Aird, Gemes, and Tweedie have immortalised a choreography of protest – the faces, emotions, locations, arrangements.

1Marcia Langton, 1982 Juno Gemes. © Juno Gemes/Copyright Agency, 2020. 2Clinton Nain, c. 2000 Penny Tweedie. © Estate of Penny Tweedie.

But, on what country; who was there and who was standing near whom; what did that placard demand; what was being worn; who was speaking; who was dancing; who was on that Parliament House fence when it was brought down by the weight of protest? And who wouldn’t be intrigued by Gemes’ image of now-distinguished Professor, Assistant Provost, and Foundation Chair of Indigenous Studies at Melbourne University, Marcia Langton am in her youth, protesting for what she now considers from various other perspectives in her everyday job?

These images become social, historical, and political records, enjoyed and reflected on in family and national conversations. Their reach is further amplified by much later community scanning and sharing of them through digital platforms. They’re the same platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, through which twenty-first century activists now – through the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras – circulate real-time digital protest images and footage to enormous community appeal at every blakfella demonstration designed to ‘bring about political and social change’.

1Senator Neville Bonner at illegal march for land rights before Commonwealth Games, Brisbane, 1982. 2Clarrie Grogan NQLC and marchers at illegal march for land rights before Commonwealth Games, Brisbane, 1982. Both Juno Gemes.

The portrait of Pastor Don Brady memorialises a man who campaigned for political and social change. Beyond his community work, Pastor Brady’s street protesting in November 1971, when he and the late Denis Walker were arrested and charged with assaulting police, highlighted social injustices and served to inspire Queensland Indigenous participation in the Aboriginal Tent Embassy set up outside federal Parliament House two short months later in January 1972. The Tent Embassy is arguably the longest activist site in our post-invasion history. Similarly, Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo left an indelible impact on both our psyche and property law when he and his Meriam contemporaries, David Passi and James Rice, overturned the doctrine of terra nullius through forcing the High Court of Australia in 1992 to recognise their ongoing native title rights. There appears no articulated program here, but rather people finely attuned to justice, making it happen and ensuring we don’t forget.

1Wik Elder, Gladys, from the Returning To Places That Name Us series, 2000. 2Wik Elder, Joe, from the Returning To Places That Name Us series, 2000. Both Ricky Maynard.

Ricky Maynard wowed so many of us with his inaugural photographic collection, The Moonbird People 1985-1988, and for me his work continues to carry magic. The Wik portraits (from the Returning To Places That Name Us series 2000) of those he refers to by first name – Joel, Arthur, Joe, Gladys, and Bruce – are transfixing. Such direct gazes and strong faces. Are these people every day making change? I suspect, yes.

1Wik Elder, Joel, from the Returning To Places That Name Us series, 2000. 2Wik Elder, Arthur, from the Returning To Places That Name Us series, 2000. 3Wik Elder, Bruce, from the Returning To Places That Name Us series, 2000. All Ricky Maynard.

Ryan Presley’s Ten Dollar Note – Oodgeroo Commemorative took on extra significance in the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages, where a commemorative 50 cent coin features fourteen inscribed Indigenous languages for the word best approximating ‘money’ or ‘currency’. Proper messing with currency just went mainstream! The Gordon Hookey painting and Richard Bell video both build a story around the boxing ring – and victory, it seems, is theirs!

1Aboriginality victorious, 2008 Gordon Hookey. 2A symbolic gesture Malcolm McGookin.

The Fiona Foley HHH 2004 performance in ultrachrome print on paper takes the fight on in a different way. Multi-coloured costumes, complete with black hoods, were created, modelled, and photographed to call out and speak back to white robes and hoods, universally symbolic of the American white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

I work in universities, and now posters too have become mainstream – our university’s CV template even has a spot for inclusion of research posters as CV-worthy! Posters though, have grown out of activist movements as primary political communication collateral – and the posters in this exhibition took people back through our post-invasion ages. Nostalgic, poignant, and still everyday ever-present as our collective demands are still to be met. Blak cartoons and Blak-friendly cartoons are always appreciated for their pithy piss-takes in a form that has historically and contemporaneously been mobilised against Blak interests. Cartoons can attain the lowest common denominator all too easily, but they can also raise the heat and level of debate to new clarity.

To my mind though, Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s poems, Son of mine (for Dennis) and White Australia, take pride of place in the ‘hearts and minds’ activism stakes. The burning for justice, the pride in our peoples, the call for collective journey, the embodying of hope for change – it’s all here.

Son of Mine (To Denis)
My son, your troubled eyes search mine,
Puzzled and hurt by colour line.
Your black skin soft as velvet shine;
What can I tell you, son of mine?
I could tell you of heartbreak,
hatred blind,
I could tell of crimes that shame mankind,
Of brutal wrong and deeds malign,
Of rape and murder, son of mine;
But I’ll tell instead of brave and fine
When lives of black and white entwine,
And men in brotherhood combine –
This would I tell you, son of mine.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker)

A walk through Queen’s Land Blak Portraiture might well have persuaded everyone that, indeed, activism is an everyday affair for Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders – the program is not a singular one, but one exercised in many different ways, from the ground up, and the calls for political and social change can land on their listeners, readers, viewers in a multitude of ways. Ways that inevitably provoke a response. There’s demand in activism and there is always hope, because to make art for change is demonstration itself that artists believe change is both desirable and possible.

This is an edited version of an essay that first appeared in the catalogue accompanying Queen’s Land Blak Portraiture at Cairns Art Gallery in 2019. The catalogue is available for purchase online.

Related information

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.