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My encounter with Encounters

December 30, 2015

I rarely write about museum exhibitions, and when I do it’s usually in the context of a travel post, but I do want to share with you our National Museum of Australia’s current exhibition, Encounters. Subtitled “Revealing stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum”, it is described by the Museum as “one of its most important exhibitions”. That could sound, of course, like your typical promo-speak, but in this case I’m inclined to agree. Encounters is a very interesting and, yes, important exhibition – one that is not without its controversy.

The foundation pieces of the exhibition are 151 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects, including masks, shields, spears and spearheads, didgeridoos, baskets and head dresses, which were collected by a wide range of people – settlers, explorers, administrators, and so on – between 1770 and the 1930s, and which are now held by the British Museum. Complementing these are 138 contemporary items, some specially commissioned for the exhibition. The objects are supported by excellent interpretive labels which convey both the history of the objects and contemporary responses to them. The end result is a conversation between past and present that is  inspiring and mind-opening.

I’m not going to formally review the exhibition. You can read a thoughtful one published in the Sydney Morning Herald last month, including a discussion of the repatriation controversy. (Thanks to brother Ian for pointing me to this review). Instead, I’m just going to comment about its impact on me. So, here goes …

One message I took from the exhibition is not a new one at all, really, but more a confirmation: it’s that indigenous people, like all of us, are not one! It is way too easy for us (no matter who “us” are) to simplify “other” (no matter who “other” are). We tend to think that “they” all think the same, but obviously, like “us”, “they” don’t! This is made patently clear in Encounters where we see different responses by different indigenous communities to the objects. Some are adamant that their objects should be returned to them. Others may agree with that, but that’s not their priority (perhaps because they realise such a goal may not be realistic, in the short term at least!) They, such as Robert Butler, a Wangkangurru man from the Birdsville area, believe that the objects should not have been taken in the first place but recognise that the fact that they were now means they are available once again. Still others argue that the important thing is not the object itself, but the knowledge and skill they can obtain from it. Obtaining knowledge and practising skills that can be passed on, they argue, are the crucial thing, because they are critical to indigenous people’s identity and mental health.

I was consequently interested, for example, in a comment from the Noongar community regarding objects that had been collected by a young Englishman Samuel Talbot in the 1830s. He made detailed notes about the objects, demonstrating his keen interest in understanding Noongar culture. Present day Noongar woman, Marie Taylor, says:

I want to acknowledge the white people who sat down with the Aboriginal people, who wrote the stories down, who collected this information that still exists today. Down here in Noongar country, we may have lost all of that had it not been for many of these people.

Talbot is one of many such people. Lieutenant Dawes, about whom Kate Grenville wrote in her historical novel The lieutenant (my review), is another. Taylor’s response is, though, a generous one, since had there been no white people, they would not have lost (or been at risk of losing) their culture in the first place!

Bagu figures, contemporary objects from the Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre, Cardwell, north Queensland

Bagu figures, contemporary objects reflecting the past, from the Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre, Cardwell, far north Queensland

A very different story comes from far north Queensland. The panel that accompanies a shield, club and basket is titled “Guerrilla warfare”. The objects were collected in the 1860s by settler John Ewen Davidson at Rockingham Bay. He’d gone there, we’re told, “in 1866 to establish a sugar plantation. He began as a shocked observer of the violence of the occupation, yet within six months he was part of it”. Coincidentally, this story reminded me of another Grenville novel, The secret river, in which her fictional protagonist commenced with the aim of being peaceful but he too got caught up in violence.

Then there’s a comment that touched me on a more deeply personal level. It comes from Aunty Barbara Vale, a Dieri elder in South Australia. She says:

When I visit Killalpaninna I get a strong feeling of belonging. It’s our land, Dieri land. I feel safe and relaxed and always come away feeling good for having been there.

Now, I know my connection to the land is nothing like that of an indigenous person’s sense of belonging to and responsibility for their country, but Vale describes perfectly how I feel each year when Mr Gums and I go to Kosciuszko National Park – safe, relaxed, and a lovely sense of well-being. I don’t presume at all that my feeling is the same – it’s not – but her statement did give me a sense of connection, and, in that, of the validity of my own “truth”.

Towards the end of the exhibition, I came across a recent statement by Don Christopherson, a Muran man. He said:

Christopherson

And that is the spirit I’d like to think we all have in Australia today. It is surely the only real way we can move forward. Objects like the ones in this exhibition are crucial to this process, because, as one elder said, they bring the past into the present, which then enables us to move into the future. And, I’d say, they provide an excellent basis for a conversation.

A wonderful exhibition that I’ll try to visit again.

POSTSCRIPT: Here is a link to short films included in the exhibition. Many depict the way contemporary indigenous Australians are making objects today – some making traditional objects, some making modern ones commenting on contemporary relationships and concerns (like the ghost net project on Darnley Island – Erub – in the Torrest Strait).

17 Comments leave one →
  1. December 30, 2015 1:59 am

    This is a beautifully written piece. And especially love the lovely quote by Don Christophersen, because it is so true. We can have the same conversation here in the U.S. Well done, Gums!

    • December 30, 2015 7:56 am

      Thanks so much Grad – you are right, the issues are not unique to Australia. I’m thrilled that my post has that reading too.

  2. December 30, 2015 7:14 am

    That does sound like a wonderful exhibit. I notice some of the Bagu figures have holes in them like they might be used to make sounds? Or are the holes for a different purpose? They are very beautiful. As for simplifying the other, it is a terrible thing we do, isn’t it? I know I am guilty sometimes of assuming “they” all think the same way about an particular issue. Exhibitions like this one go a long way toward pushing us out of our assumptions!

    • December 30, 2015 8:01 am

      Thanks Stefanie – you know I don’t know. I don’t think they are for making sound. These figures represent ancestors I believe. As for simplifying the other, yes, I’m sure we all do it all the time – baby boomers are X, Gen Y is that, and so on. Some very broad generalisations are probably valid, but we tend to take them way too far don’t we?

      • December 30, 2015 8:53 am

        Most definitely. And funny you should mention generations, I was just writing about them! 🙂

        • December 30, 2015 9:20 am

          Your new post that’s just appeared in my inbox? I’ll go read it now.

  3. Jim KABLE permalink
    December 30, 2015 9:00 am

    As always – thoughtful, sensitive and connecting! Thanks for all your reviews – to some of which I have responded this year – and to others I have simply bought the book. I will be in Canberra in the coming three weeks or so – plan to catch this exhibition! Thanks again and may you continue your reviewing through 2016!

    • December 30, 2015 9:22 am

      Thanks Jim. It’s always a pleasure to hear from you. And it’s wonderful to know that some posts have resulted in your buying the book. If you manage to get to the exhibition, do let me know what you think.

  4. December 30, 2015 10:53 am

    I was fascinated to see the British Museum’s version of this exhibition when we were in London in June. When usually we are overwhelmed by the weight of history and culture in the BM, it was an odd experience to feel privileged there, to know as we eavesdropped on other visitors, that this was ‘ours’, a history and culture that – despite all the hurts and wrongs – Aboriginal people want to share with us, their fellow Australians. (*Most* Aborigines, I should of course say, but I am often humbled by the generosity and forgiveness that I see).

    There’s a lovely book called Ochre and Rust by historian Philip Jones (http://anzlitlovers.com/2011/03/25/ochre-and-rust-by-philip-jones-2/) which explores the story of some objects in the South Australian museum, and it’s really enlightening. Obviously a book which is about a dozen objects or so has more space to tell the story of each one, so it’s a nice complement to an exhibition like this even if it’s about different objects.

    • December 30, 2015 4:41 pm

      Thanks Lisa. I understand completely what you mean by the BM. That would have been an interesting experience.

      Yes, Ian reminded me of Jones’ book as we were walking around the exhibition. Must try to read it, but hmmm …

      And I absolutely agree re the generosity and forgiveness tendered by so many indigenous people. It’s humbling.

      • December 30, 2015 7:22 pm

        Well, the good thing about the Jones book is that it’s one you can dip into and just read a chapter at a time. I see from my trail at Goodreads that I read it over three months.

        • December 30, 2015 7:41 pm

          I need to do that with some of my big non-fiction, ie read over a long time.

  5. December 30, 2015 12:03 pm

    What a beautiful post.

  6. December 30, 2015 12:33 pm

    I so enjoyed this post, thank you, Gums. Your reflections on the way we stereotype groups different to our own, brings to mind one of my favourite reads for 2015: Lucy Treloar’s novel, *Salt Creek* (see my review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1380542230) – a wonderfully sympathetic novel depicting white settlers’ fear in the face of what is foreign, and ultimately (and all too quickly), the decimation of the land. Told from the point of view of Hester Finch, her compassion for the original inhabitants of the land prompts readers to consider the perils of reducing *difference* to a dangerous mind-set.

    Your post also reminds me of a performance piece that blew me away this year. Held at the Koorie Heritage Trust Museum (Federation Square), Robyne Latham’s (http://www.robynelatham.com/) The Aborigine Is Present 2015. Audience were invited, one by one, to sit in silence in the presence of an indigenous person, and simply look into each other’s eyes. Within moments, tears streamed down my face. Another of her exhibitions, *Empty Coolamons* (http://www.robynelatham.com/ritual-gallery), was equally powerful.

    Thank you so much for bringing attention to the way intolerance of difference too often skews reality. Meanwhile, I do hope I get to see this exhibition.

    • December 30, 2015 4:44 pm

      Oh thanks for this wonderful response Julie. I’ve heard of Salt Creek, through the AWW Challenge mainly. Sounds like an excellent read. And I love you other art/performance recommendations. Things are slowly happening – perhaps!

      • December 30, 2015 5:39 pm

        The changes are slow, so true. By chance, just now I came across a poem by comedian Steven Oliver (star of Black Comedy) called *I’m a Blackfella* – in light of your wonderful post, it’s worth hearing the way he challenges mainstream biases and assumptions. Hits the nail! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1SHRg6UYBCo

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