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Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hand of traditional land owner Vincent Lingiari
, 1975

by Mervyn Bishop

type C photograph (sheet: 60.7 cm x 50.7 cm, image: 60.7 cm x 50.7 cm)

Vincent Lingiari (1919–1988) was an Elder of the Gurindji people of the Northern Territory. In August 1966 he led a walkout of Aboriginal stockmen and their families who were employed in unsafe and inequitable conditions on Wave Hill cattle station, south-west of Katherine. Over time, a land rights claim evolved. A 1967 petition by Lingiari and his people was rejected. However, the Whitlam Government, elected in 1972, negotiated a land claim between the traditional owners and the British pastoral company Vestey Ltd. Two new leases were issued; the Gurindji acquired title to 3 250 square kilometres, including the most sacred areas of traditional lands. The Hon. Edward Gough Whitlam AC QC (1916–2014) was prime minister of Australia from the end of 1972 – when he became the first Labor prime minister since 1949 – to the end of 1975, when he was controversially dismissed. Whitlam’s election ushered in an ambitious range of new government policy on issues as various as conscription, relations with South Africa and China, free tertiary education, welfare, capital punishment, enfranchisement and Aboriginal land rights. Mervyn Bishop (b.1945) has been employed as a photographer for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, and has worked freelance, often for Aboriginal organisations, since 1986. In 1971 he was named Press Photographer of the Year on the strength of his picture Life and death dash, depicting a desperate nun clutching a screaming, sick child. In 2017 the Art Gallery of New South Wales held a major retrospective, Mervyn Bishop, combining his 'iconic' images with pictures he took of his family and other characters around Brewarrina, where he grew up. Bishop was present when Gough Whitlam gave up the deeds to the traditional lands in a shed at Daguragu (Wattie Creek), Northern Territory in August 1975 and persuaded the protagonists to repeat the transaction in the open air. Nugget Coombs had suggested to Whitlam that he should pour soil into the hand of Vincent Lingiari as he handed over the deeds to the Gurindji – a reversal of the gesture between John Batman and the Wurundjeri as the ‘rights’ to the land now occupied by Melbourne were exchanged in 1835.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Purchased 2000
Accession number: 2001.8